The college football annuals for 2008 have been on the shelves for weeks now, and the outlook for the Michigan Wolverine football team reads pretty bleakly indeed.
According to the nation's smartest and most experienced sports writers and college football pundits and statisticians, the stars are finally aligned perfectly for the most victorious college football program in the land to fail in colossal and embarrassing fashion.
Let us count the ways in which Michigan will fail.
Michigan features a new head coach with entirely new football staff, an entirely new offensive scheme, a new defensive scheme, and a completely overhauled strength and conditioning program.
The Wolverines return only two starters on offense, and depending on the injury-ridden depth chart of 2007, Michigan only returns six starters on defense. Michigan also loses four Heisman candidates from the 2007 team to graduation: QB Chad Henne, TB Mike Hart, WR Mario Manningham, and OT Jake Long.
In addition, a number of key players left the Michigan team early due to attrition or the beckoning of the NFL. There have been charges made publicly against new Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez by one offensive lineman that Rodriguez and his massive coaching staff all completely lack "family values."
Michigan Stadium itself is undergoing massive construction right now. It serves as a gigantic, symbolic metaphor for the state in which the Michigan football program finds itself in 2008: Under Construction.
Let us also not forget that Michigan lost its season opener last year in embarrassing fashion to FCS school and Division I-A national champion Appalachian State 34-32 in the Big House. The bells are tolling to signal a similar outcome August 30 when Mountain West powerhouse Utah clashes with Michigan in Ann Arbor.
One would be hard-pressed to find a year in Michigan's storied football past where there was more doom and gloom projected for the Wolverine football team. 1967 was the last year Michigan finished the football season below .500 in victories.
Indeed, college football pundits nationally appear convinced that Michigan will not be competitive in the Big Ten this fall, will fail to win six games, and will in all likelihood fail to qualify for a bowl for the first time since 1967, ending Michigan's consecutive bowl attendance at 32.
(Michigan actually would have qualified every year since 1968, but the Big Ten limited bowl bids to only the conference champion up to 1974. This practice ended in 1975, which is when UM's bowl streak began.)
While the supply of doom and gloom for the 2008 Michigan football team is sky high right now, I'm not buying it.
1.) Better coaching under Rich Rodriguez
Rodriguez hasn't yet coached a game at Michigan, but I believe that he and his extensive staff of assistant and position coaches will do more for and yield better performance from Michigan's current roster of student football athletes than Lloyd Carr would have.
The reason I believe this is that Rich Rodriguez has a proven history in his Tulane, Clemson, and West Virginia coaching stints of achieving more with less in terms of winning with less player experience and less raw talent.
Michigan's starters on offense are for the most part four- to five-star recruited athletes ranked in the top 25 at each position. Rodriguez did most of his winning at West Virginia, Clemson, and Tulane on the backs of mostly three-star recruits that were ranked below the top 50 at their positions.
2.) Improved Team Strength & Conditioning
Michigan S&C coach Mike Barwis was already a legend in his own right at West Virginia. He has now transformed the UM S&C program for the better.
It will take time to see the full results, but there are immediate improvements already to be seen with the UM OL and DL players, with marked gains in strength, speed, flexibility, and weight loss. Michigan football will be a lot leaner and faster than ever before.
This is another example of the current coaching staff of Rich Rodriguez bringing Michigan football into the 20th century by increasing speed and endurance to play a full 60 minutes or more of intense, no-huddle football.
The conditioning and focus on flexibility will also most certainly improve Michigan's injury record, which has been nothing short of horrific under former S&C coach Mike Gittleson. See Michigan's 2005 and 2007 football season and rosters for an exhaustive list of exhibits.
3.) A new offensive philosophy: Score on every play
Rich Rodriguez brings in one of the most effective offensive schemes in football to Ann Arbor—the spread option offense. Rodriguez states that he is determined to fit the offensive scheme to the talent of the current Michigan personnel at QB, WR, OL, and running back.
Rodriguez explains that the new offense is designed to force defenses to defend the entire 50-yard width of the field, to get the football into the fastest players' hands as quickly as possible, to utilize misdirection, and to score on every play.
The goal is to score on every play.
This is completely new and different from the Lloyd Carr regime, with his offensive coordinators Terry Malone and the now infamous Mike DeBord. Michigan's offense under past OC leadership was predictable, to say the least, and lacked any sense of urgency to score or strategic innovation.
Michigan's offensive complexity and inventiveness last fall could be summed up in two plays: Hart zone run off left tackle and Mario Manningham flag pattern pass play. That's about it.
Michigan offenses have indeed been blessed with talented quarterbacks, tailbacks, O-linemen, and wide receivers over the years. But Michigan averaged 28, 29, and 29 points per game in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively. Under Mike DeBord, the emphasis was on burning the clock and keeping opposing offenses off the field, not scoring points.
This is because HC Lloyd Carr feared being viewed by opponents as "running up the score." Lloyd's philosophy was burn clock, score as little as freaking possible (only what you need to), and then have the defense hang on desperately to victory through the fourth quarter by bloodied fingernails.
With four Heisman candidates in DeBord's offensive arsenal in 2007, Michigan finished a pathetic ninth in the league in total offense. Ninth! Michigan lost all of these "Heisman candidates" to graduation and the NFL.
Even with Michigan's less experienced QB and offensive line, these statistics can only improve in an otherwise weak Big Ten conference and with RR's new emphasis on trying to score touchdowns every possession.
4.) A new defensive philosophy: Greater emphasis on sacks and turnovers
Scott Schafer is the new defensive coordinator for Michigan, replacing Ron English (fired and now DC at Louisville). Schafer brings in a 4-3 flexible defensive core scheme, the same one used effectively earlier in his career at Western Michigan in 2006, when the Broncos led the nation in sacks.
Defensively, Michigan gave up 21, 16, and 21 points per game in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively. Michigan returns its front four intact and has very high-rated talent two and three deep. Michigan may very well lead the Big Ten in sacks and forced turnovers this fall.
5.) Michigan's inexperience and Michigan's talent
A lot of college football experts focus on three variables that, when combined, will almost certainly equate to Michigan's football season destruction in 2008: an inexperienced quarterback, an inexperienced offensive line, and a new offensive system (the spread option attack).
While I understand and agree to some degree about the player experience factor, many teams have performed well and achieved successful seasons without one or two years' game experience under their belts. I fully expect plenty of offensive miscues in 2008, some of which may lead to disappointing Michigan defeats.
One might also consider that projected starting UM quarterback Steven Threet was a four-star recruit, ranked 13th in the country at his position. He is not Pat White, nor is he Chad Henne. But do we now automatically insert an equal sign to failure?
Threet is an unknown, as are his backups Justin Feagin and Nick Sheridan. Michigan has had freshman and inexperienced quarterbacks start before with fairly good results. Rod Smith is an excellent QB coach for this offense with a proven track record of success at South Florida and West Virginia.
Let us also consider the Michigan offensive line, their upperclassmen status, and talent ranking by position:
LT Cory Zirbel, Sr (four star, 20th-ranked)
LG Tim McAvoy, Sr (four star, 14th-ranked)
C David Moosman, Sr (four star, 17th-ranked
RG Steve Schilling, Jr (five star, 3rd-ranked)
RT Mark Ortmann, Sr (three star, 45th-ranked)
On the face of it, that's not exactly a reason to slit your wrists if you're a Michigan football fan. Most college football teams in Division I would kill to have that kind of starting OL lineup.
In addition, Michigan's offensive line will run at a no-huddle pace, keeping defenses off guard and reducing defensive preparedness and substitutions. UM's offensive line will also no longer need to sustain blocks for two to three seconds for Chad Henne's three or four step drops anymore. The football must now get into space quickly, so we're talking one to two step drops and go.
For rushing plays, technique blocking will be the order of the day for drive blocking, tackle traps, and guard pulls. That's not easy, but not impossible either. Greater endurance, strength training, and speed improvements will only help this inexperienced group get better as the year progresses.
Oh, and for the record, Schilling, Ortmann, and McAvoy all have gametime experience. Schilling is the anchor for the line.
Seven of Michigan's 12 games are at home this year. Michigan did lose three home games last year (App State, Oregon, and Ohio State) and lost one away (at Wisconsin).
Michigan played remarkably well under Lloyd Carr on the road in big games versus Top 10 opponents. It remains to be seen whether Rodriguez can instill the same motivation and performance in this young UM team.
The toughest bouts this year in Ann Arbor will be Utah, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. The toughest road games will be at Penn State, at Purdue, and at Ohio State. Michigan's schedule is considered one of the toughest in the Big Ten (second only to Michigan State's in difficulty rating).
vs Utah L 21-24
vs Miami (OH) W 38-14
at Notre Dame L 14-20
vs Wisconsin W 24-21
vs Illinois W 28-21
vs Toledo W 45-10
at Penn State W 27-23
vs Michigan State L 31-35
at Purdue L 14-21
Northwestern W 21-17
at Ohio State L 22-24
Season Record: 7-5