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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    Prediction games are a type of trivia game with a focus on the outcome of guessing future events rather than testing a player's knowledge of the past. Playing games of prediction very exciting and interesting.Thank You for sharing it.