Thursday, September 1, 2011

Over-Hype Could Hurt Michigan's Season

In a recent press conference on August 28, Michigan football head coach Brady Hoke was asked if he felt his team was ready for September 3. "No," he said frankly. "We're not ready."

Across the Michigan fanbase, this was hardly encouraging, but Hoke has become known for telling it like it is. He has high expectations of the Wolverines, wanting them to win the Big Ten championship every year and beat Ohio State, regardless of what went on in 2010. 

To some, this type of honesty is refreshing. It shows that Hoke knows what he wants out of his Michigan team, and he will strive to get it there. Moreover, success for Michigan becomes a question of "when," rather than a question of "if." Hoke will be successful at Michigan: it's only a matter of time.

Of course, when you have a coach who is that up front in what he thinks, and who can constantly remind fans of what's important, it's easy to get caught in Hoke's wake. Fans on Michigan football's Facebook page are predicting great things for Hoke's first year. Honestly, this is to be expected. We're only two days away from the start of the 2011 season. Optimism, excitement, and hype are par for the course.

Sports writers weigh in on how they think Michigan will do, so do blogs. Most think that an 8-4 mark is reasonable, and we at the Michigan Fanatic certainly agree. However, Michigan football's Facebook page has a tendency to post anything related to Michigan football, and they posted a recent "Best Case, Worst Case" promo by Adam Rittenberg, an ESPN Big Ten blogger. It's a quickly-spoken video rant with which I don't entirely agree. I'll explain why in a bit. 

For now, here's a written transcript of what Rittenberg said:
Best case for Michigan, like many teams in the Legends Division, I could see them winning this division if things fall right for them, head to Indy for the inaugural Big Ten championship game with a record of 10-2. In the best case scenario, Denard Robinson doesn't miss a beat, as he transitions to a new offense. They still maximize his running ability but he really makes strides as a passer, spreading the ball around to all-Big Ten wide receivers Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway. Hemingway stays healthy, and you've seen what he can do when he stays on the field.

More importantly, Robinson stays healthy. He doesn't have those types of games last year where he's missing stretches here and there. He's able to stay in games, be effective with his legs, but more importantly, mature as a passer, gets good protection from the offensive line, and they have multiple running backs emerge to some of the rushing load off of Denard Robinson. I think, in this best case scenario, you see some young running backs, whether it's Stephen Hopkins or Thomas Rawls or Justice Hayes, who step up and show that they're going to be good players for Michigan—not just in 2011, but for years to come—really solidifying that rushing attack. Michigan capitalizes on that early season schedule, they upset Notre Dame in the first night home game at Michigan Stadium; they might start 7-0 or 8-0 or maybe even 9-0. They're going to lose a couple games down the stretch as the schedule gets a little tougher, but they end up winning a tie-breaker and going to the Big Ten championship game.

Also, defensively, you see a unit take major strides. The defensive line really adapts well to what Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke want them to do. Mike Martin, first team Big Ten defensive tackle, Big Ten defensive player of the year, he has an outstanding season. Ryan Van Bergen, Craig Roh: they rush the passer. Michigan gets better than expected play from the linebackers and the secondary makes a real jump. Troy Woolfolk shows what Michigan missed last year, staying healthy the whole year. He's an all Big Ten cornerback and other guys emerge in the secondary so that group isn't having nearly as many breakdowns. So, best case scenario for Michigan, I see them going 10-2 and going to the Big Ten championship game.

Worst case scenario, I really think there's a range here. I think Michigan could have a losing record in the worst case scenario. Here's why: you have a lot of adjustments going on and some potential problematic games, even early in the season. In the worst case scenario, Michigan loses to Notre Dame, and they also lose another non-conference game, whether it's Western Michigan, whether it's San Diego State, which is probably the more likely loss in this worst case scenario as Brady Hoke's old team comes to the Big House and embarrasses the first-year coach, creating a lot of negative energy towards a guy who has created quite the positive buzz so far in Ann Arbor. You also see some struggles with Michigan when they go on the road for the first time. They lose to Northwestern in that night game. They lose to Iowa. They struggle down the stretch with Nebraska. They lose again to Michigan State. They lose again to Ohio State.

I think, in the best case scenario, I see Michigan winning at least one if not two of their top Big Ten rivalry games against Michigan State or Ohio State. In the worst case scenario, those losses, again, continue. Those streaks continue, and there's more negativity around the Michigan program. Denard Robinson can't stay healthy. Defense has those types of breakdowns we saw in the secondary that plagued them throughout the 2010 season. Defensive line: maybe it's injuries, maybe it's just ineffectiveness, but they don't create enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. So it's much of the same on Michigan's defense and certainly a concern for first-year Brady Hoke in this worst case scenario as Michigan misses a bowl game.
So, basically, Hoke's first season is a failure if he doesn't work miracles. Rittenberg takes a black-or-white, all-or-nothing approach, one which could be setting Michigan fans up for disappointment simply because Michigan might not start out 5-0. The reality, as always, will almost certainly be somewhere in the middle. Hoke's defense will steadily improve, and could snap the losing streaks against the rivals, and even contend for the Big Ten titles, but might lose some non-conference games—hence the common 8-4 prediction.

Yes, it will certainly be the worst cast scenario if Michigan doesn't go to a bowl game this year, if it can't snap the losing streaks to Ohio State and Michigan State. However, people shouldn't panic if Michigan loses to Notre Dame, or to San Diego State. I certainly don't see how a San Diego State victory would be an embarrassment to Brady Hoke, who just left there. If anything, it will be a testament to how well he did. Will an Aztec upset be unexpected? Yes. Will it be humiliating? To anyone who has followed Hoke's career, no.

My larger problem with Rittenberg's piece is that his "worst case" seems to be things that are very, very likely to happen. The defense continues to struggle? It's the same players from last year! It's almost like Rittenberg expects Hoke and Mattison to work miracles in their first season. Okay, yes, maybe all the defensive players needed was to be taught and re-taught fundamentals, but what if it's a talent issue? What if they simply aren't as tough as they need to be in the Big Ten?

I would not consider it the worst case scenario if the defense is mediocre but better than last year. I would not consider it the worst case scenario if we don't beat Notre Dame. An actual "worst case scenario" would be if 2011 is basically a repeat of 2008: players do not and can not fit into a situation which the coach forces upon them, and we go 3-9. That, more than anything else, would be the worst case.

But it's not going to happen because Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have made it clear that they are going to take a gradual approach to shifting the offense. Denard will still be utilized and will still be a dual-threat. Hoke understands that because it's what he needs to do to win right now.

It still might be difficult. The night game against Notre Dame is being hyped to celestial levels, and a Michigan win is not as easy as some people may claim. Brian Kelly is in his second year in South Bend and has a powerful offensive attack in quarterbacks and wide receivers. They could shred Michigan's questionable secondary. Meanwhile, San Diego State has Ronnie Hillman (a Freshman All-American) at tailback. Expect Michigan to have a tough time stopping the run.

If people are really calling for Hoke's head after a possible loss to Notre Dame or San Diego State, then they really don't know much about him or the players. Michigan fans gave Rich Rodriguez three years; they should Brady Hoke the same.

I'm not saying this to denounce optimism. The beginning of the season is the perfect time for optimism. But there is being optimistic and there is being unrealistic. 

A perfect example is an unusually-excited Minnesota fan who thinks that Gopher coach Jerry Kill will not only go 7-5, but they'll soundly beat Michigan and Miami of Ohio. Minnesota has not been a competitive rival of Michigan's since the 1960s, and the only opportunity they truly had to take the Little Brown Jug trophy back was in 2008 when Michigan went 3-9. They failed, and Michigan beat them anyway. So now, with a far worse team in Minnesota and a far better team in Ann Arbor, the Gophers will win? Don't get me wrong: I don't think Michigan should underestimate Minnesota, and in college football an upset is always possible. But my point is that this fan is clearly unrealistic. He also expects Minnesota to defeat Miami (OH), who defeated Kill's Northern Illinois Huskies in the MAC championship. Kill defeated Minnesota with the Huskies. So now Kill is going to take a team he defeated (Minnesota) and conquer a team his Huskies could not?

You want unrealistic? That's unrealistic.

For Michigan, 10-2 would certainly be optimistic, but saying Michigan must go undefeated or Hoke is a failure is unrealistic. Have you forgotten how badly we were under Rich Rodriguez? These are the same players. We can't expect miracles to happen in one season. It took Hoke two seasons to turn around San Diego State, and that alone should be considered remarkable. But it didn't happen overnight.

While we can't expect miracles, we can expect progress. Hoke is guy who understands exactly what Michigan football is and what it's supposed to be: strong rushing attacks, stronger defenses, solid kicking games, and tough players. That's where you should place your confidence.

How do we know where to look for the progress? The answer: priorities. Hoke's top priorities must be to snap the losing streaks against Michigan State and Ohio State rather than defeating Nebraska or Iowa or even San Diego State. Sure, you take it a game at a time, but you can't gloss over one by looking at the whole season. That's why rivalries are special. Even if Hoke goes 7-5, if two of those wins are against the Spartans and the Buckeyes, Hoke's inaugural season will have easily been a good one.

Overall, Michigan should have plenty of success this year. Considering the direction the Big Ten conference has gone with the addition of Nebraska, Michigan's schedule is by far the easiest one that Hoke could have asked for in his first season. All of the first five games are at home. The opener is against a MAC team. He finishes the season with Nebraska and Ohio State at home. With the exception of the obvious awkwardness of facing his old team (the SDSU Aztecs), could it be more favorable? It's certainly easier than Jerry Kill's, as Minnesota's opener (and Kill's first game) is against USC in the Coliseum.

Hoke shouldn't have nearly as much trouble winning his first game, but he has stated that he greatly respects Western Michigan's passing attack by quarterback Alex Carder. Hoke calls Carder "one of the best quarterbacks in the Midwest." The WMU Broncos went 6-6 last year and have a lot of inexperience on their offensive line. But for a MAC team, they are coming along nicely. It will be a good challenge to see what Hoke has done with Michigan, but it won't be an impossible one.

Perhaps a lot of people are over-hyping 2011 because there is the feeling that Brady Hoke has been coaching here for years. He came in right away and went to work. He didn't need to get settled in to Ann Arbor. He didn't need to learn about traditions. He's known them forever. So, even though he hasn't coached a game yet, some people are acting like he has been coaching since the days of Lloyd Carr.

That's good because it should make people feel somewhat relieved that a true Michigan Man is at the helm, but it's bad because Michigan's fans have a tendency to over-hype their expectations. Brady Hoke may not go undefeated in 2011, and he may not go 10-2, but he will bring Michigan that sense of toughness that it has been lacking. If it doesn't happen immediately this year, then it will happen soon enough: Brady Hoke will win.

No comments:

Post a Comment