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.

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