In the first week of January 2011, Ohio State defeated Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, and Michigan got its doors blown off, 52-14, by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Ohio State was averaging 11 wins per year over the last six seasons, and Michigan was averaging seven losses per year over the last three.
In the first week of January 2012, Michigan defeated Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl for its 11th win of the season, and Ohio State lost to Florida in the Gator Bowl to finish 6-7. Michigan finished ranked 12th in the country and is all but guaranteed to start the 2012 season in the Top 10. Ohio State, meanwhile, is banned from the postseason.
It is cliche to say "What a difference a year makes," of course, but … can you think of a better thing to say about the turn of events that has taken place in the Midwest's best rivalry?
What a difference a year makes, indeed. Michigan fired Rich Rodriguez and replaced him with "Michigan Man" Brady Hoke. Hoke engineered a four-game improvement on the field and is in the process of putting together an absurdly good recruiting class. Ohio State, meanwhile, was forced to fire Jim Tressel for off-the-field transgressions and limped through a season under an interim coach. The Buckeyes did hire two-time national champion Urban Meyer following the 2011 season, and it's not like anybody expects Ohio State to stay at the seven-loss level for too long, but suddenly Michigan is looking down at Ohio State in the conference hierarchy. Will it last?
In part, the answer to that question depends on whether you believe more in experience or luck. Michigan indeed improved last year, but its 11-2 record took shape partially because a) they went 3-1 in games decided by one possession, and b) they benefited more from turnovers luck more than any other team in the country. They recovered 75 percent of all fumbles (13 of their 19 fumbles, 20 of their opponents' 25), and their turnover margin was plus-7 when it should have been closer to minus-3. It helped them in 2011, and it could very well hinder them as compared to expectations in 2012.
At the same time, look at how many key pieces return this fall. The list of returnees includes the starting quarterback, three of the top four running backs, two of the top three wideouts, four offensive linemen with starting experience (and a batch of blue-chippers coming in), the top four linebackers, and most of the two-deep in the secondary. If the luck regresses but the team improves, that's enough to push them toward double-digit wins again, right? Maybe?
Brady Hoke takes over for Rich Rodriguez after a disastrous tenure that may have been considered with more positive adjectives elsewhere. Hoke is a Ball State grad, but he is also a Michigan man by virtue of eight years of assistant coaching experience under Lloyd Carr. He took both Ball State and San Diego State to unrecognizable heights, but there are no unrecognizable heights in Ann Arbor. Hoke is a helluva coach, but now he's got quite a mountain to climb, and 111,000 fans to drag up the mountain behind him. […]
The Big Ten has a bit of a power void with Ohio State's issues and Wisconsin's losses, and with Michigan finishing the year with home games against Nebraska and Ohio State, there's a decent chance they could hold their title destiny in their hands.
Or, you know, not. Denard Robinson could take to a more "pro style" offense as well as Brad Smith did (he's already a better passer than Smith, though, so he's got that going for him), the offense could freeze up when Robinson attempts to go against his instincts, and Mattison might throw up his hands (and his lunch) in realizing that there's nothing he can do with this defense. But again, one can see what the numbers might like here. Great offense plus can't-be-any-worse defense plus power void? Count Michigan as a Big Ten sleeper, though you can feel free to ignore I said this if they go 5-7. The whole "Michigan as sleeper" thing is a bit off-putting, though; this is not a program that is supposed to be anything but a favorite. Good luck, Coach Hoke.
It goes without saying that there were some missteps along the way -- they lost their division to their other main rival (Michigan State), Robinson indeed was not perfectly suited for anything "pro-style," the offense dropped from second to 14th in Off. F/+, the defense was up-and-down, and the special teams were occasionally comical -- but in all, it is difficult to see Brady Hoke's first season going much better than it did. Michigan beat Notre Dame and Ohio State and reached 11 wins and finished in the Top 15 for the first time in six years, and perhaps most impressively, the defense improved from 119th in Def. F/+ to 25th. Sure, there was luck involved, and the Wolverines did regress a bit over the last half of the season (Adj. Scoring Margin: plus-7.3 in the first six games, plus-3.2 in the last seven), but considering where this program was when Hoke took over, considering where this defense was when Greg Mattison took over, and considering Denard Robinson is in no way a West Coast, pro-style quarterback, the 2011 was simply fantastic. Now comes the hard part: the encore.
In his essential The Essential Smart Football, Chris Brown includes a chapter he wrote in 2011 about the West Coast concepts Al Borges would probably be bringing to Ann Arbor and why a run-first quarterback like Denard Robinson might succeed in it.
And what of the running quarterback? I can only speculate, but here are my thoughts on how Denard Robinson will be used. First, expect a reduction of called quarterback runs. Michigan's best play last year was the outside zone where Denard Robinson simply took the ball and ran with no fake or read; it was single-wing football brought into the modern age. That play is likely no longer in the playbook, and it must be admitted it resulted in Robinson taking something of a beating over the course of the season. Second, don't be shocked when you see a healthy dose of the zone read even from a supposedly pro-style coach, at least at times. The play is not expensive to install, and it is very simple. […]
The reason Denard Robinson is a good fit for the new offense has less to do with his talent than his character -- he will work to become a great player, whatever they ask him to do, even if it is ugly at times. And I'm confident he will become an excellent quarterback (as opposed to the all-purpose omniback he has been) but I am not sure it will be this season.
Michigan had the No. 2 offense in the country in 2010. It may have come at quite a price -- Denard Robinson took far more hits than he could absorb while staying healthy -- but it was effective. Defense was what doomed the Rich Rodriguez era, and the key to 2011 was simply the balance between an offense that might regress (but get Robinson hit fewer times) and a defense that might improve significantly. As long as the defense improved more than the offense regressed, the team would improve. That's basically what happened. Michigan fell to 12th in Off. F/+, but the balance worked.
Without a doubt, Robinson struggled at times in the new offense; he completed just 55 percent of his passes and threw 15 interceptions. But thanks to the emergence of then-sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint (1,041 yards, plus-13.3 Adj. POE), the running game remained potent (fourth in Rushing S&P+) and Robinson took fewer shots. The passing game was high-risk, high-reward, and for much of the season, that worked out just fine. But in Michigan's two losses, Robinson's passing line was horrendous: 26-for-61 for 317 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and five sacks (4.1 yards per pass attempt).
It will be interesting to see how Robinson develops in his final season in Ann Arbor. Any further developments he makes could be offset by some regression in the receiving corps. Only four receivers were targeted even twice per game, and two (Junior Hemingway and Kevin Koger) are gone. The leading returnees are intriguing mighty-mite Jeremy Gallon (453 yards, 10.8 per target, 74 percent catch rate) and Roy Roundtree (355 yards, 7.2 per target, 39 percent catch rate), who had one of the worst catch rates of any frequently targeted receiver in the country. Roundtree has value as a deep threat (he averaged 18.7 yards per catch), but in 2011 he was a horribly low-efficiency receiver in what is supposed to be a high-efficiency attack. I really like Gallon, but let's just say that if your backup quarterback can take some snaps at wideout and immediately create "Is the the best receiver on the team?" buzz, that probably isn't necessarily a good thing.
The good news, though, is that Borges and Hoke will still have a strong running game upon which they can rely. Robinson and Toussaint return, as does third-down back extraordinaire Vincent Smith (298 rushing yards, 149 receiving yards) and 220-pound sophomore Thomas Rawls, who looked good this spring. But if four-star freshman receiver Amara Darboh were capable of playing a solid role in the receiving game from day one, that would be a very good thing.
As long as Denard Robinson is your quarterback, your offense is going to be the front-page unit. But incredible improvement by the Michigan defense got the Wolverines to the Sugar Bowl. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, brought back a level of discipline and tactical prowess Michigan had been lacking, and with highly-recruited talent at every level, the defense responded nicely.
(I really hate to pile on, but one does wonder exactly how Greg Robinson not only got the job as Rich Rodriguez's defensive coordinator, but kept it for more than one year. Simply blaming a defensive coordinator never tells the whole story for why a unit struggled, but it is hard to ignore what happened to this defense when a new coach walked in the door.)
Instead of elaborating on all the areas where Michigan's defense improved, the "where they didn't" list is shorter:
First Quarter S&P+ (29th in 2010, 84th in 2011)
That's the whole list. You can even throw in Adj. Line Yards (where they barely improved, from 56th to 51st) if you want to. But otherwise, aside from some habitual slow starts, the Wolverines improved in almost every possible way a defense can improve. They ranked 16th in the red zone and 25th on standard downs, and though they still had some passing downs issues (55th in Passing Downs S&P+), improvement was everywhere.
As a whole, the Michigan defense was best in the back seven. The line was okay, the defensive backs were good, and the linebackers were borderline great. And 93 percent of the linebackers' tackles were made by players who return in 2012. You've got leading tackle Kenny Demens, solid weakside guys in Desmond Morgan and Brandin Hawthorne (combined: 78.5 tackles, seven tackles for loss), and of course, you've got out-of-nowhere sophomore Jake Ryan (11 tackles for loss), who allows me to think of Sixteen Candles everytime I write about the Wolverines. Ryan needs to make a few more of the regular tackles, but his ceiling is fantastic, as are those of incoming freshmen Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone.
Every major difference-maker returns in the secondary, as well, from cornerbacks J.T. Floyd and Countess (combined: two interceptions, 14 passes broken up), to free safety Thomas Gordon, to former walk-on strong safety Jordan Kovacs (eight tackles for loss). And there are plenty of former four-star recruits waiting their turn in the rotation, from junior safety Marvin Robinson, to sophomore corner Raymon Taylor, to incoming freshmen Jarrod Wilson and Terry Richardson. Countess held his own as a freshman and could be one of Michigan's best corners in a long while.
So the strengths will be stronger, basically. What about the relative weakness up front? As Mattison put it, "We'll be fine outside," but the interior will tell Michigan's tale. That depends, basically, on two seniors: end Craig Roh and tackle Will Campbell. Roh was a nice complement to since-departed Ryan Van Bergen, logging 8.0 tackles for loss and four sacks. He was not the most difficult lineman in the world to push around, however; he was much more of a threat against the pass. On the other hand, there is no pushing around Campbell, a former five-star, all-everything recruit who has done very little in his first three years in Ann Arbor. By all accounts, Campbell had a fantastic spring, which is good, since both starting tackles are gone. If some combination of Campbell, converted end Jibreel Black, junior Quinton Washington and perhaps incoming freshman Ondre Pipkins can hold the fort at tackle, and if Roh and (insert other end here) can at least retain some sort of pass-rushing presence, the back seven should make sure this is another Top 20-30 defense. If the light switch goes off, and Campbell becomes a dominant force (and honestly, it's probably too late for that), then another solid step forward is possible.
It is always a red flag when a team surges, at least in part because of turnovers luck, and is expected to not only solidify gains the next season but improve them. The experience level could balance a potential turnaround in luck, but the schedule is not particularly kind: Michigan plays four projected Top 25 teams away from Ann Arbor: No. 1 Alabama (in Dallas), No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 20 Ohio State and No. 24 Nebraska. For that reason alone, we'll say that nine wins should be considered a reasonable success, no matter where expectations may stand.
There really is a lot to like about this team, and there's even more to like about the program-building efforts Brady Hoke has undergone since coming (back) to town. It took him less than one calendar year to make Michigan "Michigan" again, and there's no reason to believe that, between the coaching ability and monster recruiting, the Wolverines won't soon re-establish itself as a national power.
But that doesn't necessarily mean 2012 will be an incredible season. Wide receivers are an issue, and the defensive line is full of both potential and question marks, but really, it just comes down to that schedule. A Top 5 team, with good turnovers luck, might still lose two or three games with this road slate. So from a national title perspective, I wouldn't be putting a lot of money on UM. But they should still be very much in the running for a division and, therefore, conference title (they do host Michigan State, after all), and considering where the Wolverines were just 18 months ago, that should be good enough for now.