Monday, August 29, 2011

A Visitor's Guide to Ann Arbor

We're only days away from the 2011 season, and some people might be visiting Ann Arbor for the first time. This friendly little post is for anyone coming from other schools who are interested in Michigan's campus and the college town of Ann Arbor. (It might also be handy to anyone already in Ann Arbor, especially new U-M students who don't know the area quite as well.) Even if you're a fan or student of one of Michigan's rivals, don't worry: we'll approach this with safety and fun in mind, so you can have the best experience in Ann Arbor and will hopefully want to come back for another game. So, welcome!

A quick note: MGoBlog has posted a somewhat-aggressive guide to Ann Arbor that primarily focuses on places to eat and drink, but it's littered with inside jokes and references to things that very few outside of the Michigan fanbase (and permanent residents of Ann Arbor) will understand. Here, we'll take a somewhat softer approach and will assume that this is your first visit to Ann Arbor, and what to expect.

I wanted to post this earlier, but my procrastination got the better of me, and MGoBlog beat me to the punch. Oh well, it's a different perspective. Anyway, without further ado, here's a relatively brief run-down of what to see and expect from Ann Arbor. We hope you enjoy your visit!

You can find maps of Ann Arbor, Central Campus, and South Campus here. (South Campus is where Michigan Stadium is located.)

When You Should Arrive

Ideally, you have a ticket for the game and want to arrive in time to see kickoff. However, not every visitor from other schools necessarily has a ticket—or even sees the game. They're mainly in town to hang out with friends who either go to Michigan or friends from their school who do have tickets. Either way, there's plenty to do even if you're not seeing the game.

The exact day or time you should arrive depends entirely on what you want to get out of your visit. If you're visiting from somewhere close (e.g. Michigan State, Eastern Michigan, etc.), you can probably get away with arriving and leaving the same day as the game—especially if you have no interest in seeing what Ann Arbor has to offer. If you're coming from somewhere far away (e.g. Nebraska), then I highly recommend planning your trip so that you arrive the day before the game and leave the day after. Ann Arbor goes nuts on game day, and arriving the day before it allows for you to have the least amount of stress in finding a place to stay, getting something to eat, and leaving the town at a comfortable time when the streets aren't packed.

If you can't swing the finances to arrive the day before the game, try to get there as early as possible (6 a.m to 8 a.m.). This will give you plenty of time to explore the town and relax after your trip.

Make sure you know when the game starts (usually it's 12:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.), because tailgating typically starts four hours before that. Ann Arbor is generally still asleep around 6 a.m., but people could be moseying over to the stadium the closer it gets to noon.

Where You Can Park

As a rule, parking in Ann Arbor is a nightmare. It's usually worse on weekdays than on weekends, but everyone's going to be rushing for something on game day. There are, however, a few options at your disposal. There is a great parking structure on Thompson Street. You'll have to pay to use it, but it's worth it if you're visiting short term. For several hours it will cost you $6 to $10, and for days it climbs upwards of $20. It's free on Sundays. You can take your chances with street parking, which is almost always full. The meters stop after 6 p.m., Monday-Saturday.

If you don't mind walking a few blocks to Michigan Stadium, then downtown is really your best bet. (This is where Thompson and street parking are.) If you park in downtown Ann Arbor, you'll have to walk down Main Street to get to the Big House. It shouldn't be hard to spot on game day. It's generally the most crowded street that day, but it's the most direct way to the stadium.

If you can't stand a walk, parking closer to the Big House is possible but becomes more difficult and more expensive. There are plenty of residential homes that offer all-day parking for $20 or $30 and will take care of your vehicle. These are Michigan fans of varying degrees of intensity, who may have consumed varying amounts of alcohol. So, if you happen to be a hated rival, choose your residential home carefully. Try Berkley Ave., Potter Ave., or Snyder Ave. for some spots to rent; all three are directly adjacent to Michigan Stadium. The Boy Scouts typically rent out a parking area in front of the Big House and charge $15-$20, and they're always reliable. I would also advise looking for older fans to rent a parking space from rather than younger ones, as the latter are usually less trustworthy. Be warned, though: the closer the parking is to the stadium, the more expensive it is likely to be. Don't be surprised if someone wants to charge upwards of $100 for parking.

Where You Can Tailgate

If tailgating is your thing, Pioneer High School is directly across from Michigan Stadium and its vast parking lot is open to tailgaters. There is almost always a reserved area for fans of the visiting team (yes, even from rival schools), so you'll certainly be able to find something. Generally, there is no permit required, but you'll have to pay cash to use the lot. It opens at 6 a.m. You can check out the Michigan Event Parking website for more details.

Another option is to tailgate at the U-M Golf Course. Parking is first come first serve, so try to get there early. You can park directly on the grass. The golf course is a favorite of Michigan fans, so expect to see a lot of them out in droves. In fact, sometimes fans just show up to tailgate and don't even go to the game.

If you know someone in the Ann Arbor area, you could always try tailgating at their house.

If the game at Michigan happens to be a rivalry game, expect to find very little available either way. Again, your best bet is to show up as early as possible and be flexible. (If you arrive the day before, you won't be allowed to spend the night at either Pioneer or the golf course, but you can park at nearby Briarwood Mall and move into position when gates open at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)

Where You Can Stay Overnight

If you're making a long trip from out of state (i.e. Nebraska), then maybe you've decided that the smart thing is to arrive the day before the game, but you need somewhere to sleep. Not a problem. Ann Arbor has plenty of places that can accommodate. To my knowledge, visiting teams usually stay in Ann Arbor's Campus Inn. (It's the building with all the Big Ten team flags.) If you can swing the money, it's a comfortable stay. There is also the Bell Tower Hotel, which is right smack in the middle of campus.

If expensive hotels aren't your thing, there are also a few bed-and-breakfast houses that accommodate customers. One of those closest to campus and Michigan Stadium is the Burnt Toast Inn on Williams Street. It's comfortable, cozy, and cheap. And then there's the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast on East Huron Street.

Finally, if you happen to have friends in the Ann Arbor area, you can consider staying with them. (Of course, if you have an RV, then none of this is really relevant.)

How You Can Get Around

You'll most likely be getting around on your feet. Everything in downtown Ann Arbor is in walking distance to the Big House, the Campus Inn, restaurants, and parking structures. Although it might feel like an advantage to have a car, it's actually a disadvantage in Ann Arbor. During game day especially, pedestrians will crowd the streets. So, overall, your best bet is to walk.

If you'd like to explore some other areas of Ann Arbor and Michigan's campus, the university employs Blue Buses that are absolutely free to anyone anytime. (They usually go until 3 a.m., so don't assume they're a 24-hour service.) The Blue Buses go almost anywhere on campus. You just have to make sure you hop the right one. On the front and sides of the bus, an electronic sign will tell you where it's going. "Northwood" goes up to the university's North Campus, which features more university housing (Bursley/Baits dormitories, and undergrad apartments) as well as parts of the engineering school, music school, and drama center. "Glazier Way" also goes to North Campus but makes a stop at the U-M Hospital. "South to Crisler Arena" is your best bet to get back to the Big House if you've strayed too far or found yourself on North Campus. If you're stranded on North Campus, any Blue Bus heading in the direction of the hospital will eventually make its way back to Central Campus (i.e. downtown Ann Arbor).

Another bus that travels around Ann Arbor is called The Ride. This one is only free to U-M students with their student ID card. All others have to pay a minor charge. The Ride will take you generally anywhere just outside of downtown. It will go to Stadium Blvd. or to Briarwood Mall. Make sure you ask the driver where the bus is going before you get on.

If all else fails, there are Yellow Taxis and Go-Blue Cabs, which service all customers. They'll take you anywhere you want to go for a moderate price. (They also expect a tip.)

The Culture

The general mood in and around Ann Arbor is artsy, progressive, and liberal. Don't be surprised if you see student political activists on the sidewalks, especially if you're visiting during election season. (It was pretty crazy in 2008.) People there are generally nice, but with so many political opinions these days, someone is bound to say something offensive on either side. Try to understand the context: Ann Arbor was one of the main activist campuses back in the 1960s during the Vietnam protests. It also featured President John F. Kennedy's speech in which he announced the formation of the Peace Corps. The student body is both Republican and Democrat, but it tends to lean more towards the left. It's also extremely diverse, something which the university makes a priority.

Ann Arbor's artistic side is reflected a lot in its shops, theatres, and art galleries. While the city officially does not condone graffiti, you'll probably see some of it—less on the "gang" side and more on the "expression" side. There are also amateur musicians constantly playing on the sidewalks.

Finally, Ann Arbor has a reputation for being especially generous to homeless people. Don't be confused or feel threatened if someone sitting along a way asks for money. It's actually quite common. There was an interesting story that said homeless people come from all over Michigan to Ann Arbor because the people there are so generous, and the city has numerous programs and shelters that provide for the homeless.

Places to Avoid

Ann Arbor is actually one of the safest college towns in the U.S. While petty crime does occasionally surface, the university monitors even the slightest outburst so intensely that it sends out a mass email to students and faculty about something that's happening all the way on the other side of campus. (I'm sure that other college campuses have this system, and if they don't, they should.) Ann Arbor's police run a pretty tight patrol, especially between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., but this is generally meant to keep the college kids in line.

On game day, State Street should generally be avoided after the game, as this is where the majority of the fraternity houses are and where the loudest parties emerge. If you're a traveling family, taking Main Street is generally a better idea, as it runs parallel to State Street. If you get lost, you can find your way to either street by looking either for the Big House (Michigan Stadium) or Bell Tower. The Big House is on Stadium Blvd and Main Street, and Bell Tower is in the middle of campus. Once you get closer to downtown (i.e. heading in the direction Bell Tower), State Street is fine. It has most of the town's businesses and is one of the most traversed streets on campus. It's only around State Street and Monroe that you have to be cautious. There you run a risk of getting insulted by a drunken frat guy and such.

If you're looking specifically for a place to eat after the game, pretty much every sit-down restaurant is going to be packed. You should generally avoid Ashley's, a popular undergrad favorite: despite its popularity and recommendations, the place is so frequently busy that the service is lousy. If you don't get the attention of a server, you could go an hour without being asked what you'd like to have. It's also more of a bar than a restaurant. If you're more into drinking, then take a chance on Ashley's.

Blimpy Burger is also known for its terrible service. This, however, is more of a quirk than a detraction, more like being infamous or having "positive notoriety." If you're not expecting the chefs' curt attitude, it's definitely off-putting. If you do expect it, then it's kind of amusing. If you can stand through a very specific ordering system, they have excellent burgers, made from daily fresh ground beef. Blimpy hasn't expanded architecturally at all since it was founded in 1953, so the restaurant itself is very small and very old. On game day, it gets packed.

Pre-Game Plan

What you do before and after the game will depend entirely on how much time you can spare and what exactly you'd like to get out of Ann Arbor. So, even if we suggest a vast array of things, you might not be able to get to them all if your schedule doesn't allow it. That's okay; you can always come back to Michigan for another game or the following year if our teams play.

Let's enter scenario number one. You've arrived the day before the game (so, Friday) and are looking to explore Ann Arbor a little bit. This is good. It'll give you time to relax and get ready for the game at your own pace. Ann Arbor will be pretty laid back but will gradually get more intense as the time nears kickoff. Even if you wear gear supporting your school, no one should give you much of a problem before the game (certainly not the day before the game). Problems you may encounter after the game depend largely on where you are (See: Places to Avoid).

You can catch a movie at either Michigan Theatre or State Theatre; both are in very close proximity to each other, on State Street and Liberty Street. Michigan Theatre tends to show foreign and art films, while State Theatre tends to show popular releases that you'd normally find at movie theaters.

If you're itching to check out some of Ann Arbor's homey, cozy art scene, then a small area of the city called "Kerrytown" is your destination. You'll find a lot of history and cobblestone roads in this area, and on Saturdays (though I'm hesitant to say Game Saturdays), Kerrytown features the weekly Farmer's Market. Not surprisingly, Kerrytown is generally very quiet during the actual game time, although on most days it is one of the more popular areas of Ann Arbor. If you're in Kerrytown during the game (don't know why you would be, but whatever), you might hear the faint rumble of the Big House in the distance.

You should have little to no problem finding something to eat before the game. It's only after the game that all the places and restaurants get packed. Downtown Ann Arbor has a very eclectic mix of all different types of restaurants, so you could pretty much try anything. Most of the unique restaurants are along State Street and South University road, and around Packard street. I would highly recommend a restaurant called the Brown Jug. Service is good, and you get a great sense of fan pride.

If your food tastes are more mainstream, Ann Arbor just opened up a Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and has Chipotle Mexican Grill, Starbucks, Jimmy John's, and Buffalo Wild Wings. All of them are on State Street. Ann Arbor is a health-crazy town, so fast food has been driven underground. You can find Wendy's and Taco Bell in the Michigan League building. There's also Subway, Wendy's, and Pizza Hut in the Michigan Union. Both are very popular with students.

A lot of guides make the mistake of limiting the suggestions to Downtown Ann Arbor. Generally, downtown is good because everything is in walking distance. However, if you've got a car, you can head down Stadium Blvd. for tons of other options. Fast food choices are less stifled here as you've got Burger King, Little Caesar's (a Detroit favorite), KFC, Subway, and McDonald's. Michigan students almost always recommend a sandwich shop called "Zingerman's," but I'm personally not that into sandwiches. If you are, then I hear it's the place to be.

If you're short on supplies, you can make a quick run at Big K on Stadium Blvd. Right past the Big House on Main Street (off Stadium Blvd.), past Pioneer High School, you can check out Briarwood Mall. Parking there is free. It's very close to the Big House that you should be able to do some things in there and still be able to make the game.

Other scenarios: if you arrived the day of the game but early enough to get a spot, you'll have to make a choice if you want to explore Ann Arbor or tailgate. You generally won't have time to do both unless you arrived in a large group that can take turns manning the truck. Most people tailgating get there pretty early, and game day is typically an all-day event. If you aren't interested in tailgating but arrived the day of the game, you don't want to get too far away from Michigan Stadium, as it will become increasingly difficult to park the closer it gets to game time. I'd say your best bet in this scenario is to limit your exploration of Ann Arbor to downtown. It's in walking distance from the Big House.

The Campus

Okay, so you're here for the game. You either have no interest in Michigan's campus or maybe you've got some interest. It's obviously not required to check out the campus, but if you've got some time to kill, it's a great way to get a glimpse at what a student's life is typically like. Generally all college campuses are the same, so we won't pretend like your campus is somehow inferior to Ann Arbor's.

What I've found that's different is the sheer amount of spirit. A lot of other student bodies (even at other Big Ten schools) don't showcase their fervor all the time, or often enough, when they should. (Pasadena, California, for instance, is hardly interested in the UCLA Bruins or the USC Trojans during the spring, summer, or even the fall. By contrast, Ann Arbor has Michigan fanatics all year round.) Especially on gameday, that intensity just skyrockets.

A very popular student stop is the Michigan Union, located right along State Street. It's the big brick building covered in vegetation and with a big, blue, Block-M flag at the top. Here you'll find some quiet study areas and the Ivy-League type Michigan club and ballroom. Downstairs has some fast food stops (Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Panda Express) as well as a Barnes and Noble Bookstore. There's also a computer lab around the corner—but you probably won't be able to log in without a student ID.

Right next to the Union is an interactive sculpture known as the Cube, which is both powered by hydralics and the human touch. It's essentially a giant cube that stands on one of the corners that people can spin by pushing it. It's great fun for kids. (Don't worry, it's not covered in Michigan stuff (at all), so if you're a rival and have kids, they can enjoy it too.) Across the street from the Cube is the Student Activities Building, where you can check out where visiting prospective students check-in and start their campus tours.

There's no rule of where you have to start. (You don't have to start with the Union, for instance.) It really all depends on how much time there is before kickoff. There are two unofficial "centers" of campus: Bell Tower and the Diag. Bell Tower is the large clocktower that you can see from almost anywhere on campus. It usually provides a good point of direction. Next to Bell Tower is this crazy-looking sculpture fountain. Don't ask me to describe it because I can't. The fountain is something of a tradition at Michigan: new students take off their shoes and stand in it, face the Library, and sing The Victors.

The Diag is directly in front of the Library. It is sometimes considered the "more official" center of campus because students are more likely to walk around the Diag than they are to explore Bell Tower. There's a superstition concerning the Diag: if you step on it, you will fail your first blue-book exam. (Western Michigan University has a similar superstition with the metal seal between their library and computer lab, only if you step on it you fail your entire first semester. Harsh? Yeah.)

There are actually two main libraries by the Diag. The first is the more noticeable one: the Hatcher Graduate Library ("the Grad Library"). It has large columns and the inside makes you feel like Michigan is an Ivy League school, especially in the reading area where the ceiling is crazy high up. The second library is the Shapiro Undergraduate Library ("The Undergrad" or "the Ugly"). It's more of a media-based library with a built-in café that is popular with students.

There's far more to the campus, but this post is already getting really, really long, so I can't go much more into it. If you're interested in checking out more of the campus, click here.

The Weather

Obviously, this is Michigan, so the weather will be unpredictable. If you've been to outdoor college football games before, you should already know that you can dress light early in the season when it's warm, and you can dress heavy late in the season when it's cold. In Ann Arbor, even when it's September, it can get very cold or very hot. In 2010, the outside temperature for the game against Michigan State (October) reached the mid-90s. You can find weather predictions here.

Concerning the rain, you might be surprised to know that Michigan doesn't allow umbrellas inside the stadium. The reason: U-M's security has really cracked down over the years, and they know how intense it can get. An umbrella can sometimes be used as a weapon. If it is supposed to rain, you're far better off wearing a poncho or something with a hood. The stadium has ponchos for sale inside if you realize you're unprepared, but don't think you can slip in an umbrella.

The stadium also forbids bags of any kind (backpacks, purses, etc.) because of the ability to conceal weapons. You're better off traveling light. They do allow you to bring seat cushions, but no flags or signs. If you're a parent, and it becomes a problem because you have an infant who needs their diaper bag (for supplies, etc.), then you might want to consider having the newborn sit this one out. Diaper bags are not allowed for the same reason.

Post-Game Plan

Win or lose, Michigan fans and Ann Arbor residents will be polite and respectful—even if you're from Ohio State. However, there's no accounting for what's going to happen in bars when someone gets a little too hammered. If you're itching for a place to grab a meal or grab a drink after the game, downtown is actually the least feasible place to do that. The streets will be packed, and almost all of the restaurants will be filled.

Stadium Blvd., too, will be a difficult terrain. Most people will be aiming for Zingerman's, since everybody and their brother recommends it. Others will be packed on Division street trying to get into Blimpy Burger. Either place is going to be stuffed, and unless you're a V.I.P., the wait time is going to be long.

Briarwood Mall is big enough to handle a multitude of cars, so you could try there. (Can it hold 110,000 fans? I doubt it.) There are plenty of restaurants in the mall available, as a lot of people prefer to check out the places that everybody else is going.

Even if you're on a schedule, I'd say it's a bad idea to try to rush out of Ann Arbor. US-23, the highway that leads out of the city, will be bumper-to-bumper in the hours following the game. Your best bet is to take some time, relax, walk around (if you've parked), and wait it out. A lot of people go tailgating all night, so if that's your thing you could try that.

If you've got the time, you can head down South University street and grab a drink at the Brown Jug. It's one of the more popular places to drink, though not as popular as Ashley's, so availability is going to be a risk. If you can squeeze in, it's worth it.

Whatever your decision, your best plan is to take your time when leaving and anticipate that it's going to take a while. Michigan football is really big and has a lot of fans who pack the streets. Don't rush out and, if possible, try to avoid the highways or at least wait for the traffic to die down.

I hope that's been helpful and that you have a good time in Ann Arbor. Enjoy the game!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Appalachian State to be Michigan's 2014 Season Opener

The University of Michigan athletic department released a statement today announcing that, in 2014, the Wolverines will face Appalachian State in the football season's opening game. Michigan fans across the blogosphere were understandably upset that they would have to face Appalachian State again.

The Appalachian State Mountaineers have become well known around the Michigan fan base for upsetting the Wolverines in the season opener of 2007. It was the first time Michigan had ever lost to an FCS school. (The Mountaineers were reigning FCS national champions.)

That game, which MGoBlog has nicknamed "The Horror," was the beginning of the end for Lloyd Carr. Michigan alumni and fans everywhere were calling vehemently for him to step down: such a loss at the hands of an FCS school could only spell incompetence, they claimed. For that entire season, Carr never heard the end of it. He eventually announced his retirement after losing to Ohio State (for the fourth consecutive time) at the end of the season. Carr was able to leave on a high note, however, when the Wolverines defeated Florida in the Capital One Bowl. Despite the painful losses, he was eventually named to the College Football Hall of Fame.

The loss to Appalachian State was heartbreaking, confusing, and deflating. It deflated the entire 2007 season, with Michigan going 8-4 in the regular season but finishing strong against Florida. Some Michigan fans attribute that game ("The Horror") as the moment when Michigan football began its downward spiral, while others say that the essence of Michigan football died with Bo Schembechler in 2006.

Michigan fans loathe remembering the Appalachian State loss, but Michigan's rivals cherish it. Ohio State fans gathered to watch the game in Ohio Stadium and cheered like maniacs when they either witnessed or received the news that Michigan was upset by Appalachian State. For a Michigan fan, it was brutal.

And for Appalachian State themselves, it was arguably the biggest and greatest victory in the entire history of their program. Signs and mementos of that game are posted all over Appalachian State's locker room. The Mountaineers treasure the memory of that one victory every day. It was the game that changed their program forever. Suddenly, with just one game, everybody was talking about them.

"Appalachian State gained monumental coverage and reaped huge economic benefits from merchandise sales after the upset," wrote Angelique Chengelis in her book, 100 Things Michigan Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. "Michigan also received monumental national coverage, but of a negative variety. Michigan rivals overwhelmed the Appalachian State bookstore with orders for Appalachian State t-shirts and apparel, and within hours of the upset, anti-Michigan fans had posted online their cell phone videos from a variety of locations, like Beaver Stadium and Ohio Stadium, capturing the moment when Penn State and Ohio State fans heard that Michigan had lost."

Chengelis, a writer for the Detroit News, does not sugarcoat her account of the Appalachian State game, describing it candidly and honestly. While Ohio State fans may choose to sugarcoat the departure of their beloved Jim Tressel, Michigan fans typically do not sugarcoat the loss to Appalachian State. However, that doesn't mean there isn't a silver lining. The reaction that everyone had to Michigan's loss—especially how much it has helped Appalachian State, even though technically it's just one game—only shows how huge Michigan football is and how great of an impact it really has. Michigan is a nationally-recognized, elite program, one whom many rivals despise because of its long tradition of success. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Buckeyes sing of the Appalachian State victory over Michigan at their birthday parties.

Mike Hart, Michigan's running back at the time, called the defeat the "worst ever in Michigan football history." It certainly was. Never was there a game whose outcome was so unexpected and so devastating at the same time. (To those of you who don't know, it should be noted that Michigan wasn't blown out in the game. Appalachian State won by a very narrow 34-32. Their victory came in the final seconds of the game when they blocked a field goal that would have won Michigan the game. Still, it never should have happened.)

Now, Michigan will have the chance to play Appalachian State again in 2014, as the first game of the season.

Understandably, there are mixed feelings about this. Brian at MGoBlog comically refuses to even acknowledge that the 2007 upset ever happened, so he calls this game the "first" time that Michigan and Appalachian State will play. Personally, I am torn by the prospect of playing Appalachian State in 2014.

On one hand, I can understand why athletic director Dave Brandon scheduled it. The loss in 2007 was such an embarrassment and such a disappointment that he's looking to rectify it. While possibly defeating Appalachian State can not and will not erase history, nor will it erase the memory of how devastating that 2007 loss was to Michigan fans, it can at least provide some form of payback. There are many, or at least some, who would have no problem with that. Payback is often very satisfying.

On the other hand, do we really want to run the risk of another upset? I mean, I'm all for payback, and Appalachian State definitely deserves it for everything they reaped after beating us, but the main reason why Michigan lost in the first place was not because they sucked, it was because they were overconfident. It could go either way in 2014. I can see Michigan coming in expecting to win and being overconfident, or I can see them doing the opposite: being so fired up that they just flat out destroy Appalachian State. Obviously, the latter is what most Michigan fans want and what most of them are feeling right now.

However, it kind of seems pathetic that beating Appalachian State because they upset us once would be so important. Would fans really relish it that much? I mean, sure, it would feel like Michigan set things right by getting payback, but isn't it kind of sad that thumping a weak program would make us feel that good? Michigan should be more concerned with its rivals, its push into Big Ten domination, and its push into BCS prominence. That doesn't mean it should overlook Appalachian State. Michigan should never overlook any of its opponents. It should understand that wins are earned, not guaranteed.

Playing FCS schools like Appalachian State is just like playing MAC schools: there is so much more to lose than there is to gain. That's why I don't think we should have ever played them. (That's also why I think we should never play Slippery Rock, with whom we have a somewhat affable relationship.) If we win, it's like, "So what? They were a small program, and Michigan is huge. No surprise." If we lose, it's like, "What is wrong with Michigan?!"

I do like Dave Brandon's confidence in the program enough to accept them on their schedule. If he really didn't think Michigan could beat Appalachian State, he wouldn't have scheduled them.

Maybe we should just trust that everything is going to work out for the best. It's been kind of hard to do that for the last couple of years, but then again, believing in Michigan is what being a fan is all about.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Michigan Football 2011 Season Predictions

Season predictions are kind of an odd thing. They make you look like a genius when you're right, and they make you look like an idiot when you're wrong. So, why do them? Simple: they're fun. Besides, it's almost two weeks away from the start of the season, and making predictions is what you're supposed to do.

We already did a relatively brief preview on some of Michigan's opponents, namely the ones that Michigan shouldn't underestimate, but here's a look at the schedule that's a little more extensive.

Season Overview

Michigan's schedule is surprisingly favorable. Its first five games are all at home, four of those are non-conference opponents, and the fifth is Minnesota. The first road games are against Northwestern and Michigan State, and later Iowa and Illinois, but Michigan doesn't play Penn State and Wisconsin. The schedule caps off with two tough opponents, Nebraska and Ohio State, but both are played in the Big House.

If Michigan can beat Notre Dame in Game 2, they have a legitimate shot of starting smoothly with five (six if they beat Northwestern) straight wins to come in undefeated against Michigan State, which will undoubtedly be Michigan's toughest road game. However, if that happens, things might start to look a little too much like 2009 and 2010 in the beginning, and that will make people more nervous than relieved.

Let's not forget one thing: this may be the same team, but it's a different coaching staff. Things are going to be different in a lot of ways. What fans hope for is that the defense will be stronger (it needs to be) and the offense will attempt to maintain its momentum.

Around the blogosphere, you've got plenty of predictions. Most are predicting the Wolverines will finish around 8-4, which seems appropriate, even for a fanbase high on Hoke's enthusiasm and determination to win and bring Michigan back. Maize and Blue Nation does a solid run-down of Michigan's schedule, and Michael Rosenberg at the Detroit Free Press predicts the Wolverines will "stumble out of the gate" and lose a few games early but will finish strong with potential victories over later opponents Nebraska and Ohio State, which will bring back a lot of optimism and carry the Michigan faithful into the next year.

Here's our perspective on Michigan's season, going game by game. However, rather than presumptuously making bizarre proclamations of wins and losses, we're going to instead provide a "Chance of Win" margin—based on how likely Michigan is to win the game. (Note: even in its easiest or hardest matchups, it's never going be 100 or 0. Anything's possible in college football.)

That way, if things go sour, we won't look like complete idiots.

1. Western Michigan
Chance of Win: 84% (Very Likely)

Michigan is arguably the Broncos' toughest opponent on their entire schedule. (They also play Connecticut and Illinois, but that's it besides the MAC conference.) This is also Brady Hoke's first game as Michigan's new head coach, so you'd think he'd want to start out the right way. However, this is not a game that the Wolverines should sleepwalk through. Western was on the list of teams that Michigan should not underestimate.

The Broncos will be challenging but not frustrating. They have plenty of weapons to score points, with one of the MAC's strongest aerial attacks and a developing ground game. The Wolverines have a chance to pitch a shutout, but it's not likely. Sound football on both offense and defense should easily put this one away, if Michigan doesn't get ahead of themselves.

A loss will be unexpected, and certainly devastating, but the Broncos don't exactly have the talent to pull it off. This is an excellent opportunity for Michigan to start off on a positive note. They really couldn't have asked for a more medium-level opponent. But don't forget: it's Western's first game too, and they'll want to win it just as much as we do. For them, it's the hardest part of their season.

2. Notre Dame
Chance of Win: 21% (Unlikely)

Michigan will face Notre Dame in the Big House's first-ever night game, so that has a lot of fans pumped up. ESPN College Gameday will also be showcasing the event, with Desmond Howard, Kirk Herbstreit, and Erin Andrews talking college football right in our backyard, so that's even more reason to get excited. But can Michigan deliver on the hype that keeps building up?

The Irish are not invincible, but they will be more than a challenge. Success in South Bend is measured by National Championships more than anything else, and that starts with putting Michigan away early. They weren't able to do that for the past two years, which set a sour tone for the rest of the seasons, with a 6-6 season under Charlie Weis and an 8-5 season under Brian Kelly. Notre Dame wants this one bad. They're practically foaming at the mouth for it.

Kelly has two capable, excellent quarterbacks to lead the way. Dayne Crist shredded Michigan's defense in 2010 until he injured out, and Tommy Rees was probably the main reason why Notre Dame was able to finish the season with four straight wins, including an unexpected victory over Miami in a bowl. Those two will be competing for the starting job, and Kelly might play them both. There's also the Irish's star wide receiver in Michael Floyd, who was suspended for a DUI but was reinstated by Kelly just in time for the season.

On the field, that spells trouble for Michigan. While I don't think Notre Dame is capable of going all the way to the BCS National Championship as their fans hope, I think that they will come at Michigan with the intent to do so. This will be Brady Hoke and the Wolverines' first real look at how much the defense has improved. Even if it has improved drastically, I still can't really see us winning this one. There is the fact that it's Michigan Stadium's first night game, so that could be the difference. You never know.

3. Eastern Michigan
Chance of Win: 93% (Very Likely)

There's no doubt in my mind that Ron English has the toughest job in college football. He's trying to build a program whose expectations are only to lose, has little sway in recruiting even against their rivals, and is a stone's throw away from Ann Arbor. Because they haven't had a winning season in decades, the Eagles have a miniscule, sporadic fanbase. Most EMU alumni are Michigan fans who would rather watch the Wolverines on television than go to an Eastern game. So, yeah, fan turnout is less than ideal.

Still, the Eagles have very, very steadily made improvements from when Ron English took over in 2009. They went 0-12 then and 2-10 in 2010. Will they be good enough to beat Michigan? Not likely. To me, Eastern will always have the sympathy factor, especially since English, a Michigan Man, is their coach, and my hope is that they make a game of it. But Eastern is really in no legitimate position to be putting Michigan on their schedule when they have yet to make a competitive impact in the MAC.

Hopefully this will be the last time Michigan plays the Eagles for a long time, maybe even for good. They need to get better, but it can't happen if they keep scheduling the Wolverines.

4. San Diego State
Chance of Win: 65% (Likely)

Michigan fans ought to be more nervous about this game than they are. The Aztecs are no push-over, and Brady Hoke built them into a team that will legitimately compete for the Mountain West Conference title this year. However, despite Hoke being a defensive-minded coach, San Diego State's biggest threat is ironically on offense. Possibly as a credit to Al Borges, senior quarterback Ryan Lindley is as dangerous a passer as the Wolverines will face all season. They also have a solid running game with Ronnie Hillman, who was named the MWC's 2010 Freshman of the Year.

San Diego State's defense is still in development. They do, however, have two great players in cornerback Leon McFadden and linebacker Miles Burris, who were good enough to make the Mountain West's first team All-Conference. Rocky Long was the defensive coordinator under Hoke and is now the Aztecs' head coach, so he'll be running the same 3-3-5 scheme that he knows. The Aztecs have plenty of returners, and although they lose some players, possibly the biggest loss was Hoke.

The general consensus regarding this game is that, despite how uncomfortable it may be for both teams, Michigan has the overall talent to win, and that's really all that matters. However, I caution Michigan fans not to underestimate Hoke's Aztecs. No one should be surprised if Michigan comes away from this one with a loss. It will unexpected and unlikely, but I think it's more than possible. If San Diego State was capable of making a game out of its bout with TCU, who defeated (narrowly) Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, then they can certainly make it a game against Michigan.

Hoke and Michigan need all the wins they can get this year, so he should approach this game with that in mind. But don't be calling for Hoke to be fired if he loses to his old team. If anything, I'll be impressed if San Diego State beats Michigan, because it means that Hoke built them into a team that could. Imagine what that means for us.

5. Minnesota
Chance of Win: 71% (Likely)

Although not as depressing as Eastern Michigan, Minnesota gets the sympathy factor because they won several national championships half a century ago and have now completely fallen off the radar. Worse, they don't seem capable of getting back up. They're locked into a division with Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska, whom they now play every year and will have to beat consistently if they expect to get anywhere in the Big Ten. Becoming viable contenders for the Legends Division is years away.

Yet the Golden Gophers are determined. That's why athletic director Joel Maturi made a bold hire (which was also criticized and under-appreciated) in bringing Jerry Kill to Minneapolis. For someone who has coached smaller, less-storied programs, Kill has a good track record of turning them around. Gopher fans are hoping he'll do the same thing for Minnesota. All signs indicate that he will, but it will take time. Luckily, there isn't the pressure to have 11-win seasons immediately as there was/is at Michigan. Most of the Minnesota faithful understand and appreciate it when Kill says that it might not happen right away.

The majority of Gopher fans are optimistic but don't expect much from Kill's first season. (There are, however, some crazy Minnesota fans who think that Kill will do so well this year that he will soundly defeat Michigan.)

The Gophers are in bad shape. Despite not making promises of winning seasons, Kill has found that Minnesota is far worse than he expected. Even though he defeated them while at Northern Illinois, he at least thought they had some substance simply because they were a Big Ten team. As it turns out, they might not.

For Minnesota's skill level, their schedule is daunting. Their first game is against USC in the Coliseum, they're likely to get schooled by Don Treadwell and Miami (OH), and they aren't spared by Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Their sole respite is that they don't face Ohio State. Sports Illustrated's Big Ten Preview says that it will be tough for them to even make it to a bowl game this year.

There are some bright spots. Minnesota's MarQueis Gray will lead the Gophers from under center, is mobile, and by some accounts is a capable passer. Sadly, Tim Brewster did not develop him at quarterback (he was moved to wide receiver last year), and Gray will have to be a fast learner in his junior year if he and Kill expect to have any turnaround be relatively quick. The Gophers do have some playmakers at wide receiver (Ge'Shun Harris and Da'Jon McKnight) and Duane Bennett could be a reliable back. Defense has even fewer bright spots, but it does have a good linebacker in Mike Rallis. Their biggest challenge will be limiting turnovers.

Kill may very well turn Minnesota around—and let's be honest, he needs to—but it probably won't happen this year. That's okay, because loyalty is strong in Minneapolis but demands are not high. And unlike Michigan fans, they can wait it out. They gave Tim Brewster almost four years. They'll give Kill at least that much.

That being said, and despite Minnesota's impeding rough season, the Wolverines shouldn't come into this one overconfident. The game is in Ann Arbor, and Hoke has more weapons on both sides than Kill does, but Minnesota did defeat a cocky Iowa last year in a surprising upset (without Brewster or Kill). They'll be hoping the same thing against Michigan.

6. Northwestern
Chance of Win: 58% (Moderate)

It's almost impossible to predict or even analyze this game because it all depends if Dan Persa is Northwestern's quarterback. It's a different team without him. Persa, who some consider a viable Heisman candidate and the best passing quarterback in the Big Ten, got injured in November 2010 when he tore his Achilles' tendon and was forced to not only sit out the rest of the season but spring practice as well. If he can get back to 100 percent by the time the season starts, Northwestern could be a dark horse contender for the Big Ten title. If not, or if Persa gets injured again, the Wildcats are in for a very rough year.

We're assuming Dan Persa does get back to full strength and is able to lead Northwestern through the season—and, of course, to the game against Michigan. Persa isn't the whole offense, as the Wildcats have talent at receiver (especially Jeremy Ebert) and halfback (Drake Dunsmore). Their offensive line is also supposed to be strong. If Persa has time to throw, he could shred Michigan's secondary.

Northwestern's defense, on the other hand, is struggling. There's a strong debate as to whether it's worse than Michigan's, but either way, it's bad. The Wildcats primarily lack size on the defensive line, something Jerry Hinnen in the Maple Street Press's Wolverine 2011 Kickoff attributes to Northwestern's highly competitive admission standards. "Active 300-pound defensive tackles with Northwestern-approved academics aren't easy to come by," he wrote. "That's a major reason the team seems to be up against the ceiling." There is also the fact that the students' interest in Northwestern football is limited. They'd rather be studying.

The Wolverines have as good a chance of winning this one as they do of losing it. The game is played at Northwestern's home in Evanston, Illinois, as Michigan's first road trip of the season. If Persa is in the game, it will be a good test (or a painful reminder) of what Michigan's defense can do this year.

7. Michigan State
Chance of Win: 50% (Moderate)

Michigan's second away game will be more difficult as they travel to East Lansing to face the Spartans. Going into this season, there are two stories coming out of Michigan State. The first is of a confident team expecting to defeat Michigan soundly for the fourth straight year in a row and cinch the Big Ten title. The second is that Michigan's recent dominance in the in-state recruiting battle is a sign of the beginning of the end for the Spartans: they had their fun while Michigan spiraled downward under Rich Rodriguez and now those days are over. Either way, they'll come in to the contest hungry (and possibly desperate) for another win. Fortunately for Michigan, Brady Hoke actually takes this rivalry seriously.

It wasn't until Michigan State got whipped by Alabama that the Spartans realized they achieved most of their success purely by luck. That doesn't mean they are short on weapons. The biggest threats to Michigan's defense remain senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Edwin Baker, and wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin—all dangerous playmakers. I still think Cousins is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. On defense they lose Greg Jones but gain Lawrence Thomas, one of the state's best recruits. Even if Thomas doesn't play this year, which is unlikely, he'll be a force to be reckoned with when he eventually does. The Spartans have plenty of reliable depth in their secondary but no one as good as Greg Jones.

If Michigan State has a weakness, it's the offensive line. Although Mark Dantonio is quick to dispel fears about it, two starters on the line transferred from the defensive line. That might work out great, or it might not: ask Michigan's Will Campbell if you don't believe me. If Michigan can get enough of a pass rush to make Cousins sweat, then this will shape up to be a good game that could go in Michigan's favor. If not, Michigan will have to rely on its questionable secondary to cover Michigan State's talented receivers—which won't be easy.

Is this year the culmination of Dantonio's efforts, or was it 2010? Spartan fans are hoping for the former. Rich Rodriguez allowed Dantonio to basically work miracles in recruiting for Michigan State, and that should carry over to 2011. If Dantonio is as good a coach as his fans believe, then this will be another great year for him. If not, the Spartans will struggle. Michigan State also loses Don Treadwell as their offensive coordinator, who took up the job at Miami (OH). That shouldn't be too much of a loss, considering that Cousins is a senior and Dantonio is still the head coach, but it could hurt more than the Spartans suspect.

8. Purdue
Chance of Win: 69% (Likely)

Sometimes I wonder if Purdue takes its football program seriously. I have to think that, because I've stopped thinking that Purdue is just plagued with eternal bad luck. Maybe they just need to have harder practices, gain some weight, so the players don't snap like twigs during the season. That was and continues to be Purdue's biggest obstacle: injury. If things keep going they way they have, two out of every three players on Purdue's football team will be sidelined by injury before the season ends. That's disturbing.

So it shouldn't matter that Purdue brings back more starters on defense than any team in the Big Ten. While they did lose their best player (Ryan Kerrigan), the Boilermakers have plenty of returning players to give the limited fanbase optimism. But again, there's the injury question. Purdue was down to Rob Henry, its third string quarterback, by midseason in 2010. It doesn't really get more uncertain than in West Lafayette. At least Ohio State knows what players it will have.

Purdue faces a schedule that starts out light but quickly becomes unforgiving, with Notre Dame by Game 4. They play Penn State and Illinois right before Michigan, which won't be easy either. After that, we don't really care, but they go on to play Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa as their toughest opponents. If heavily injured, the last game against Indiana won't be pretty. At least they're spared Michigan State and Nebraska.

So basically the game against Michigan could be another blow in a whirlwind of beatdowns. It's our homecoming game and right smack in the middle of their schedule. Depending on how badly they're doing, the Boilermakers could be scrambling for a win, and a win is certainly possible, but it doesn't look good for them.

9. Iowa
Chance of Win: 47% (Moderate)

This one will be tougher. It's right about the time that Michigan starts to lose momentum as it progresses through the season. Iowa could have been a Big Ten title winner last year, but they let the momentum slip away. They have had problems off the field, but on the field their biggest problem is lack of experience. Nevertheless, Iowa and Kirk Ferentz run a traditional Big Ten team based on what Michigan used to be. If they can do that, they'll be fine.

This game could go either way for Michigan, but I'm inclined to think that Iowa will have a slight edge. I'll be surprised if Iowa goes where they were supposed to go last year and cinch the Big Ten title, but I won't entirely be surprised if they beat Michigan. It's just that time of the season, and defensively Michigan is not big enough to stop Iowa. Plus, Michigan plays this game at Iowa's home. Not exactly impossible for Michigan to win there, but not exactly easy either. Iowa has an inexplicably loyal fanbase.

Last year I thought that Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State were best poised to compete for the Big Ten. This year, Iowa's position is a little less certain. Ferentz has done a good job in Iowa City, but this year doesn't look to be as great. A win for Michigan in this game would be great, but right now it stands as a toss-up.

10. Illinois
Chance of Win: 68% (Likely)

I didn't really expect Illinois to take Michigan to three overtimes last year, but then again I didn't expect Michigan's defense to be that bad. The win over Illinois was the one Michigan and Rich Rodriguez needed to become bowl eligible for the first time in three years, but in the grand scheme of things the victory itself didn't mean much. Rodriguez was still fired.

The majority of Illinois's moderate success last year came from the hiring of new coordinators on offense and defense. Nathan Scheelhasse is being molded into a quarterback that is far better than people give him credit. Ron Zook may finally be turning that program into a winner. Illinois should be poised to have an even better season this year. However, the Illini lose Mikal Leshoure, an All-American, so that could spell trouble, but Leshoure's replacement (backup Jason Ford) seems like he could be a solid running back.

Illinois has a relatively easy season start, but by the time they face Michigan, they will be battle tested. The Illini may be the most underrated program in the Big Ten right now, but Michigan still has the better chance of winning in this game. Even if the Wolverines do lose momentum to Michigan State and Iowa, they'll want to get it back up with this one.

11. Nebraska
Chance of Win: 17% (Very Unlikely)

The only two respites from this game are that it will be played in the Big House and Nebraska could be bruised by the time they play Michigan. Other than that, it's all bad. Although Nebraska's schedule is easily the toughest in the Big Ten—they play Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Iowa!—Michigan will be the least of their worries.

The biggest benefit the Cornhuskers have is Heisman hopeful Taylor Martinez at quarterback and Rex Burkhead at tailback. A lot of people think their running game, as well as their defense, is practically unstoppable. The only challenges they legitimately face in the conference are Ohio State and Wisconsin, both in the opposite division. Nebraska can and will need to beat both Michigan and Michigan State to win its division, and if they knock down Wisconsin or Ohio State too, it'll be smooth sailing to the title game.

Still, there's always the chance that the game against Michigan could be a trap, and Brady Hoke is making no excuses. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Cornhuskers have very, very few weaknesses. The only one appears to be at cornerback, as Nebraska lost All-American Prince Amukamara, but Bo Polini has enough depth to where it shouldn't be a problem.

Personally, I don't think Michigan's home-field "advantage" is enough to topple Nebraska. Only Michigan's student section appears to get up and get loud, while other fans just sit there and watch the game. Even if Nebraska does come into this game a little battered from the rough schedule, they'll still be confident enough to put this one away. There's always the chance, however, that Brady Hoke is right: this is Michigan, and that might be enough.

12. Ohio State
Chance of Win: 50% (Moderate)

We'll see just how easy it is for Ohio State to win the Big Ten and/or beat Michigan without Jim Tressel or Terrelle Pryor. Nevertheless, despite those key losses, which the Buckeyes are still reeling from, Ohio State will remain pretty good. They have a chance to get knocked down early if Michigan State steps up, but even without Pryor at quarterback and Tressel calling the shots, that's not likely to happen.

The biggest challenge Ohio State will face this year is handling whatever punishment (or lack thereof) the NCAA dishes out while at the same time figuring out who's going to be quarterback. Smart money is on Joe Bauserman, who even though he was Pryor's backup has the experience needed to get the Buckeyes through this season. He just doesn't really have the same talent that Pryor did. So that's why Buckeye fans are clamoring for Braxton Miller, the incoming freshman. He was believed to be Pryor's eventual replacement.

As highly touted as Miller may be, and as talented as he is, I doubt that he's going to be Pryor's clone. If Tressel were confident enough to have Miller start his first year, he wouldn't have wanted Pryor to come back for his senior season. No, the idea was the groom Miller for a year, let Pryor lead the team to the Rose Bowl, and then have Miller take over in 2012. This was the key in Tressel's philosophy that allowed him to keep winning: you don't rebuild, you reload.

Tressel's not there to implement that philosophy anymore, and Miller may have to start a year too early. He might be the next Terrelle Pryor, as several Buckeye fans hope, or he might be the next Tate Forcier. (We'll see how you like a freshman who fumbles in the endzone, Buckeyes.) So the smart move for interim coach Luke Fickell is to rely on Bauserman. It won't be glamorous, it may result in some losses, but it probably won't blow up in his face.

As much as Ohio State fans are giving their support to Luke Fickell (while secretly praying for Urban Meyer), they also reluctantly understand that Luke Fickell is not Jim Tressel. He may be the guy that Tressel was grooming to eventually take over in twenty years—but if that's true, then this is twenty years too early, and Fickell is a pup who has no idea what he's getting himself into. A 6-6 season and fans will run him out of town.

When I see Luke Fickell, I see a guy who loves Ohio State and wants to win but is really, really nervous because he's never been a head coach before, and it's possible he may be linked to the Tressel scandal, and it could end up that everybody hates him. Then again, Fickell isn't completely on his own. Tressel's assistants are there to hold his hand through the season.

If the game against Michigan was determined by enthusiasm, Brady Hoke would have already won ten times by now. Still, the game can't be anything but a toss-up, as there are two many question marks on both sides. For Ohio State, the question marks involve sanctions. Aside from quarterback, they have strong depth on offense and defense. Once DeVier Posey and the other suspended players return to the field, it shouldn't be hard to rack up wins—that is, unless the quarterback chokes. The defense should be as strong as ever.

For Michigan, the question marks involve formations and how players fit into them. Michigan is best poised to win this game because it's like the universe is setting it up that way. I said it before, and I'll say it again: if ever there was a game where Hoke could prove himself, this would be it.

The best thing: Hoke knows that. He knows how important beating Ohio State is.

And, with any luck, he'll do it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ohio State Could Still Be Under Investigation

Last Friday, August 12, the NCAA met with Ohio State representatives—university president Gordon Gee, athletic director Gene Smith, former Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel, and their respective attorneys—for the hearing on infractions that cost Jim Tressel his job as head coach.

We will learn of the NCAA's ruling sometime in the coming months.

However, Ohio State might not be out of the storm just yet. ESPN writer Pat Forde reported Thursday that Ohio State received a letter from the NCAA saying that it plans to continue investigating "other issues involving the program." The letter did not include a second notice of allegations.

The letter itself, provided publicly courtesy of ESPN, did indicate that "additional issues remained for investigation" but that "at this point in the inquiry, the available evidence does not warrant additional allegations; however, the investigation remains open."

There was apparently an error in Pat Forde's article when he said that the letter was sent August 3, but Jim Lynch, an Ohio State spokesperson, said that "OSU President E. Gordon Gee received a letter from the NCAA on Aug. 3, but it concerned only procedural matters about the appearance of OSU officials before the Infractions Committee on Friday," according to the Columbus Dispatch.

This led to a complete denial of Pat Forde's report by Ohio State. However, Forde apparently realized that he reported the letter as having been sent August 3, when the letter in question had actually been sent July 13. (The August 3 letter is a different letter entirely, and it concerns what Gee should expect when he comes to the infractions committee.) Forde has since made the correction; if you look at the letter itself, you can see that the date is July 13, 2011, not August 3.

There is little we can know or deduce from the letter, but Ohio State (even after Forde corrected the mistake) is adamant that it will face no other allegations pertaining to Jim Tressel. It is probably more accurate to say that, specifically concerning the incident of the six Buckeyes who sold memorabilia for benefits (tattoos, cash) and Tressel covering it up in December 2010, there will be no more allegations. That matter seems to have been fully investigated, and all the evidence found.

What the misunderstanding appears to be is that Forde was reporting that Ohio State might face allegations of incidents completely unrelated to "Tattoo-gate." The letter certainly indicates this, but during the time it was sent, it presents no specific evidence and thus cannot make any direct allegations. Instead, the letter is at worst an ominous warning of things to come:
The staff and institution agreed not to postpone the currently scheduled hearing date of August 12 while we finalize the investigation of the remaining open issues. The institution understands and agrees that additional allegations may result from the ongoing inquiry and that the violations set forth in the current notice of allegations may form the partial basis for a failure to monitor or lack of institutional control when viewed in light of any additional violations. The institution also understands that if new violations are discovered, a second hearing may be necessary.
Although the letter doesn't indicate that there are any new allegations, it does explicitly state that the investigation is still open. So, despite Jim Lynch's denial, Ohio State is still being investigated. Basically it says that "We are still looking into some issues, and if we find anything, Ohio State may face Failure to Monitor or Lack of Institutional Control, and they understand this." If that doesn't make the Buckeyes nervous, nothing will.

Like in most legal matters, it's easy to get lost in all the jargon. What we have to understand is that the violations involving Jim Tressel lying to the NCAA specifically about the six players involved with the tattoo parlor is, for the most part, over. The evidence has been collected, the testimonies heard, and all that's left is for the NCAA to make its decision on whether it agrees with Ohio State's self-imposed sanctions or should add more.

What Pat Forde was essentially reporting is that the letter goes beyond that, and there may be more allegations during the NCAA's ongoing investigation. There is still the matter, for instance, of Terrelle Pryor supposedly taking thousands of dollars in exchange for giving autographs—a likely violation of NCAA rules. This is not directly related to the six players getting tattoos and Jim Tressel later lying about it. Forde alleges that Pryor's misdeeds, reported in ESPN's "Outside the Lines" story, are a separate incident.

That, of course, would doom the Buckeyes. Any additional violations the NCAA finds or any allegations they make would most certainly indicate that the problems at Ohio State are systemic, not isolated. Furthermore, regardless of what the NCAA decides about "Tattoo-gate," Ohio State would likely be on probation at the time new allegations arise, which would be even more damning to the program.

No institution has committed violations while on probation.

It doesn't look good for Ohio State. Still, some claim that the evidence is not there. Unfortunately for those nay-sayers, it is. All the NCAA has to do is include the documented testimony of former Ohio State wide receiver Ray Small ("Everybody was doing it") and they'll have all the evidence they need. They could also include the testimony of former Buckeye Maurice Clarett, who alleged that violations went on at Ohio State for years. (It's also been rumored that "Ellis" from George Dohrmann's Sports Illustrated article has talked to the NCAA. If that's true, then Ohio State is screwed.) A Failure to Monitor or Lack of Instutional Control allegation will then become a reality.

It really all depends on where the NCAA chooses to look. Personally, I think that when former players like Ray Small expose Ohio State publicly, the evidence doesn't get more concrete. The NCAA has yet to rule on the Jim Tressel case or send an additional notice of allegations, but if they do (and at this point it's still a big IF), then Ohio State could be in for another rough year, as they'd most certainly have to go through another hearing.

Andy Staples at Sports Illustrated wrote an editorial about how Ohio State has already received its greatest punishment in having to let Tressel go. Staples contends that, even if Ohio State isn't hit with worse sanctions, they'll never be the same because Tressel is no longer their head coach. However, I doubt that. If Ohio State is not hit with additional sanctions, their recovery will be relatively quick. Still, Staples point is valid: how do you replace someone as successful as Jim Tressel? His argument is that you don't: in terms of bringing success, Tressel was one in a million. He brought wins, but he also brought really bad press.

Despite what Ohio State spokespeople and fans will have you believe, I don't think Tressel was acting alone. He was allowed to thrive in Columbus because of the culture that says that wins are okay no matter how you get them. Unlike rational people, Buckeye fans don't feel the victories are sullied.

There are hopes in the Buckeye Nation that Urban Meyer will be the next coach at Ohio State after Luke Fickell stumbles his way through this year. Meyer taking the coaching job would be a death sentence. It would be more demanding than Florida, where he retired because of the stress. Will it be any less stressful at Ohio State?

I suppose it doesn't matter. Whoever Ohio State brings in will be in a tough position. Buckeye fans have shown that they don't mind it when people break rules to get the players on the field to win games, and they'll be demanding a lot of wins. What's a coach to do? Coach the right way and lose? John Cooper will tell you how that worked out. Even if I liked Ohio State, I wouldn't want to coach there.

Given how things have gone down, I don't know how anyone would.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Players to Watch in 2011: Mike Martin

This choice might seem obvious to anyone who regularly follows Michigan football or has at least been following it for the last couple of seasons, but for those of you who are new to Michigan football or who are just discovering it, this is the guy you want to watch. Mike Martin is a senior defensive tackle who weighs 300 pounds and is a true force at the line of scrimmage. He's also being featured here because, as a senior, 2011 will be his last year, and he's a standout player among the other seniors.

In 2010, Martin was one of the few bright spots on Michigan's struggling defense. (Actually, "struggling" would be an understatement, as it was the worst in the program's history.) ESPN analyst Chris Spielman, an alumnus from Ohio State, infamously remarked that the Michigan defense was "Mike Martin and a bunch of nice little subs at Indiana." The jab is not talked about too much by the Wolverines, but it didn't go unnoticed.

To say that Martin is the only talented player on Michigan's defense is true only depending on who you ask. Others will argue that there are plenty of talented defense-men at safety and linebacker, and with Troy Woolfolk back in the saddle, there's talent at cornerback. However, of all the players on Michigan's defense, Mike Martin is one of the very few to gain All Big Ten honors. He'll likely be an All-American.

Martin was definitely the main force in Michigan's defense in 2010, when Rich Rodriguez and Greg Robinson ran a 3-3-5 scheme. He should have an easier time now that Michigan, Brady Hoke, and former Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are generally switching to a 4-3 defense. (Mattison has actually said that the defense will be Multiple.) This means that Martin will have extra help on the defensive line and shouldn't have to carry the majority of the pass rush by himself. 

In 2010, he was the guy that the opposing offensive line always double-teamed, because he was probably the only guy who might pose a threat. Despite that obstacle, in Martin's career he has accumulated as many as 108 tackles and 19 that were behind the line of scrimmage. Imagine what that number becomes when he has legitimate help from a more balanced four-man rush.

Until 2010, Martin had largely been under the radar. Defensive end Brandon Graham led the defense in 2009 and was Michigan's only All-American for that year, so he generally kept everyone's attention. 

There was, however, Martin's performance against Ohio State that raised some eyebrows. I hadn't really noticed him before then. Though the Wolverines lost that one 21-10 (not quite as bad as either 2008 or 2010), on one play Martin just busted through Ohio State's offensive line and with amazing ferocity sacked then-quarterback Terrelle Pryor. In all the commotion and intensity Martin's helmet came off. After the sack, there's a remembered image by several of the Michigan faithful where Martin gets up and just roars like a freaking bear, with his hair all mangled and crazy. As I sat there, the thought that came into my head was: "That guy is a beast."

He was only a sophomore at the time. After that play he was suddenly the guy who would have to lead Michigan's defensive linemen through 2010, and that was probably the play that got everybody talking about him. As a junior Martin was every bit as explosive and fierce as people expected him to be. The Wolverine publication called him "one of the most feared linemen in the Big Ten" and he is listed as one of Michigan's top five players.

Martin was so good in 2010 that he could have legitimately gone to the NFL, but he decided to stay and finish his senior year. He told The Wolverine that he had "no intentions" of skipping graduation. "I always had two feet at Michigan, and never was there one foot out the door," he said. "I wish I could stay here five more years. I love Ann Arbor. I love everything about Michigan."

If Martin plays as well in 2011 as he has so far, he'll certainly be good enough to go pro after the season. It also helps that Brady Hoke is a defensive-minded coach, so Martin has gotten a fair amount of attention, and any weaknesses he has (there are few) will be corrected before the year is over. His position, the defensive line, is probably the main focus of the coaching staff. 

Fittingly, Brady Hoke and the coaches tend to scrutinize the defense more than anything else, because that's their specialty, and because that's the unit that needs the most improvement from last year. And it's also where all eyes will be come this fall. "Coach always makes a joke, he says that everyone's live except the quarterbacks, and he always goes hard against the defense," Martin told Jim Brandstatter during spring practice, chuckling. "Even if we tag the quarterbacks, [Hoke] still says they got a first down, so I think we just have to grab them and pull them down to the turf sometime."

Martin knew Hoke even before the former San Diego State coach accepted the job at Michigan. When he was still at Ball State, back in 2007-2008, Hoke had actually recruited Martin pretty hard. He made a comment about that in his opening press conference. "I dang near thought I had him," Hoke said.

Now, Hoke must feel that there is a strange sense of poetic justice that he gets to coach Martin, a player who he attempted to recruit, who ended up going to Michigan, which was Hoke's dream job. As one of the fiercest members on the line, Martin will most certainly be utilized in Hoke's toughness-heavy defense. Martin is also one of the few players on defense with experience. He'll have to lead the rest of the unit.

"Mike Martin has a chance to be a special football player," Greg Mattison told writer John Borton at The Wolverine in Michigan Football's 2011 Preview issue. "He has tremendous God-given ability, and he works very, very hard -- up to a point. The thing we talked about is he's got to decide how good he wants to be. He's already good, but [I tell him] how good do you want to be? Do you want to be one of the best that has played here?"

It's Martin's last year at Michigan, so you can bet he'll want to make as much of an impact as he can. As you look forward to the 2011 season, and as you watch it, keep an eye on this guy. He'll be really fun to watch. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Five Teams that Michigan Should Not Underestimate

It's only a few weeks away now from the start of the 2011 season, so needless to say the anticipation is building. While what follows isn't exactly season predictions, and some of you are expecting those at this point, here's a little preview at some of Michigan's upcoming opponents.

These are teams that Michigan is generally expected to beat in just about everyone's predictions, but who we think will give the Wolverines more of a fight than they expect. Sure, Michigan will probably expect tough games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa, and even Notre Dame—depending on who you ask—and there are somewhat "easy" teams like Eastern Michigan that shouldn't give the Wolverines much of a problem.

However, here are five teams that sort of fall right in the middle. Michigan possibly could come into these battles overconfident, and that's what we're hoping to prevent. These guys could surprise Michigan with a loss.

1. Michigan State

Despite the resurgence of Michigan in the battle for in-state recruiting, followed by much of the Spartan faithful going into panic mode, Michigan State still has a legitimate shot at the Legends Division and maybe even the Big Ten title. I think one of the biggest mistakes Michigan has made over the past three years, certainly in 2009 and 2010, was to enter the Michigan State game underestimating the Spartans. Some suggest that had more to do with the direction under Rich Rodriguez, but the fact remains that the Spartans appeared far more motivated in those contests. Furthermore, I said previously that Michigan State has consistently played its best game of the season against Michigan.

Part of me thinks that Michigan State's journey to an 11-1 regular season in 2010 was due mostly to an easy schedule and the rest came from a fair amount of luck. Had the Spartans been challenged by Ohio State, they could have lost their share of the Big Ten title, something which they desperately cling to today. Yet Michigan State had a convincing win against Wisconsin, who must have had an off day because they were clearly the better team in every other contest. Then Michigan State's luck ran out when they lost in a 49-7 shellacking by Alabama. The defeat put such a sour taste in the mouths of MSU fans that it made some of them wonder if the Spartans weren't as good as they all had thought.

2011 could go either way for them. Some are predicting a continuation of what had happened in 2010, and MSU could be in line for another 11-win season. Others say that Michigan State has peaked and will return to the middle of the Big Ten pack. That might be true in the coming years, but for 2011, the Spartans return most of their weapons of offense. Kirk Cousins is one of the best passers in the Big Ten. Michigan State also has Edwin Baker at running back and B.J. Cunningham at wide receiver, and both are threatening at how much they can make big plays. Their kicking game is excellent. On defense, the Spartans lose middle linebacker Greg Jones, who some refer to as "the heart and soul" of that unit. Jones certainly made a difference in any games he played for the Spartans, and he won't be easy to replace. There are plenty of good players in the secondary, but the unit won't be the same. Expect the Spartans to give Michigan a really good showing and play their hearts out.

Any Michigan fan knows that Michigan State's winning for the past three years has been severely unsettling, and most are predicting a victory for the Wolverines, but just because Brady Hoke is the new coach, don't expect this win to be a lock. The Spartans fight tooth and nail over this game, and they have plenty of talented players. The Wolverines should not underestimate them.

2. Western Michigan

It's Brady Hoke's first game as Michigan head coach. You'd think that the Wolverines could come into this game rabid and looking for blood because they have something to prove—but that's what I had thought would happen in 2010. Instead, the Wolverines struggled against any teams that were Top 25 in the Big Ten, we lost because of a mysteriously bad defense, and Rodriguez was fired. Hoke is far more passionate about Michigan football than Rodriguez ever was (or possibly ever could be), and so by that definition the Michigan team he will field this year will be a winner.

But even Lloyd Carr lost games he shouldn't have (see: Appalachian State). Michigan has a tendency to get caught up in the hype because they are so used to success they think it is right around the corner. The problem Michigan has faced for the past three years under Rodriguez was that there essentially two stories: there was the "should" games, and then there was what actually happened. In 2010, Rodriguez should have snapped both winning streaks against Michigan State and Ohio State. He should have won the Big Ten. Denard should have won the Heisman. They should have, but they didn't.

Enter Western Michigan. Brady Hoke should win this game simply because it's his first, it's at home, and it's what people are looking for as an indication that Michigan made the right hire and Hoke is getting the Wolverines back on track. Yes, should. But people said the same thing about Rich Rodriguez.

So, what's the lesson? Take nothing for granted.

The Broncos went 6-6 last year, and according to The Wolverine's 2011 Michigan Football Preview, their returning defensive line "must find a way to get to the quarterback more." WMU quarterback Alex Carder has his favorite targets return as well, but there's also the emergence of "a solid running game." There are little to no indications that the Broncos, despite being a mid-level MAC team, are a push over.

Personally, I hate it when Michigan plays MAC teams. There's so much to lose and so little to win. It rarely provides a good game, so victories don't mean much, but losses are absolutely devastating. But that shouldn't happen. Nevertheless, as much as this is Brady Hoke's first game, and Michigan's season opener, it's still Western's first game of the season too. They'll want to win it as much as anyone, and they'll come in looking to do that. For Michigan not to show up to this game would be a colossal mistake.

3. San Diego State

Let me say this right now: don't be surprised or devastated or confused if San Diego State defeats Michigan. It's Brady Hoke's old team, the one he just built into a winner. It's more or less the same team that came within a heartbeat of defeating TCU. Instead, they tied for third in the Mountain West Conference and surprised everyone by beating Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. Looking back, no one should have been surprised. It's Brady Hoke.

What Michigan fans should see when we play San Diego State is essentially a future version of the Wolverines minus the five-star talent. It's both the product of Al Borges refining quarterback Ryan Lindley and of Brady Hoke's emphasis on toughness on defense. Yes, Brady Hoke is no longer the coach, but Hoke's defensive coordinator Rocky Long took over and leads a team that hasn't lost too many starters. Though Borges preferred to have a strong passing attack, the SDSU Aztecs have a surprisingly good ground game, and running back Ronnie Hillman was in Heisman talks for maybe a minute because he broke tons of conference records. Hillman was also named a Freshman All-American. So, look out for San Diego State's running game.

Michigan's game against the Aztecs will likely be very awkward and uncomfortable for both sides, though not surprisingly Hoke expects it to be a fun game. While there were seemingly no hard feelings or ill-will towards Hoke when he left for the Michigan job, the Aztecs would be lying if they said that they wouldn't be satisfied with a win. Frankly, I don't think anyone should be surprised if that happens. Hoke built the Aztecs into a solid, respectable team that knows how to win and can do it.

The biggest mistake Michigan might make (and which predicting fans have already made) is to consider this game already in the bag because Michigan is traditionally a better team. Yes, Michigan is better, and we should beat San Diego State, but the Aztecs have shown that a well-coached team can pretty much do anything. Had Hoke stayed at San Diego State, it's conceivable they'd not only have eventually won the conference but made a bid for bigger bowls, possibly even BCS ones.

Because it's practically the same unit, expect the same on-field production. The defense will still be Rocky Long's, and if San Diego State can keep what Borges installed, they'll be fine. This is definitely one team that Michigan should not overlook. A win (for U-M) would only mean that San Diego State has yet to acquire the same level of top talent that Michigan is accustomed to getting. A loss—again, don't be surprised—would only give more credit to Brady Hoke as a coach. What he did there is astounding.

4. Northwestern

If ever there was a "trap" game for the Wolverines in 2011, this would be it. Although Northwestern is typically called "the doormat of the Big Ten," Ryan Tice at The Wolverine considers quarterback Dan Persa to be the best quarterback in the conference. "If senior quarterback Dan Persa is able to recover fully from a ruptured Achilles' tendon that brought an early close to his magical 2010 campaign, Northwestern could be a contender for the Big Ten Legends' Division," Tice wrote in the 2011 Michigan Football Preview issue.

Persa accounted for 75% of Northwestern's total offense and completed approximately 74% of all his passes. Phil Steele's College Football Preview ranked him as the No. 14 quarterback in the nation, and there's even talk that he might surpass Stanford's Andrew Luck as a Heisman candidate. So, yeah, Northwestern's got something.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald had a 9-win season with the Wildcats back in 2008 and some thought he should be a candidate for the Michigan job. However, Fitzgerald is going nowhere. He's at Northwestern to stay—probably because they're his alma mater or something—and he's determined to lead them to their first post-season bowl win since the late 1940s. Taking Persa, who was recruited as a two-star quarterback, to Heisman talks is astounding for any coach. Expect Fitzgerald to have a lot of success this year.

It's no wonder some people are considering Northwestern the dark horse winner of the Big Ten this year. (Most think the battle will be between Nebraska and Wisconsin.) The Wildcats have a killer passing game, and in 2010 that was Michigan's biggest weakness to defend. (We also had a big weakness at defending the run, but whatever.) It's plausible that Northwestern, despite going 6-6 in 2010, would have beat Michigan—especially, and perhaps solely, if Persa had been on the field.

Keep that in mind as the Wolverines go to Evanston this year. Hopefully our defense will be improved enough to stop Dan Persa's passing attack, but if all the analysts predicting big things for him are right, it won't be pretty.

5. Minnesota

Weirder things have happened. Like Brady Hoke, Minnesota's new coach Jerry Kill thrives when people tend to underestimate him. While I don't necessarily think that Kill is as good or effective a coach—he has a peculiar coaching style ("YOU SUCK! I do like you, though..."), and he prefers to find athletic quarterbacks who can "make up for my [Kill's] lack of coaching"—and as much as I dislike that philosophy, it would be wrong to say that Kill is bad at what he does. His supporters will tell you that he's won everywhere he's coached, and he'll tell you he won because he brings consistency from a loyal coaching staff. He's blunt and realistic, makes no promises to win right away, but that doesn't mean he's not going to win.

Because the Golden Gophers went 3-9 last year, everyone will be underestimating them. That's a mistake. Iowa knows too well what happens when you think beating Minnesota will be easy—as they painfully learned in 2010. No one was expecting Minnesota to upset Iowa (who defeated Michigan State, a co-champion of the Big Ten), but it just showed that in college football anything can happen.

Minnesota also isn't as inept as everyone believes them to be. If you follow any Minnesota football news or blogs, you'll see a very sober level of expectations but plenty of playmakers who can help the Golden Gophers win more games. Minnesota's quarterback MarQueis Gray is essentially their version of Denard Robinson, and some even consider him an NFL-caliber quarterback. Gray switched to receiver last year, but with the departure of senior quarterback Adam Weber, he's back under center. The offense is surprisingly underrated (losing seasons tend to do that) even though Minnesota has effective skill players with Da'Jon McKnight at wide receiver and Duane Bennett at running back. Both are standout players who could and probably will have a big impact on Minnesota's immediate future.

To say that Jerry Kill is trying to do at Minnesota what Brady Hoke is trying to do at Michigan would only be half true. Despite having won several National Championships half a century ago (something the Gophers love to showcase), the pressure to win immediately is no where near as high. Minnesota is not the national brand that Michigan is, nor does it have the national fanbase. But Minnesota could be on its way back up. I don't see it getting back to the level of BCS National Championships because it is locked in the same division as Michigan, and I think Minnesota will never be good enough to dominate them.

The rivalry was a big deal in years past, and Michigan and Minnesota's players lost sleep over who had the Little Brown Jug—but that was when Minnesota was racking up National Championships. Today, the intensity is kind of gone, but Hoke and Kill's battles could be the first in an era that brings it back.

Kill has a tendency to surprise those who underestimate him and beat them when they don't expect it. He'll do the same thing at Minnesota, because he's done it everywhere else. The Wolverines must be ready.