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1. Regression happens
In a way, you doom yourself with too much success, too early. The 2011 Michigan team, Brady Hoke's first in Ann Arbor, surged in a rather incredible way. The offense held steady despite a complete identity change (from sixth in Off. F/+ in 2010 to ninth in 2011), the defense rallied to an extreme degree (104th in Def. F/+ to 18th), and even special teams got its act together (111th in Special Teams F/+ to 50th).
The Wolverines were a drastically improved football team, Hoke was recruiting like a Michigan coach should ... it was really easy to just dust your hands off and say, "That's that, huh? I guess Michigan's great again."
But even when you've got incredible resources, and even when you've got the deepest history of any college football program, turnarounds aren't usually as immediate or drastic as Michigan made it seem. The 2011 squad surged from seven wins to 11, in part because of luck, as well. The Wolverines recovered 75 percent of all fumbles, benefiting from a boost of about four points per game in turnovers luck (in a season that saw them win three games by six or fewer points). It was a little too much success, too soon; here's what I said heading into last season:
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.
Michigan recovered 51 percent of fumbles in 2012, ended up with basically neutral turnovers luck, lost three one-possession games, lost to the four teams listed above (and a fifth top-25 team in bowl opponent South Carolina), and went 8-0 in the other games. The Wolverines indeed regressed a bit, from ninth overall in F/+ to 20th, but sometimes you settle into your foundation. It happens. It especially happens to teams that improve a little too much from one year to another.
Brady Hoke's in an interesting position heading into year 3. His team has already been a rousing success and a slight disappointment. He has indeed re-established Michigan's recruiting bona fides. He has a good staff and decent experience. So ... when's the breakthrough then?
Is the offense going to falter a bit following the departure of a particularly unique talent in Denard Robinson? Is the pass defense ready to bounce back after a pretty poor 2012? Is it a good thing that a thin, shaky offensive line got both deeper and younger? How much will Jake Ryan's knee injury hurt the Wolverines? Michigan is a Big Ten wild card this year, with both a high ceiling and a high tally of question marks.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 20|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||vs. Alabama||14-41||L||32.9 - 30.6||W|
|8-Sep||Air Force||31-25||W||38.0 - 21.1||W|
|15-Sep||Massachusetts||63-13||W||43.1 - 28.0||W|
|22-Sep||at Notre Dame||6-13||L||28.2 - 17.9||W|
|6-Oct||at Purdue||44-13||W||30.8 - 14.2||W|
|13-Oct||Illinois||45-0||W||42.9 - 11.5||W|
|20-Oct||Michigan State||12-10||W||34.7 - 27.3||W|
|27-Oct||at Nebraska||9-23||L||11.2 - 20.3||L|
|3-Nov||at Minnesota||35-13||W||38.2 - 23.4||W|
|10-Nov||Northwestern||38-31||W||40.3 - 29.9||W|
|17-Nov||Iowa||42-17||W||49.6 - 32.7||W|
|24-Nov||at Ohio State||21-26||L||34.7 - 25.0||W|
|1-Jan||vs. South Carolina||28-33||L||27.3 - 37.5||L|
|Points Per Game||29.8||57||19.8||20|
|Adj. Points Per Game||34.8||21||24.6||35|
2. Heading in opposite directions
Say this much for Michigan: the Wolverines didn't settle into a groove. They scored 63 points one week, six the next; they scored 44 and 45 points the next two weeks, then a combined 21 the next two. They allowed 41 points in the season opener, then a combined 49 points in a five-game stretch. Because of the highs and lows of both the schedule and the injury list, no two Michigan games really looked the same.
Denard Robinson's last pass as a Michigan quarterback came early in the eighth game of the year. The offense completely fell apart in Lincoln, then rebounded the next week with quarterback-turned-receiver Devin Gardner moved back behind center. Meanwhile, the pass defense became increasingly shaky, and the defense as a whole showed just a few too many glitches down the stretch.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 7 games): Michigan 35.8, Opponent 21.5 (plus-14.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 5 games): Michigan 38.0, Opponent 29.7 (plus-8.3)
Neither the offense nor the defense were yet where they needed to be from a depth perspective, but both units showed promise. And as the season came to an end, the offense got better while the defense got quite a bit worse. In 2013, we'll see quite the transition as mainstays of the 2010-12 teams head for the exits just as Hoke's first batch of recruits gets ready to play a primary role.
|Q1 Rk||14||1st Down Rk||12|
|Q2 Rk||16||2nd Down Rk||58|
|Q3 Rk||12||3rd Down Rk||3|
3. Heading in opposite directions, Part II
Forget everything you came to know about the Michigan offense in recent years. Where there was once explosiveness in the past, there should now be efficiency. And there is a decent chance that there is a little bit of addition by subtraction, as well.
First, you've got Devin Gardner officially taking over for Denard Robinson. Robinson was one of college football's most electric players for most of four seasons, rushing for nearly 4,500 yards, throwing for more than 6,000, and accounting for more than 90 touchdowns; he was also terribly inefficient in Al Borges' efficiency-based system. A Borges quarterback probably needs to be completing about 60 percent of his passes; In 2011-12, Robinson came in at 55 and 53 percent, respectively.
Gardner, meanwhile, did great things against bad defenses and at least decent things against good ones. Against Minnesota, Northwestern, and Iowa, Gardner completed 46 of 70 passes (66 percent) for 834 yards, seven touchdowns, and three picks. Against Ohio State and South Carolina, he completed 29 of 56 (52 percent) for 385 yards, four touchdowns, and two picks. Though he was in no way Robinson, he showed decent mobility when he needed to, and in all, he should almost certainly increase Michigan's success rates from last season.
Michigan's change in efficiency doesn't stop there, though. Roy Roundtree and the receiver Devin Gardner combined for a rather awful 49 percent catch rate. Roundtree was all-or-nothing for his entire career, and Gardner was far too raw to make a significantly positive impact, and while the big-play ability could be missed (the two combined to average 18.0 yards per catch last year), the explosiveness-for-efficiency tradeoff could be welcome. Big plays are still a grave necessity, but Michigan still has Jeremy Gallon (16.9 yards per catch, 62 percent catch rate) and Drew Dileo (16.6, 67 percent) for that. To be sure, there will be bombs. They're built into the system. But Roundtree's and Gardner's catch rates were just too low; that Michigan ranked 21st in overall Success Rate+ despite the low completion rates is an incredibly encouraging sign of what may be to come.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Devin Gardner||6'4, 210||Jr.||**** (5.9)||75||126||1,219||59.5%||11||5||11||8.0%||8.3|
|Russell Bellomy||6'3, 213||So.||*** (5.5)||4||21||46||19.0%||0||4||3||12.5%||0.9|
|Brian Cleary||6'3, 199||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
4. How good can Devin Gardner become?
Gardner is certainly still a work in progress. Among other things, he lost some development time last year because of his move to receiver. Like many mobile quarterbacks, he takes too many sacks (far more than Robinson took), but he completed more passes to his team, and fewer to the other team, than Robinson. That's a start. And he's got "a buggy whip for an arm," too. That doesn't hurt, even though I'm not completely sure I know what that means.
In short, Gardner is a big reason for Michigan's wildcard status. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 projections are rather lukewarm on the Wolverines this season, but Gardner is incredibly intriguing, and his development could determine how far Michigan goes in the Big Ten race.
(And if he gets hurt, all bets are off. I'm not sure Michigan actually has a backup quarterback, and I would have said the same thing even if Russell Bellomy, owner of the worst quarterback stats you'll ever see in 2012, hadn't gone down with a knee injury.)
|Fitzgerald Toussaint||RB||5'10, 200||Sr.||**** (5.8)||130||514||4.0||5.5||5||-8.9|
|Thomas Rawls||RB||5'10, 217||Jr.||*** (5.6)||57||242||4.2||6.3||4||-1.6|
|Devin Gardner||QB||6'4, 210||Jr.||**** (5.9)||36||188||5.2||4.3||7||+2.9|
|Justice Hayes||RB||5'10, 190||So.||**** (5.9)||18||83||4.6||6.2||1||-1.2|
|Jeremy Gallon||WR||5'8, 187||Sr.||**** (5.9)||11||67||6.1||2.0||0||+0.1|
|Drake Johnson||RB||6'1, 212||RSFr.||*** (5.6)||9||40||4.4||3.2||0||-0.4|
|Derrick Green||RB||6'0, 220||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Wyatt Shallman||FB||6'3, 245||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jeremy Gallon||WR||5'8, 187||Sr.||**** (5.9)||79||49||829||62.0%||10.5||27.1%||65.8%||10.4||169.6|
|Devin Gardner||WR||6'4, 210||Jr.||**** (5.9)||37||16||266||43.2%||7.2||12.7%||43.2%||7.1||54.4|
|Drew Dileo||WR||5'10, 177||Sr.||*** (5.6)||30||20||331||66.7%||11.0||10.3%||53.3%||11.0||67.7|
|Devin Funchess||TE||6'5, 228||So.||*** (5.7)||28||15||234||53.6%||8.4||9.6%||53.6%||8.7||47.9|
|Fitzgerald Toussaint||RB||5'10, 200||Sr.||**** (5.8)||12||6||62||50.0%||5.2||4.1%||50.0%||5.6||12.7|
|Jeremy Jackson||WR||6'3, 206||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||4||31||33.3%||2.6||4.1%||41.7%||3.2||6.3|
|Joe Reynolds||WR||6'1, 200||Sr.||NR||5||3||22||60.0%||4.4||1.7%||60.0%||4.4||4.5|
|A.J. Williams||TE||6'6, 265||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Amara Darboh||WR||6'2, 213||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Jehu Chesson||WR||6'3, 183||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jake Butt||TE||6'6, 231||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Patrick Omameh||RG||42 career starts; 2012 1st All-Big Ten|
|Taylor Lewan||LT||6'8, 308||Sr.||**** (5.8)||35 career starts; 2012 1st All-Big Ten|
|Michael Schofield||RT||6'7, 303||Sr.||**** (5.8)||23 career starts|
|Ricky Barnum||LG||16 career starts|
|Elliott Mealer||C||13 career starts|
|Erik Gunderson||RT||6'8, 316||Sr.||NR|
|Joey Burzynski||RG||6'1, 291||Jr.||NR|
|Jack Miller||C||6'4, 291||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Graham Glasgow||LG||6'6, 303||So.||NR|
|Kyle Kalis||RG||6'5, 297||RSFr.||***** (6.1)|
|Erik Magnuson||RT||6'6, 286||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Blake Bars||OL||6'5, 284||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Ben Braden||LG||6'6, 314||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Patrick Kugler||OL||6'5, 280||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Kyle Bosch||OL||6'5, 311||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Chris Fox||OL||6'6, 297||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Logan Tuley-Tillman||OL||6'7, 307||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|David Dawson||OL||6'4, 282||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. A deeper line
Michigan got away with starting the same five linemen in every game. That's a good thing, as the second-string was littered with walk-ons as the Wolverines attempted to redshirt the stars from their 2012 recruiting class. And despite two studs -- guard Patrick Omameh and tackle Taylor Lewan -- the numbers weren't amazing. The Wolverines were great in short-yardage situations but struggled mightily when it comes to keeping defenders out of the backfield. (East-west, all-or-nothing runners like Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint probably didn't help in that regard.)
This season, three of last year's five starters are gone, including Omameh. The reinforcements have arrived, but they are incredibly young. Michigan currently has eight true and redshirt freshmen who garnered either four- or five-star status as recruits; the future is as bright for this line as for any in the country. But 2013 could be a transition year.
A couple of the redshirt freshmen will be forced to produce at a high level -- and for all we know, they could do just that. This is both an exciting and scary year for the Michigan offensive line.
Taylor Lewan. Kim Klement, USA Today.
|Q1 Rk||54||1st Down Rk||44|
|Q2 Rk||42||2nd Down Rk||40|
|Q3 Rk||32||3rd Down Rk||20|
6. "A great defense against the run is nothing without a good pass defense"
It is a Football Outsiders tenet. From this year's Football Outsiders Almanac 2013:
This is a corollary to the absurdity of "establish the run." With rare exceptions, teams win or lose with the passing game more than the running game -- and by stopping the passing game more than the running game. Ron Jaworski puts it best: "The pass gives you the lead, and the run solidifies it." The reason why teams need a strong run defense in the playoffs is not to shut the run down early; it's to keep the other team from icing the clock if they get a lead. You can't mount a comeback if you can't stop the run.
Note that "good pass defense" may mean "good pass rush" rather than "good defensive backs."
Michigan was very, very good at stopping the run last year. Not elite, but close enough. One could point to this as the reason why neither Michigan State nor Nebraska were able to pull away from the Wolverines even as the Michigan offense struggled to move the ball. (Michigan caught State but couldn't catch Nebraska.) And it certainly played a role in Michigan's dramatic comeback against Northwestern. (This ridiculous Roy Roundtree catch was also rather significant, to say the least.)
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Quinton Washington||NT||6'4, 305||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||23.5||3.6%||3||1||0||0||1||0|
|Frank Clark||DE||6'2, 277||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||20.5||3.2%||9||2||0||3||1||1|
|Jibreel Black||DT||6'2, 276||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||16.5||2.5%||5||3||0||2||1||0|
|Mario Ojemudia||DE||6'3, 244||So.||*** (5.7)||9||9.5||1.5%||2.5||1||1||0||1||1|
|Keith Heitzman||DE||6'3, 277||So.||*** (5.5)||12||4.5||0.7%||1||0||0||0||0||1|
|Ondre Pipkins||NT||6'3, 308||So.||***** (6.1)||13||4.5||0.7%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tom Strobel||DE||6'6, 262||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Matthew Godin||DE||6'6, 277||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Chris Wormley||DT||6'5, 290||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Willie Henry||DT||6'3, 306||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Henry Poggi||DT||6'4, 260||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Taco Charlton||DE||6'6, 265||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
7. Wanted: pass rush
The run defense was solid, but there's no denying that the pass defense just wasn't up to par last year, and it likely contributed to Michigan falling behind so many times in the first place. Michigan had an average secondary and a below-average pass rush in 2012, and at first glance, there's no immediate reason to assume that will improve. Craig Roh, the line's best pass rusher, has graduated, and Jake Ryan, the linebacking corps' only pass rusher last year, is gone until at least October with a knee injury.
Lord knows there are all sorts of young former star recruits waiting their turn at end, tackle, and linebacker; but relying on youth to save a unit is a good way to end up disappointed.
The secondary could use quite a bit of help in this regard. The return of Blake Countess from injury should help, but the odds are pretty good that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will stay conservative with his cornerbacks, as he did last year.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jake Ryan||SLB||6'3, 241||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||72.0||11.1%||16||4.5||0||3||4||1|
|Desmond Morgan||MLB||6'1, 227||Jr.||*** (5.5)||11||61.0||9.4%||5.5||0.5||0||2||0||0|
|James Ross III||WLB||6'1, 223||So.||**** (5.8)||13||28.5||4.4%||2.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Joe Bolden||MLB||6'3, 222||So.||**** (5.8)||13||23.5||3.6%||4||1||0||0||0||1|
|Cameron Gordon||SLB||6'3, 233||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||15.0||2.3%||3||0||0||1||0||0|
|Brennen Beyer||SLB||6'3, 254||Jr.||**** (5.8)||11||14.0||2.2%||0.5||0||0||0||1||0|
|Royce Jenkins-Stone||WLB||6'2, 215||So.||**** (5.8)||12||4.5||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Mike McCray||LB||6'4, 230||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Ben Gedeon||LB||6'3, 215||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
8. Get well soon, Jake
There are certainly still play-makers in the front seven. Desmond Morgan came on nicely as a sophomore and now moves to replace Kenny Demens at middle linebacker. Sophomores James Ross III and Joe Bolden made a decent percentage of their plays last year behind the line. And despite the loss of William Campbell, the tackle positions are quite exciting with seniors Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington leading the way for youngsters like Ondre Pipkins.
But Jake Ryan was still the star of this defense. Among a sea of former star recruits, Ryan, a simple three-star, has racked up 27 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and five forced fumbles in two years. As good as the run defense was last year, the line didn't make an elite number of plays behind the line; when Michigan's run defense was thriving, it was mostly because of the linebacker position.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Thomas Gordon||SS||5'11, 208||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||63.5||9.8%||4||1||2||2||1||0|
|Raymon Taylor||CB||5'10, 186||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||39.0||6.0%||0||0||2||1||0||1|
|Blake Countess (2011)||CB||5'10, 181||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||37.0||5.5%||1.5||0||0||6||1||0|
|Courtney Avery||CB||5'11, 174||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||16.5||2.5%||2||0.5||0||0||1||1|
|Josh Furman||FS||6'2, 197||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||6.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jarrod Wilson||FS||6'2, 196||So.||**** (5.8)||13||6.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Delonte Hollowell||CB||5'9, 175||Jr.||*** (5.7)||11||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Terry Richardson||CB||5'9, 162||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Jeremy Clark||SS||6'4, 201||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Dymonte Thomas||CB||6'2, 187||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Jourdan Lewis||DB||5'10, 159||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Ross Douglas||DB||5'10, 180||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Delano Hill||DB||6'0, 198||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Will Hagerup||6'4, 227||Sr.||33||45.0||4||4||3||21.2%|
|Matt Wile||6'2, 215||Jr.||12||35.9||1||5||9||116.7%|
|Matt Wile||6'2, 215||Jr.||77||60.5||28||36.4%|
|Brendan Gibbons||6'1, 240||Sr.||45-45||13-13||100.0%||3-5||60.0%|
|Matt Wile||6'2, 215||Jr.||0-0||0-0||0.0%||2-3||66.7%|
|Dennis Norfleet||KR||5'7, 168||So.||35||23.6||0|
|Drew Dileo||KR||5'10, 177||Sr.||4||16.8||0|
|Jeremy Gallon||KR||5'8, 187||Sr.||2||11.5||0|
|Jeremy Gallon||PR||5'8, 187||Sr.||12||5.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||49|
|Field Goal Pct||10|
|Kick Returns Avg||58|
|Punt Returns Avg||61|
9. A guaranteed three points
The Big Ten has its share of good kickers. Brendan Gibbons may have as good a claim as anybody to being the best of the bunch, however. Gibbons missed a 43-yarder versus Notre Dame and a 44-yarder versus Purdue ... and that's it. He was perfect inside 43 yards, and he made a 52-yarder versus Nebraska. You need touchdowns to win, but Gibbons all but guarantees Michigan some points once the Wolverines cross the opponent's 30. They advanced inside their opponents' 40 on just 51 percent of their possessions last year (62nd), but they averaged a healthy 4.91 points per trip (13th). He had a role to play in that. And he was by far the best thing this experienced special teams unit had going.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|12-Oct||at Penn State||24|
|2-Nov||at Michigan State||18|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||34|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||4|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-9 / -9.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (6, 6)|
10. The right schedule for a run
Like Northwestern, Michigan has a rather favorable schedule as long as the Wolverines meet a certain baseline. Of the four teams projected 21st or better, three come to Ann Arbor, including Notre Dame early and Ohio State late. Only two road opponents are projected better than 40th. If Michigan can improve to around the top-15 level, the Wolverines could win a lot of games. Hell, they could win all of them.
But the projections are lukewarm for a reason. Only about half of last year's starters return. The offensive line is pretty green. The pass rush isn't guaranteed to improve, nor is the secondary. The best defensive player is going to play half the season at best. And perhaps most importantly from a numbers standpoint, Michigan has played at a top-15 level only once in the last six years.
That the Wolverines held steady at 20th overall last year is a positive sign, and I do think that there is some addition-by-subtraction going on in substituting a little explosiveness for a lot of efficiency on offense. They are still a few ifs away from a truly elite season, but I like their chances of getting to 10 wins overall, much more than the numbers do, anyway.