Monday, July 25, 2011

Expectations for Brady Hoke's First Season

I know it's been a while since I've posted anything on this blog. Like many of my fellow Michigan bloggers, my excuse is that I've been on vacation—well, if by "vacation" I mean relocating to California. I have been enduring the long, arduous process of moving across the country and finding an adequate place to live, and after that, establishing my internet connection.

The process has taken several weeks, but that's really no excuse. You want Michigan football, and you want it now. I sympathize, and I will oblige.

There's been plenty going on (sort of) in the realm of Michigan football, and it's apparent I have a lot of catching up to do. I'll tackle it as best I can, but for right now, I thought I'd start you off with a piece on Brady Hoke and what we as Michigan fans expect out of his first year coaching the Wolverines.

Joel Greer over at Bleacher Report already has created a sideshow titled "10 Reasonable Goals for Brady Hoke's 1st Wolverines' Season," which is not so much ten reasonable goals but rather how Hoke can go from doing really well to doing everything perfect. Greer lists that Hoke should sign a top-ranked (Top 5, at least: that's reasonable, right?) quarterback, such as Zeke Pike, for instance. (Pike has already committed elsewhere.) Greer is certainly entitled to his opinion, and while I think that his goals for Hoke aren't entirely on the reasonable side, here's a run-down of general expectations that Hoke has set and we have set, and where they fall on our wish list.

1. Win the Big Ten
Priority Level: Medium

Brady Hoke has said that this is the main expectation of Michigan's football program and, to a large degree, it is. However, for Brady Hoke's first year, for Michigan's football program after three years of uncompetitive play under Rich Rodriguez, the expectation that it will actually happen falls into the medium range, although Hoke himself probably thinks that it should be put in the "very high" category. Still, we at the Michigan Fanatic don't expect Hoke's Wolverines to win the Big Ten Championship in this first season. With Nebraska joining the conference and looking to make a strong start, with Michigan State brimming with positivity after becoming champions of the Big Ten for the first time since 1990, and with Wisconsin aiming to establish itself as the dominant Big Ten powerhouse, the battle for the 2011 title will be tough.

Fans and graduating seniors would love nothing more than a trip to the Rose Bowl, but as we see it, for Michigan and Brady Hoke to win the Big Ten would exceed expectations rather than simply meet them. If Hoke walks away from 2011 with the Championship, he will have stunned the Big Ten conference and, let's be honest, almost all of the Michigan fan base.

This expectation is "medium" largely because the Wolverines are working with the same football players that Rodriguez used, and they were never truly competitive when the Big Ten schedule hit. While our offensive players are skilled, we aren't exactly stacked on defense. When Hoke's recruits start taking the field in 2012, then the expectation to win the Big Ten will be a lot higher. At that time, watch out.

2. Defeat Notre Dame in Michigan's First Night Game
Priority Level: Low

Athletic director Dave Brandon probably places this expectation "high," especially considering all the money and public relations his department has put into promoting the game as the first ever to take place at night in Michigan Stadium. (He regularly compares the event to the Big Chill.) So for Hoke to cinch a victory would definitely please all of Michigan's corporate fans, and certainly Brandon, but for the rest of Michigan's fans (depending on who you are), this expectation isn't that high at all.

It would be if Michigan had been suffering a losing streak against Notre Dame, but the Wolverines have beaten the Fighting Irish for the past two years in a row, defeating both Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly. The Irish fan base's expectations for Kelly are becoming increasingly high as they expect him to take Notre Dame to the National Championship very soon. He will be hard pressed to win this game against Michigan. If Hoke can defeat Kelly, it will do very little for Hoke, but it will do serious damage to Kelly, who from this loss will have his potential National Championship hopes snuffed out in the beginning of the season, and that will place him in the hot seat.

The game against Notre Dame will likely be very close and very exciting as it has been for the past two years. Both teams are in rebuilding stages, and against each other, they are pretty equally matched. But the pressure to win is more on Kelly than on Hoke.

3. Snap the Losing Streak against Michigan State
Priority Level: Very High

Against friends of mine who go or went to Michigan State, I tend to argue that Michigan's last three losses against the Spartans were not because Michigan State got better, but because Michigan got significantly worse. I often contend that, had Lloyd Carr not retired, it would be highly unlikely that Michigan would have lost three years in a row. Then it leads to a tiresome rant how most of the blame therefore must go to Rodriguez, who shifted recruiting away from in-state and gave up valuable prospects to the Spartans, and really didn't take the rivalry all that seriously.

Presumably, that's all going to change under Brady Hoke, who has put up countdown clocks in the locker rooms ticking down to the game against Michigan State (and Ohio State as well). Spartan fans soiled their undies as they watched Michigan's best in-state prospects commit to U-M, especially on defense, thanks to Hoke and new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Nothing would further re-establish Michigan's dominance over their in-state rival than for Hoke to win against the Spartans in his first year.

Most sites and blogs predicting Michigan's win-loss ratio for 2011 consider this game to be the difference-maker. Michigan's schedule before they face the Spartans is really just as light as it was last year (with a possible exception against Notre Dame), and against Michigan State the Wolverines will really be able to show just how much progress they have made. If this were any other year, it probably wouldn't matter as much, but because Michigan has lost three times to the Spartans under Rodriguez, Michigan fans will be looking for a palpable difference from Hoke's regime. This will be it. It will be a very important game for Hoke to win and, just like it would have for Rodriguez, it will quiet much of the negative speculation around his future at Michigan.

4. Show Remarkable Improvement on Defense
Priority Level: High

Rich Rodriguez's supporters believe that it was the defense (and Rodriguez's defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson) that caused his departure, often overlooking the fact that Rodriguez was himself the head coach, not just the offensive coordinator, and hired Greg Robinson. As a result, when Dave Brandon fired Rodriguez, he sought out a defensive-minded coach, Brady Hoke, who in turn hired Greg Mattison, someone whom the majority of the Michigan fan base agrees is a stellar defensive coordinator.

The Wolverines finished 2010 ranked 112th in total defense, so Hoke and Mattison have their work cut out for them. They will be hard pressed to show a tangible improvement right away, returning to teaching toughness and fundamentals. However, let's not forget that these are the same players Rodriguez recruited and suffered losses.

The question surrounding Michigan's defensive situation for 2011 is this: was the terrible defense a result of personnel (i.e. lack of talent in the players) or a result of poor coaching (i.e. lack of fundamentals)? The optimists among Michigan's fans tend to think it is the latter, that Michigan's defensive backs couldn't effectively tackle because they weren't taught properly. Others argue that it was because the defensive players were placed into positions which they weren't comfortable playing.

In any scenario, the expectation now is that Hoke and Mattison will have to get it right. Cornerback Troy Woolfolk should be able to play in 2011 after a serious ankle injury kept him off the field in 2010, and his playing should create a noticeable difference. There is also Will Campell being returned to the defensive line, after Rodriguez inexplicably moved him to the offensive line last year. (If memory serves, Rodriguez claimed it was because he lacked personnel on the offensive line.) Campbell says he always preferred to be on defense, and by all account he is a beast who loves to hit.

Notice that we didn't say the expectation was to show "marginal" improvement on defense. No, for Hoke to truly show that he is moving Michigan football back to a tradition of toughness, the defense must improve remarkably. It must make big stops when it has to, mistakes must be kept to a minimum, and for the love of God they have to tackle in open space. If all the optimists are right, then that's going to happen, because Hoke's focus right now is on the defense. This year, it will have to be.

5. Win His First Game
Priority Level: High

In the grand scheme of things, this could probably fit into a "medium" priority level, considering that it's arguably more important to beat the Buckeyes and the Spartans than the Western Michigan Broncos. Still, Hoke knows that this will be his inaugural game as Michigan's head coach (his dream job) and that it shouldn't be overlooked.

Like any first game of the schedule, this sets the tone for the rest of the season. Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan started with a loss to Utah, and while his supporters will argue that it wasn't entirely unexpected, it still served as an appropriate precursor to the rest of his career at Michigan: high build-up, little substance. One could even say that his tenure never recovered or never stood a chance after that game. It will largely be the same for Brady Hoke. Western Michigan, however, is not nearly as tough to beat as Utah, and all things considered it should be a relatively easy win for Michigan. The Broncos will show up to play, so Michigan can't snooze it's way through this one.

We rank this priority "high" not because meeting the expectation will bring great satisfaction, but failing to meet it will bring great disappointment. The last thing Brady Hoke wants is to start out his head coaching career at Michigan on a sour note. (As I said, in the grand scheme of things, this one game against a mid-level opponent is not super important, and if Hoke loses he can easily recover credibility with wins over Michigan's rivals.) Many have said that, given all Hoke has accomplished in the offseason, all he has left to do is prove himself on the field, and this game will be the first real test of that. He must win it.

6. Defeat San Diego State
Priority Level: Medium

While at least some (maybe most) of the Michigan fan base would drop their jaws if Michigan lost to Hoke's old team of San Diego State, personally I wouldn't be all that surprised. Hoke turned San Diego State into a winner in two years and defeated Navy in the Poinsetta Bowl. His SDSU Aztecs also came very close to defeating TCU. When they play Michigan in 2011, they'll be looking to win.

At best I think this game will be awkward rather than embarrassing or challenging. Hoke certainly has the personnel on offense (i.e. Denard Robinson) to win against his old team, who didn't have the raw talent to which established programs traditionally have access. However, I wouldn't count out San Diego State. They were more or less primed and ready to execute Al Borges's offense, and they did well against good teams. They will do well against Michigan, but can they win? That's to be determined.

Michigan needs every win it can get in 2011, and if San Diego State loses it will hurt more in the short term than the long term. It will be embarrassing, yes, to lose to Hoke when he hopped a flight to Ann Arbor, but the Aztecs aren't as big a program as Michigan, and as such, they don't have as much to lose. Michigan and Hoke, on the other hand, need to win, and they need to win now.

Still, a loss for Michigan in this game will only remind fans how good Hoke was at San Diego State, and that the Aztecs are mainly reaping the benefits of his coaching. It's hard to say that such a game is a win-win for Hoke, but there really isn't much upside or downside. It won't hurt too badly if we lose, and it won't feel too great if we win.

7. Notch at least 8 wins
Priority Level: High

With all of the returning starters on the roster, Hoke and Brandon are going to look pretty ridiculous if Michigan fails to even go a bowl game this year, but I won't entirely be surprised if the Wolverines go 6-6. That doesn't mean they should. Yes, Denard will be adapting to the pro-style offense as best he can (let's not forget he ran it in high school), and in any transition there's going to be growing pains, which could result in losses. However, despite what Hoke's detractors might say, Michigan isn't starting over from scratch. The Wolverines have at least two effective QBs on the roster (incoming freshman Russell Bellomy has yet to prove himself), a host of speedy wide-receivers, and a decent potential running back in Stephen Hopkins.

The defense may be bad, but we'll at least have a four-man rush in Greg Mattison's 4-3 system, which probably will be loads more effective than Rodriguez's 3-3-5 system. (It certainly worked when Rodriguez occasionally had four linemen rushing the opponent's quarterback.)

However, more than anything else, it will come down to wins and losses. Hoke's record must be better than Rodriguez's for him to survive at Michigan. Fans may have gotten used to 10-win seasons under Lloyd Carr, but because Rodriguez failed to even reach 8 wins in three years, fans would love nothing more than to get back to the standard. Eight wins would be welcomed warmly rather than with scorn. In the past, 8-4 seasons weren't exactly appreciated, but this year it will mean that Michigan is on its way to being a contender again.

8. Beat Ohio State
Priority Level: Extremely High

If you thought snapping the losing streak against Michigan State was important, then this priority is practically a matter of life and death. Michigan has suffered three straight losses to the Spartans but six straight losses to the Buckeyes. Something must be done about this. If there was ever a game in which Hoke had to prove himself, this would be it. He must snap the losing streak against Ohio State.

Really, all the signs are there for Hoke to win the game. The Buckeyes are reeling from scandal, Tressel has resigned, and quarterback Terrelle Pryor has flown the coop before he could be investigated by the NCAA. Ohio State's recruiting has tangibly suffered. There are dozens of question marks surrounding the program's future. High on the list is who will play quarterback for the Buckeyes: either 25-year-old fifth-year-senior Joe Bauserman or incoming freshman Braxton Miller. Bauserman was Pryor's backup and therefore has the necessary experience, but the fans don't have much confidence in him because he's not the savior-level athlete that Pryor was. Miller is a highly-touted recruit who was believed to eventually replace Pryor, but he might be forced to step into the position early. However, despite Buckeye fans thinking that Miller will be awesome, he might be prone to the same on-field mistakes as Michigan's Tate Forcier.

With Tressel gone, Luke Fickell is OSU's interim head coach with no experience at the position. He may turn out to be Ohio State's version of Lloyd Carr, or he might turn out to be Ohio State's version of Tim Brewster. Hoke's experience as head coach easily puts him above Fickell at the position, and he knows it's time for Michigan to capitalize on Ohio State's woes. Fickell knows that, if he really wants to replace Jim Tressel as Ohio State's permanent head coach, he must win this game. But for Hoke, a loss would be unacceptable. Michigan's losing streak alone is enough reason.

Of course, Ohio State fans would love if the Buckeyes can still beat Michigan even when they've suffered so much, but Michigan's needs to win this far more than the Buckeyes do. They need to undo the losing streak and make the rivalry competitive again. It's no fun (really, for either side) when one team is completely dominant. This is Michigan's opportunity to restore what has been lost, and for Hoke to end his first season on a very good note. 

I said this for Rodriguez, and I'll say it for Hoke: it's hard to criticize the coach when he beats Ohio State. Hoke needs to do that. He needs to show that he is not only a different coach than Rodriguez, but a better one. Rodriguez could never beat Ohio State. 

If Hoke could do that in his first year, all will start to feel right in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Frankly, it seems downright refreshing to have the reasonably high expectations for Michigan this year after three utterly disastrous years under Rodriguez. I was in West Virginia when the bombshell of Rodriguez's departure for Michigan went off, and I can tell you first-hand that the people of West Virginia were, to put it very mildly, highly displeased. At the time I wondered just what Michigan wanted with Rodriguez, and after the debacle of his years here, I wonder all the more. Now, however, we have a new coach, a new over-all attitude, and the dawn of a new era. GO BLUE!!!