Well, we're at that point in the season, the point where we can start to see exactly what kind of team we have.
In the first half of the season, we tried as hard as we could to remain objective. Michigan seemed like a team that wasn't a world-beater but was a team that still found a way to win. Now, well into the meat of the Big Ten, we know the sober truth: Michigan certainly isn't a world-beater, and it has weaknesses. Despite Brady Hoke's high hopes for his first season, the Wolverines will not contend for the Big Ten title.
To some degree, this was to be expected. It was Hoke's first year, he and Borges are trying to gradually incorporate the pro-style offense while still retaining elements of Rich Rodriguez's spread, and the defense is steadily improving. As much as Hoke loves Michigan and wants to win championships, we knew there was a difference between being realistic and being unrealistic. A Big Ten title in Hoke's first year seemed out of the question at first, then Michigan's first six games gave us a little too much optimism, and now we're back.
This isn't to say that Hoke hasn't done a phenomenal job for a first year Michigan head coach. He did a great job uniting the fanbase, locking down the state's top recruits, and starting his coaching era with a bang.
His team played their hearts out against a Notre Dame team that they probably should have lost to and instead won. The Wolverines faced the team that Hoke built in San Diego and, despite a capable Ryan Lindley and dangerous Ronnie Hillman, stalled them. Northwestern made us believe that Hoke's team could overcome virtually any obstacles.
However, the fact remains: Michigan has a long way to go. Iowa showed us what happens when Michigan cannot establish a solid running game, and it reminded us that, while Michigan may have talent, it is not dominating. Michigan has gone from being especially bad to being mediocre—which is why the defense looks so good. Mediocre teams beat bad ones every day of the week, but it can't stand up to the solid, really good ones. Don't get me wrong: this is a necessary stage in Michigan's improvement. It is unreasonable to expect greatness overnight.
Michigan mounted a last-ditch effort to take Iowa into overtime, driving all the way to the goal line, but it wasn't meant to be. Michigan fans everywhere will gripe about the fourth-and-goal pass interference on Roy Roundtree that wasn't called. They will say that Michigan could have won, and they'd be right. Michigan could have won this game, but their slow start finally came back to haunt them. After the Wolverines failed to produce points on their opening drive, they spent the entire game trying to play catch up. The defense kept the game close (although Jake Ryan was mysteriously absent), but Michigan's greater weaknesses have been exposed on offense. Iowa did exactly what Michigan State did: prevent Michigan from establishing the run, force Denard Robinson to pass, and get him out of rhythm. The only difference between this game and the Notre Dame one was that Iowa prevented Robinson from getting into a rhythm for the entire game.
As I walked out of the bar where I had watched the Michigan game, someone saw my Michigan gear and asked, "How did Michigan do today?"
"We lost," I said. "To Iowa."
It was a sobering reminder of what Michigan used to be: a dominating team. Iowa may have recently gotten good, basing their offensive and defensive models off of old-school Michigan and Ohio State because that's what you needed in the Big Ten, but Michigan was always better—until the radical departure brought by Rich Rodriguez.
Now, I'm not going to harp on Rodriguez about this. He genuinely believed that his spread and 3-3-5 could work in the Big Ten, and even today there are proponents who continue to argue this. Then there's too much evidence to the contrary, and that evidence being Big Ten teams who roll over us: despite the Michigan's defense's effort, Iowa's Marcus Coker's power running was their primary reason for yardage and, ultimately, scores. It would have been uglier if Michigan didn't have Greg Mattison.
Of course, a lot of Michigan fans are griping about the offense. MGoBlog, a continued advocate for Rich Rodriguez, has taken an obligatory turn to the negative and the unhopeful: "Michigan's played three games against BCS teams with winning records. In each they've fallen behind by multiple scores. Yardage in those games before entering desperation chuck mode: 130 (Notre Dame), 226 (MSU), and 166 (Iowa). Whatever the plan is, it doesn't seem to be working against teams better than Minnesota." The article's writer, Brian Cook, believes that the primary reason for Michigan's recent struggle is the possibility that Denard Robinson isn't being used effectively:
"Denard has limitations. They are severe. He has assets that offset those. They are not being used effectively. He was an All-American last year and is being derided as plain 'not very good' on blogs; he won't sniff a Heisman vote. He's gone backwards. The question is why. Candidate answers: a) Losing Martell Webb, Darryl Stonum, and Steve Schilling, b) Losing Rich Rodriguez, c) Aging backwards like Benjamin Button. I'll take door B."
To clarify, Denard Robinson was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2010, but he was not an All-American. Michigan also struggled against the tougher Big Ten teams (including Iowa) last year, under the leadership of Rich Rodriguez. So I'm less inclined to believe that Rodriguez is the component missing in order to make Michigan beat every team it faces.
What we can say along those lines, however, is that Rodriguez's effect is still being felt: more than half of the players on Michigan's team were identified and recruited by Rodriguez. He notably preferred speed over size. With him gone, the players have done their best to work with the new coaches, they have worked extremely hard, and a lot of that has paid off. But it's not a dominating team, or Michigan would have put Iowa away in the first half.
This leaves us looking towards the future, again. Michigan has three opportunities left to prove that they are a different team from 2010. Nebraska will likely be the toughest bout, despite being played in Michigan Stadium, and Ohio State is getting back to its old self. The pressure to beat the Buckeyes rises with each loss, and I'm not excited about the bowl Michigan will play in. (I'm hoping for the Texas Bowl, but even that won't be pretty.)
Michigan will have to use every game as an opportunity for improvement. They need to get better. I'm confident that Brady Hoke can do that, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm also very nervous about the rest of the season.