Monday, August 27, 2012

Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs Named 2012 Team Captains

The University of Michigan athletic department announced yesterday that senior quarterback Denard Robinson and senior safety Jordan Kovacs were voted captains by the Michigan football team. Denard will represent the offense and Kovacs will represent the defense.

Via the U-M press release:

"Denard and Jordan are two guys who represent what Michigan football stands for, on and off the field, and they certainly are deserving of being named team captains," said Hoke. "They have played a lot of football here. I know they will do a great job of leading the seniors and Team 133."

Kovacs, a three-year letterman and starter at safety, has opened 33 of 37 career games. He has totaled 266 tackles -- 21 for losses -- five sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and three pass breakups in his career. Kovacs was named to the 2012 preseason watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Lott IMPACT Trophy.

A three-year letterman, Robinson has started 27 of 38 career games in three seasons at Michigan. He has completed 338 of 580 passes for 4,931 yards and 40 touchdowns and rushed 546 times for 3,229 yards and 35 touchdowns. He ranks in the top 10 in U-M history in passing completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns and in rushing yards, touchdowns and 100-yard games (14). Robinson was named to the 2012 preseason watch list for the Davey O'Brien Trophy and the Manning, Maxwell and Walter Camp Player of the Year Awards.

Michigan (Team 133) is fulfilling a time-honored Michigan tradition where the players elect the captains, and typically there are two. (There have been exceptions, however. Former running back Mike Hart noted that during his final year, there were three captains. Additionally, during the 2011 season, Michigan had three captains in center David Molk, defensive tackle Mike Martin, and tight end Kevin Koger, with defensive end Ryan Van Bergen as an honorary fourth.) The elevation of Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs to captain is particularly interesting because the two represent great individual underdog stories of how they got to Michigan.

Denard Robinson was originally a four-star rated defensive back (unrated as a quarterback) from Deerfield Beach, Florida. Despite several offers to play defensive back, Denard wanted to play quarterback. He chose Michigan because Rich Rodriguez offered him that chance. In two years Denard beat out presumed starter Tate Forcier for the job and subsequently set out to light up the college football world. When Brady Hoke arrived in January 2011, there was some talk about Denard possibly transferring, but this turned out to be a canard.

Ever the Michigan Man, Denard affirmed his commitment to stay. All he wanted was the chance to play quarterback. It's doubtful anyone else would have offered him that chance. Denard had already carved out a place for himself as Michigan's quarterback, and leaving the program would mean that he would have to start over. To his credit, Brady Hoke was confident in Denard's ability to play the position and lead the team. "I can tell you one thing," Hoke said in his opening press conference. "We've got a special player in Denard."

Hoke and his offensive coordinator, Al Borges, successfully adapted their scheme to fit Denard's skill set (as opposed to the other way around, a.k.a. "putting a square peg in a round hole") while still at the same time gradually incorporating elements the pro-style offense that they hope to install by the time Denard graduates. As a result, Denard's production didn't exactly drop off and the offense was still very productive, with Denard throwing 2,173 yards and rushing for 1,176 yards, 20 passing touchdowns, and 16 rushing touchdowns.

The Wolverine's 2012 Michigan football preview issue makes an important note:

[Denard Robinson] is a special player, unlike any other in Michigan football history. Robinson has his faults--he was the only quarterback in the nation to throw 12 or more interceptions (15) with fewer than 260 passing attempts (258) last year--but Wolverine Nation loves him just the same.

This is true. We certainly do.

Jordan Kovacs has gained similar infamy in recent Michigan football lore. He is a former walk-on from Curtice, Ohio, who came aboard during the worst struggles of the Michigan defense during the 2009 season under Rich Rodriguez. Kovacs had to walk-on twice (2009 and 2010) before he was eventually offered a scholarship by Hoke's staff in 2011. He has since become Michigan most consistent player on defense.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison raved about Kovacs in a recent press conference, which is rare for someone as experienced and reserved as Mattison. "There's one that's consistent," he said. "And that's No. 32. That young man has had a tremendous camp. I mean, you talk about consistency, if you graded every play, I would like to see that great [every time]. . . There's a number of them that have been very consistent for a practice, and then they have to come back to the next one. So, I don't want to name names because I wouldn't be doing them justice as far as who's had this practice or hasn't, but that's one I will name. I'll name Jordan Kovacs. He just gets better and better. He's what it's all about."

Kovacs had long been considered one of the primary leaders (if not the leader) on defense, so it should come as virtually no surprise to anyone that he was named one of the team captains along with Denard Robinson. Frankly, I'd have been surprised if someone other than Jordan Kovacs had been named captain.

He now joins the ranks of famous Michigan players who started out as walk-ons and subsequently became captains, players like offensive tackle Jon Jansen, who helped lead Michigan to a national championship in 1997. During the Big Ten Network's visit to Michigan as part of their 2012 football preview tour, Kovacs had a chance to reflect on his journey from walk-on to starter to staple of the defense.

"It was tough," he said. "It was quite the roller coaster ride of emotions, to be unrecruited by really any school and to have to make two student-body tryouts. And then things just fell into place, and to be where I am today, it's not exactly what I was expecting, but I wouldn't want it any other way. I think those struggles are what made me the ballplayer that I am today, and I'm proud of that."

Kovacs and Denard Robinson will lead Michigan into the season opener against Alabama, the defending national champion, in what looks to be one of the most anticipated first games in Michigan football history.

The future, now, is in their hands. They are the captains of Team 133.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Michigan Football 2012 Season Predictions

Well, it's about that time again.

With less than ten days before Michigan kicks off against Alabama on September 1st, there's a lot of anticipation and wanting football season to start. And what would the last ten days before kickoff be without some good, old-fashioned season predictions? Same deal as before. We're going to look at each of Michigan's opponents and give a rough analysis and a "Chance of Win" so as not to look like complete idiots.

Season Overview

Michigan faces its toughest schedule in years. There's no getting around that. Although Michigan State will tell you they have the toughest schedule because they start off with Boise State (albeit at home), Michigan by far as the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. The opener against the defending national champions alone should be enough to put this atop anyone's list. All of Michigan's toughest games (Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State) are on the road. So, yeah, a pretty tough schedule.

Fortunately, the Wolverines miss Penn State and Wisconsin for the second consecutive year.

As tough as the schedule is, Michigan finally has the talent needed to manage it. As the guy who might be college football's most explosive player under center, Denard Robinson looks to improve in year two of Al Borges's offense, and if history is any indication, he definitely will. Not only did Denard improve drastically in year two of Rich Rodriguez's offense, but quarterbacks in Al Borges's system tend to see the most improvement in their second year. Ask Ryan Lindley, Cade McNown, or Jason Campbell.

Michigan's stable of running backs and wide receivers (starters Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon are still in the fold) should provide opponents with a difficult, balanced attack. The Wolverines are absolutely stacked at linebacker with Jake Ryan, Kenny Demens, and Desmond Morgan, along with a flurry of highly-touted freshmen coming in. Safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback Blake Countess anchor the secondary for what looks to be like Michigan's best since 2006. The only real question marks are on the offensive and defensive line, as backups Will Campbell, Elliot Mealer, and Jibreel Black assume roles as starters.

While Michigan's rivals believe that the Wolverines will take a step back, most people believe that Michigan is a program on the rise--kind of hard to argue with, considering that they just went 11-2. Still, it's important to keep the big picture in mind. Michigan doesn't necessarily have to replicate a 10-2 regular season to be considered a success. Because of the way this season is set up, the Wolverines can lose to both Alabama and Notre Dame and still play in the Big Ten championship to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. A minor setback record-wise won't matter if Brady Hoke wins the Big Ten title.

1. Alabama
Chance of Win: 12% (Very Unlikely)

Is anyone seriously expecting Michigan to win this game? When Dave Brandon scheduled Alabama back in 2010, he probably wasn't expecting that his current coach at the time (Rich Rodriguez) would completely flame out, or that when Michigan eventually played Alabama, the Crimson Tide would be the reigning national champions. When the defense cratered in 2010 and Rodriguez was let go, the Michigan fan base did a collective shriek when reminded about Alabama on the schedule.

Thankfully, Brady Hoke has brought Michigan back to respectable levels. Probably the best thing about facing Alabama is that Michigan is good enough to keep it close. I certainly don't expect Michigan to win this game, though I am hoping for it; I am more interested in seeing the Wolverines perform well. The optimistic side of me perks up every once in a while and anticipates an upset, but I'll try to stay as realistic about this one as I can.

Alabama returns only 9 starters on both sides of the ball, but it's common knowledge that Nick Saban doesn't rebuild, he reloads. The No. 1 defense in the nation in 2011 looks to be the No. 1 defense in the nation again in 2012. Michigan may have improved drastically during the 2011 season, going from No. 110 in total defense to No. 14, but there have been better defenses who have been out-muscled by the Crimson Tide. Despite losing to LSU during the regular season 9-6, it's still a fact that LSU never put up a touchdown on Alabama... but Penn State did. If Michigan's offense can put together enough drives, they might be able to pull it off.

The worst thing about the game is that it is very unlikely that Fitzgerald Toussaint will play in the opener. Toussaint, Michigan's lead running back, has been indefinitely suspended after being arrested for a DUI, and common sense would indicate that he'd be out for at least one game. But that one game happens to be against Alabama, when Michigan would need him most. If there is a positive upside to playing Alabama, it's that no other game will be as difficult probably until they play Ohio State. In 2011, every team that played Alabama early in the season went on to have at least a 9-3 record.

2. Air Force
Chance of Win: 85% (Very Likely)

Troy Calhoun's triple option has been known to give defenses headaches, but it typically takes a while to get into a groove. The Falcons were good against weak FCS or lower conference teams, but struggled against good teams from middle conferences. They'll have their work cut out for them when they face Michigan in the Big House. It also doesn't help that Air Force is in the definition of a rebuilding year. Lindy's sports magazine handily points out that the Falcons have to replace "last year's starting quarterback, running back, top three receivers, four offensive linesmen, four defensive linesmen, three linebackers, the top two cornerbacks and best safety."

Though the season-by-season record has been in steady decline a la Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Calhoun is 41-24 overall, setting a school record by putting together five straight bowl appearances. He is frequently mentioned as one of college football's hottest head coaching commodities during coaching searches--but, again, like Pat Fitzgerald, it doesn't seem like he'll be leaving his alma mater any time soon. It's possible that Michigan will be so focused on Alabama that when they face Air Force the following week, the Falcons will be able to catch the Wolverines off guard, but this seems unlikely. Michigan will come home motivated, looking either to rebound from Alabama or to continue momentum.

3. Massachusetts
Chance of Win: 88% (Very Likely)

Two years ago, the Minutemen gave the Michigan faithful a scare by almost upsetting the Wolverines in the Big House because of Michigan's porous defense under Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez. The Wolverines eked out a close victory, however, winning 42-37, effectively preventing a second Appalachian State-type meltdown. A couple things have changed since then for both teams. Michigan has undergone vast improvement on defense, and UMass is no longer an FCS team, having joined the ranks of Division 1-A in the MAC.

They'll be ushered into the new league by new head coach Charley Molnar, who served as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator under Brian Kelly. The UMass gig is Molnar's first as a head coach, as he attempts to shift the Minutemen from a traditional run-first offense to his no-huddle spread attack. This will be a challenge for Molnar, because coordinator-to-HC transitions are not always smooth, and pro-style to spread transitions are even less smooth. Molnar anticipates some difficulty, telling the Boston Globe that "most of this team were recruited as 1-AA players. That's the reality. We're playing a 1-A schedule with 1-AA players."

However, there are at least two players who are Division 1-A ready, one of which the Michigan faithful should recognize: former Michigan running back Michael Cox, who transferred to UMass as a graduate student and is eligible to play immediately. Cox's career at Michigan was hindered largely by injuries and, although many Michigan blogs consistently ranked him as the most athletic of all the running backs, he eventually lost the starting job to Fitz Toussaint. The other proven Division 1-A athlete on UMass's roster is wide receiver Jerome Lewis, who transferred from Virginia Tech and sat out last year per NCAA rules.

The Wolverines are a much more complete team than they were when they faced the Minutemen in 2010. Atrocious defense on Michigan's part allowed UMass to stay in the game for as long as it did, but that won't be the case this year--not with defensive minds like Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison in charge. Assuming he becomes the starter, Michael Cox should give the Minutemen enough of an offensive boost to help them manage their way through their inaugural MAC schedule, but it won't be enough to defeat Michigan in the Big House.

4. Notre Dame
Chance of Win: 58% (Moderate)

You would think that going into Brian Kelly's third year at Notre Dame there'd be talk of national championships and how the Fighting Irish are on the rise. That doesn't quite seem to be the case this year. Kelly has yet to find a quarterback who can truly run his offense the way he did at Cincinnati, when he had gunslingers Tony Pike and Zach Collaros at the helm. At Notre Dame, the carousel of quarterbacks, along with careless mistakes, a lack of overall discipline, and a tendency to fall apart on the biggest stage, contributed to the reason why the Irish went 8-5 instead of the predicted 10-2.

Kelly enters 2012 exactly as he entered 2011: with a quarterback controversy. Incumbent Tommy Rees has been suspended for the season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. The job will go to either junior Andrew Hendrix (Rees's backup) or redshirt freshman Everett Golson, who has yet to take a single college snap. It's doubtful the job will go to true freshman Gunner Kiel, who is expected to redshirt. Most Notre Dame fans believe Golson will be the starter, based on his successful performance in the Blue-Gold spring game. He was the only quarterback not to throw an interception. (UPDATE: Kelly just announced that Golson will be the starter.)

If Kelly can find a go-to quarterback, it will take a lot of the pressure off. However, if Rees somehow finds his way back into the starting role after his suspension, expect to see a lot of frustrated Notre Dame fans. The Irish have a solid run game to rely on and are stocked in the backfield with running back Cierre Wood and a stout offensive line. This is ironic considering that Kelly's offense has historically been more of a passing attack. Losing Michael Floyd is absolutely huge, as the playmaking wide receiver often bailed Notre Dame out of a lot of tight spots. They'll likely have to rely on tight end Tyler Eifert for making catches.

Manti Teo anchors Notre Dame's defense at linebacker, but there are serious question marks everywhere else. Defensive end Aaron Lynch's unexpected transfer to South Florida was a blow to the defensive line and knocks the pass rush down a peg or two. There is also a gaping hole in the secondary. Safeties Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter are the only returning starters to the entire unit, with very little depth behind them, and no cornerback on Notre Dame's roster has game experience. To make matters worse, one of the presumed starters at cornerback, Lo Wood, who Kelly said had the best fall camp of all the defensive backs, just tore his Achilles and will have to sit out the entire season.

With all these weaknesses and an absolutely brutal schedule, Notre Dame will be lucky if they can make to another 8-5 season. However, Notre Dame fans are predicting great things. The Michigan game is a must-win for Brian Kelly or people are seriously going to be questioning his future as head coach. I figured that was the case last year, but Kelly somehow survived despite an 0-2 start. Losing three straight to Michigan might be too much unless Kelly can knock off USC or Stanford.

Despite playing in South Bend, Michigan still has the edge because the Irish still have no answer for Denard Robinson. By the fourth week Kelly should have settled on a quarterback, but if Notre Dame's secondary is as weak as Irish fans fear it will be, Michigan will have no problem lighting them up.

Still, anything can happen in rivalry games.

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

Michigan opens up its Big Ten play in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers are getting a lot of love in pre-season conference analyses, largely because they return the most starters (19) of any team in the Big Ten. Gerry Dinardo of the Big Ten Network said that Purdue is probably the deepest team in the conference and an easy dark horse for the Leaders Division title. Let's put this into context: almost all of Purdue's players have had starting experience in either 2010 or 2011 because injuries whittled down the depth chart.

The best examples of this are at quarterback and running back. All of Purdue's quarterbacks have been starters at one point. Caleb Terbush and Robert Marve are expected to be the two-deep at quarterback, but Purdue is confident knowing Rob Henry (third on the depth chart, who played starter in late 2010) can take the reins if he has to. All of Purdue's rushers are back (Ralph Bolden, Akeem Shavers, and Akeem Hunt), and all have at one time taken snaps as the starter, but all have at one time undergone surgery. So, I don't know how good it is that Purdue supposedly has a wealth of experience but not exactly much in the way of staying healthy.

Purdue head coach Danny Hope just barely escaped the windfall of mass head coach firings that occurred in 2011 by squeaking to a 7-6 record and a win in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl. Throughout the 2011 season there were several Purdue fans calling for Hope to be fired, so 2012 is really the year when he'll have to have serious success or at least match what he did last year (winning record, bowl win). Hope's record at Purdue is still 16-21, which isn't great--Rodriguez had a 15-22 record at Michigan that got him fired. Most Purdue fans are hoping that new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar is the boost that the Boilermakers need.

With Brady Hoke's goal focused squarely on the Big Ten title, and Purdue being the first conference game Michigan plays, I really don't see the Wolverines losing or overlooking this one. Sports Illustrated lists Purdue as the "trap game" for Michigan, and the Boilermaker defense, which has kept them in games when an injured offense struggled, could surprise people. Keep in mind, however, that this is the same team that narrowly lost to Rice when they had most of their depth chart intact. The Boilermakers lost that game because Hope's poor decisions regarding clock management came down to a missed field goal. If he makes those same mistakes again, 2012 could be his last year in West Lafayette.

6. Illinois
Chance of Win: 67% (Likely)

Frankly, I still can't understand why Illinois fired Ron Zook after he broke even and put together a team that had consecutive bowl wins for the first time ever in school history. You'd think that would be enough to give Zook at least one more year. Obviously, that didn't happen. Zook's Illini started the season undefeated at 6-0 until they faced Ohio State. They then proceeded to lose the next six straight games (6-6) and finish fifth in the Leaders division. Zook was fired before the Illini played in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, where they beat UCLA 20-14.

Despite promising the fan base a "splash hire," athletic director Michael Thomas replaced Zook with Tim Beckman, who seems like the MAC coach du jour. In three years, Beckman quickly brought Toledo to the top of the MAC's west division but never quite had the breakthrough they wanted. Although mediocre by Big Ten standards, Beckman put up respectable 8-4 records for two straight years and came within a heartbeat of upsetting Ohio State in Columbus, an achievement by any MAC coach standards.

The big story surrounding Beckman at Illinois is the high-spirited, sometimes comical intensity that he brings (it's just Illinois, Tim), and a small scandal where he sent assistant coaches to scope out Penn State players after the NCAA sanctions hit and stand outside their windows. At Big Ten media days, Beckman said it's all part of the game, ethical or not. Other Big Ten coaches decided that, while they will not turn down a call from any Penn State players looking to transfer, they won't seek out or harass Penn State players.

Going into 2012, Illinois is in a bit of a pickle. They are a team that most believed underachieved, yet they are now dealing with a brand new set of coordinators for the third time in three years. Illinois's defense was one of the fiercest in the Big Ten and returns defensive linesmen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. The defense seemed to have improved greatly under 2011 coordinator Vic Koening, but now the Illini are employing (again, why, I don't know) Tim Banks, the former defensive coordinator of Cincinnati. Junior Nathan Scheelhaase is probably the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten behind Michigan's Denard Robinson and Iowa's James Vandenberg. However, with brand new coordinators, it's tough to tell how Illinois's offense will respond, or if Scheelhaase will even be the quarterback, as the Illini fan base could be calling for backup Reilly O'Toole.

Beckman won't have to rebuild Illinois the way he did Toledo, but he will have to maximize the talent that he has. There is some on Illinois's roster. Beckman's spread offense will be a somewhat seamless transition from Zook's multiple from last year, since they were already running some spread concepts anyway. There's a lot of uncertainly going forward as Beckman tries to keep his team together. They should be able to get to a bowl game this year, but knocking off Michigan in the Big House seems like a tall order for the new coaching staff.

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

It took Mark Dantonio six years, two back-to-back 11-win seasons, a bowl victory over Georgia, and four straight wins over Michigan, but people are finally starting to take the Spartans seriously. Whereas last year everyone thought the Big Ten title matchup would be between Wisconsin and Nebraska, this year many outlets have picked Michigan State to win the Legends Division for a second consecutive time. Meanwhile, it only took Brady Hoke one year and a revamp on defense to get everyone talking about Michigan again. Man, it must be really tough to be a Spartan.

Last year Michigan State won the Michigan game ugly and in the least classy way possible. The Spartans gave up over 100 yards in penalties, more than 13 of which were personal fouls, and William Gholston earned a suspension from the Big Ten for twisting Denard's facemask and punching Taylor Lewan. Note: It was the Big Ten, not Dantonio, who punished Gholston. I don't know why anyone should be surprised. Being a student of Jim Tressel, Dantonio encourages that kind of behavior. After the game, Dantonio said he thought the game was played "cleanly." I don't know what game he was watching. I guess if dirty play gets Michigan State a win over Michigan, it's all right by Dantonio and Spartan fans everywhere. Now that's a classy program.

I honestly don't know what to make of Michigan State this year. I thought that the only difference between Michigan and Michigan State for three years under Rich Rodriguez was that Dantonio took the rivalry seriously (understatement) and Rodriguez didn't (bigger understatement). With the Spartans going through a new offensive coordinator, I thought that 2011 would be the year that Michigan snapped the frustrating losing streak and all would be right in the world. Wrong. Dantonio has showed that he can coach the talent he has and rely on senior leadership to do the rest. The Spartans were also undefeated at home for the past two years.

Here's what we do know. Kirk Cousins, arguably the best quarterback in Michigan State school history, has gone on to back up Robert Griffin III with the Washington Redskins. B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol, Edwin Baker, and Keshawn Martin, four critical components of Michigan State's offense, are gone as well. Cousins is being replaced by Andrew Maxwell, whom Spartans believe will be even better, but we don't know that yet for sure. Maxwell didn't play much in 2011 (he was only 18 for 26 in the whole season), and an injury kept him from participating in the spring game. Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State's best in-state recruit, who was expected to make an immediate impact at wide receiver, is out for at least six weeks due to a knee injury. Their greatest strength is their defense, and it looks to be as dominant as it was last year.

The Spartans have enjoyed the advantage of typically getting a bye week to prepare for the Michigan game, but this year they don't. Their schedule is moderately challenging as they start off with a rebuilding Boise State in East Lansing. Almost all of their Big Ten slate is played at home, with the exception of their two toughest games, Michigan and Wisconsin, being played on the road. (Indiana and Minnesota are also on the road, but I don't expect Michigan State to lose those ones.) Dantonio is facing something of a crucial juncture because the season will live or die by how the offense performs. If Maxwell and the new tandem of receivers can jell early, they may be in for another 11-win season and a trip to Indianapolis.

If there was ever a game that Michigan absolutely has to win on the schedule, this is it. It's not just about pride or bragging rights anymore. If Brady Hoke is serious about winning the Big Ten championship, he has to realize that the Spartans are a legitimate obstacle to getting there, and the bout between them will likely determine who wins the Legends Division. Michigan's home field advantage hasn't mattered much recently as the Spartans took both contests in Ann Arbor in 2008 and 2010. A very tense and physical game looks to be in the works.

8. Nebraska
Chance of Win: 51% (Moderate)

It still blows my mind how Nebraska fans can call for Bo Pelini to be fired. In four years, Pelini (39-16 overall) hasn't had a season at Nebraska under nine wins. Do you know how many coaches would kill for that kind of resume? Even in his inaugural season in the Big Ten, Pelini and the Cornhuskers weathered the storm. I can't understand calling for him to be fired because you're going to be hard pressed to find someone better.

Michigan thumped Nebraska last year in a game that no one, myself included, thought they'd win. I had listed Michigan's chance of win over Nebraska as a measly 17% and a "Very Unlikely" rating. I was wrong and I couldn't be happier. That win over the Cornhuskers pushed Michigan into the BCS discussion and was a clear indication that Hoke could win big games with a suffocating defense. Of course, it also helped Michigan that Nebraska's quarterback Taylor Martinez has been terribly inconsistent as a passer, only completing 9 passes of 23 attempts in that game. Meanwhile, Michigan utilized the combined efforts of Denard Robinson (11-for-18, 180 yards passing, 83 yards rushing) and Fitzgerald Toussaint (138 yards rushing) to push to a 45-17 win.

Though the 2012 game will be played in Lincoln, the Wolverines still have the edge. Michigan's offense ran all over Nebraska's defense, and the Cornhuskers lose their defense's best three players (Jared Crick, Lavonte David, and Alfonso Dennard), leaving Nebraska fans with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, Michigan's defense looks to be even better than the bend-but-don't-break amalgam that it was in 2011, and that unit completely shut Nebraska down. The Wolverine notes that Michigan could be still stinging from its bout against Michigan State enough that the Huskers will primed to take advantage. Michigan shouldn't drop too many games in 2012, but this one could be a possible loss. I'm pegging it as a toss-up.

9. Minnesota
Chance of Win: 82% (Very Likely)

This won't be the same Minnesota team that Michigan shutout 58-0 in the Big House. Believe it or not, the Golden Gophers actually improved throughout the season. While the shellacking against Michigan was the rock-bottom low point, they finished out with upset wins over Iowa and Illinois. That being said, Minnesota still isn't very good. MarQueis Gray is their best shot at quarterback but he's even less refined than Denard Robinson and also not as fast. And the Gopher defense was manhandled all year.

Minnesota's No. 1 goal in 2012 will be trying to get to a bowl game. To do that they'll have to win most of their non-conference schedule that includes a road trip to Syracuse. Normally this would be no big deal for a Big Ten team, but Minnesota struggles in games that even pessimists expect them to win. Although they lost starting tailback Duane Bennett, Minnesota has the new arrival of junior college transfer James Gillum to take the load. Kill attempted to recruit Gillum while still at Northern Illinois, so needless to say the coaches love the guy. Bennett couldn't do much for Minnesota's run game in his career, but Gillum has racked up over 1,000 yards a season while in junior college. He might be the spark that makes the offense go.

The battle for the Little Brown Jug has always been a lopsided battle, and even when Michigan was the smoking crater that was the Rich Rodriguez era, the Gophers still couldn't capitalize. This year the game is played in Minnesota's brand new on-campus TCF Bank Stadium (built in 2009), and it will be Michigan's first visit. The chances of a Gopher upset aren't great, but this one could be close if Michigan is recovering from injuries from the Nebraska game. The Wolverines probably won't win by 58 points like they did last year, but it'll still be a rough game for the Gophers. Michigan will have already played tough road games, and this isn't one of them.

10. Northwestern
Chance of Win: 65% (Likely)

Don't let Northwestern's declining year-to-year record fool you, the Wildcats are improving. I recently watched the 2011 game where Northwestern narrowly lost to Illinois, and it's fair to say that the problem was that Wildcats lost that game because they didn't play 60 minutes. Illinois mustered a comeback in the fourth quarter. I was watching Northwestern throughout the game and kept asking myself, "This is the team that went 6-6?!"

There are problems on the both the offensive and defensive lines. The Wildcats struggled to give their now-graduated quarterback Dan Persa any protection, resulting in frequent and erratic Tate Forcier-like scrambles, while at the same time their defensive line couldn't generate any pressure, resulting in giving up huge plays on third down. Looking to 2012, most Northwestern fans are worried that they might not make it to a bowl game because of the defense.

Again, don't get the wrong idea: it's not like Northwestern's defense is as bad as Michigan's was in 2010. They can tackle in open space. They can get decent coverage. It's just that they seem to run out of gas by the fourth quarter. Remember, they had Michigan on the ropes for the entire first half of the game in Evanston, even going into halftime with a lead. Fitzgerald's no-huddle spread offense, however, doesn't give the defense much time to rest up. This isn't uncommon. Rodriguez had the same problem at Michigan, and most no-huddle offenses do. Whether you're making games and scoring, or not making gains and giving the ball back, the offense is not on the field very long. That has to be tough on the defense.

Kain Colter leads Northwestern's offense in the wake of Persa's departure. While Colter may not get the grassroots university-sponsored Heisman campaign that Persa did ("once burned" and all that), he is legitimately good and may be even better. Colter was utilized as a quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, throwing for 673 yards and six touchdowns, rushing 654 yards and nine touchdowns, and catching 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns. It's doubtful that he'll be used as a wide receiver, however, considering that he's now the primary option under center. Wildcat fans were pleased with his performance when Persa was out.

The game against Michigan is the third in a brutal four-game stretch that begins with Nebraska and Iowa at home and then Michigan and Michigan State on the road. The Wildcats may be banged up and in a daze by the time they come to visit Michigan in the Big House. If they want to go to a bowl game for the sixth consecutive year, they'll have to do well in their non-conference schedule against teams like Vanderbilt, Boston College, and South Dakota. Otherwise, they could become desperate as the season progresses.

11. Iowa
Chance of Win: 60% (Likely)

There's not a lot of love for Iowa from analysts this year, despite the fact that Kirk Ferentz is currently the Big Ten's most tenured coach (14 years) and hasn't had a season under six wins since 2000. Also, James Vandenberg is the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback besides Denard Robinson. So, what's the problem? Ben Glicksman of the Sports Illustrated Big Ten Preview points out what could be the issue: "Though quarterback James Vandenberg is back, most of his playmakers are not, including wide receiver Marvin McNutt and running back Marcus Coker, a duo that accounted for 60.2% of the team's total yardage in 2011." There's also been a staff change: both the offense and defense will have new coordinators.

The Hawkeyes' schedule is one of the most favorable in the Big Ten, with the first five games (except the opener) played at home. The opener against Northern Illinois is played at a neutral site. Those first five games are pretty close to cupcakes, yet Iowa State and Minnesota both pulled upsets last year, though Iowa was on the road both times. The stiffest tests are against Michigan State (away), Michigan (away), and Nebraska (at home). While Iowa undergoing a team-wide overhaul, it's not hard to see how they don't have a great chance to finish in the top of the Legends Division.

Still, the Hawkeyes have had Michigan's number for the last couple of years, so I never count them out of anything. They destroyed Michigan in 2010, but the contest in 2011 was much closer and they escaped because Junior Hemingway's third-down catch was ruled incomplete. This year, obviously, is a revenge match for Michigan. Iowa should be coming off momentum from games against Purdue and Indiana, but Michigan should be more prepared, having squared off against the defending national champions, the Fighting Irish, Michigan State, and the Cornhuskers before this contest. Barring a complete meltdown, Michigan should win this one.

12. Ohio State
Chance of Win: 48% (Moderate)

Stop the presses, everyone: The Rivalry is back.

Well, at least Michigan fans think so. You'll be hard pressed to find a Buckeye who thinks that the Urban Meyer era is going to be anything other than Jim Tressel x 1,000 in which victories over Michigan are guaranteed every year and national championships come far more frequently. Meyer certainly comes to Columbus with an impressive resume; indeed, he is the first and perhaps only "big name" hire that Ohio State has made in program history. They typically snagged old-school coaches who were under the radar (Hayes, Tressel, etc.), and then those coaches' passion for Ohio State propelled them to create legacies.

As god-like as Ohio State fans are making Meyer before he's even coached a game, you have to at least consider the question of why he's not in Florida anymore. The answer: his health. Meyer became such a perfectionist in the cutthroat SEC that he tried to do everything he could to appease Florida fans, at the expense of his family. Well, if you think coaching at Florida is tough, you haven't seen Ohio State.

Every Buckeye head coach since World War II has either been shamefully fired or left in disgrace. The fans are relentless in their hatred of Michigan and their desire to win national championships. If you think Michigan fans were tough on Rodriguez, wait and see what happens to Meyer in Columbus when he hasn't won a national championship by his third year. Urban Meyer just left a hard head coaching gig for health reasons only to take one that's even harder. His wife can't be too thrilled right now.

While I can't see Meyer being a long-term option at Ohio State, I also can't see him being a complete failure. Every Ohio State coach (even the ones who didn't live up to the standard) has had the benefit of perpetually stocked talent in the program, an even bigger talent pool in the state of Ohio, and the sometimes-ruthless support of the fan base and the administration. Meyer won't have to rebuild; he has wisely observed the mistakes of Rich Rodriguez and will be sure to adapt his offense while installing it.

That starts with true sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, who was thrown into the starting role after Terrelle Pryor decided to hightail it to the NFL in hopes of avoiding an NCAA investigation. During the Big Ten Network's visit to Columbus, when asked about how he feels about Miller under center, Meyer noted how Miller is "an athlete playing quarterback" instead of the reverse (i.e. a quarterback who is an athlete). Michigan fans know something about this with Denard Robinson, and while Miller is no where near as fast as Denard, he can still beat you with his feet. Meyer's spread is certainly a quarterback-centric spread, so this means Miller will be utilized to the fullest extent, and probably with more running plays than passing plays. However, this also means that if Miller goes down, Meyer's offense will have serious problems.

The guy headlining the defense everywhere is defensive end John Simon. The senior from Youngstown, Ohio earned First Team All-Big Ten honors last season and looks to be an anchor to what is probably the Buckeyes' strongest unit. The linebacker crew gets a boost from sophomore Ryan Shazier, who had an explosive season on the field as a true freshman. An overall solid defense even by Ohio State standards is being co-coordinated by Luke Fickell, the interim Buckeye coach who has decided to stay on for the good of his alma mater, and Everett Withers, who was the interim head coach for North Carolina in 2011.

The media's love for Urban Meyer have everyone pegging the Michigan game as a clear Ohio State victory. Personally, I don't think it will be that easy. Sure, the intensity of The Game is ramped up with Ohio State not being eligible for the Big Ten championship or any type of postseason bowl, meaning that the Michigan game is really all they have to play for--which isn't all that different from any other year. Michigan hasn't won in Columbus since the 2000 season. Unlike the last four years, they have a chance to actually do that. It would be unbelievably sweet if Hoke's Wolverines could knock of the Buckeyes on the road in Urban Meyer's first year.

For all the talk of Ohio State's defense, here's an important fact to consider: Meyer's defensive coordinator who helped him win two national championships at Florida just happens to be coaching at Michigan. Expect the Maize and Blue to go all out against the Scarlet and Gray in another classic matchup.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

2012 Seniors Must Make the Most Out of Their Final Season

It's an age old story. We hear it over and over again. Though this time, it somehow feels different.

That's because it is. Expectations are high. Brady Hoke will tell you they always have been, but let's be realistic. No one outside of the Michigan coaching staff expected the Wolverines to go 11-2 and win the Sugar Bowl, not after the epic failure of the Rich Rodriguez years where the Maize and Blue won 3, 5, and 7 games in three years, respectively, and then proceeded to be blown out 52-14 by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. No, for most of the Michigan faithful, expectations were pretty low: just improve the defense, don't implode as a program (again), and hopefully beat the rivals.

The seniors during those years each faced the same story. In 2009 and 2010 it was really all the seniors talked about. They wanted to be the ones who made a difference. They would leave Michigan disappointed and, in many cases, forgotten. (It wasn't their fault; they were the victims of an inept coaching staff.)

Then the 2011 seniors of David Molk, Junior Hemingway, Ryan Van Bergen, Kevin Koger, and Mike Martin did what all those previous seniors had always wanted to do. Their season was the difference. They bought in to Brady Hoke's staff, who are legitimately good coaches, and they worked hard, keeping the team together when it could easily have broken apart. Thus the ending to their careers is vastly different from previous seniors' of the three years prior. With the help of Michigan's coaches, they made the most of their final season.

That's the task set before Michigan's seniors in 2012, a.k.a. Team 133. Can the seniors step up the way Molk and the others did in 2011? It's a question that will determine the fate of the season, the perception of Michigan going forward, and how these seniors look back on their careers as Michigan Men.

Seniors anchor the positions of need this year. On the offensive line, Ricky Barnum has moved from guard to center in an attempt to fill the gap left by Rimmington Award winner David Molk. Barnum hasn't played the position since high school, but he did take reps with Denard Robinson in 2009 when the two were further down on the depth chart. Understandably, his lack of experience gives some Michigan fans pause.

However, the 2012 Michigan football preview issue of The Wolverine is not too worried. In an interview with Kurt Anderson, who also served as Michigan's center for one year, The Wolverine discovered that Michigan had a history of similar movements from guard to center, including David Moosman in 2009, David Baas in 2004, and Zach Adami in 1997 (the year Michigan won a national championship under Lloyd Carr), all of which played guard for the majority of their careers and spent their last year at center. So the switch is not that uncommon.

"I spent three years playing left guard and backing up Steve Hutchinson," Anderson told The Wolverine in the interview concerning Barnum's switch to center. "My transition didn't happen until spring ball [of his last year]. I was playing left guard, and we were having issues. Coach Terry Malone, our O-line coach, was having issues with getting the snaps up. I was ticked off that it was ruining the flow of practice ... I said, 'Well, hell, let me do it.' It went from there. I took all the snaps with the ones after that."

For what it's worth, Ricky Barnum says he feels comfortable at the position, and that he and Denard Robinson "have been snapping since [their] freshman years together." And anyone who watched Michigan's performance in the spring game could see that he was a good fit. "Ricky has got a natural skill set for center," offensive line coach Darrell Funk told John Borton of The Wolverine. "He played quite a bit in practice last year. Every day, I have five centers start practice with quarterbacks, doing exchange. Ricky took 1,000 snaps last year, the gun snaps and all that. I don't worry about that part."

Barnum anchors the offensive line along with fifth-year senior guards Patrick Omameh (a part-time starter) and Elliot Mealer, a career backup. How they perform this year will have a large part on Michigan's offensive success. Mealer personally hopes that his consistency means he will be a key part of the offensive line as a reliable starter. "Coach [Darrell] Funk focuses on consistency in his starters," Mealer said in the Michigan athletic department's Countdown to Kickoff series. "It has to be 'We can trust Elliot, he's doing his job, he does it all the time, we can trust to put him in there.'"

On the other side of the ball, there are huge question marks following the graduations of starters Ryan Van Bergen, Will Heininger, and Mike Martin on the defensive line. Replacing them will be Jibreel Black (who served as backup for both Martin and Van Bergen), Will Campbell, and Craig Roh. Roh and Campbell are both seniors, fully aware that this is their last chance to make a real impact. Roh switched positions from weakside defensive end to outside linebacker back to weakside defensive end, and has bulked up in preparation for assuming the role of strongside defensive end, the position held by Ryan Van Bergen in 2011.

There's no easy to way to cut it about Will Campbell, however. A five-star defensive tackle coming out of high school from Detriot, MI, Campbell has largely failed to live up to his potential, and everyone knows it. Under Rich Rodriguez he was moved to offensive line where he naturally struggled, but fortunately Hoke had the foresight to move him back to the defensive line where he belongs. Campbell has a nasty streak to him that rivals Mike Martin's, but some believe that he hasn't lived up to his potential because the five-star status and courtship from major college football programs (obviously including Michigan) made him feel entitled. Unless he wants to be remembered as Michigan's biggest bust of a recruit in the last ten years, and if he wants any shot at the NFL, he'll have to be productive in the way he's never been.

Then, of course, there is the spotlight under center. Quarterback Denard Robinson wowed the Michigan fan base with his spectacular play-making ability in his first collegiate snap against Western Michigan, where his first impromptu scramble went all the way for a touchdown. Then when he took the job from presumed starter Tate Forcier, Denard lit up the college football world in games against Connecticut and Notre Dame, where he shattered school and NCAA records for most yards rushed in a game by a quarterback, and at the end of 2010 he was the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards each.

So why exactly hasn't Denard won the Heisman yet? Well, some think that it has a lot to do with the fact that Michigan simply didn't win enough in 2010. They were very good offensively, at least against terrible teams, but their defense and special teams were so bad that overall the Wolverines looked barely mediocre. These days most Heisman-winners don't come from 7-6 teams.

Denard's interception rate has largely held him back too. He was the only quarterback in the nation to throw 15 interceptions with fewer than 260 attempts. By contrast, Heisman trophy-winner Robert Griffin III threw only 6 interceptions in 2011 out of 409 attempts.

Fortunately for Denard, he's being coached by an offensive coordinator (Al Borges) who has a history of quarterbacks that took huge steps forward in their second years under his tutelage. Examples of this include Ryan Lindley at San Diego State, Jason Campbell at Auburn, and Cade McNown at UCLA. They all blossomed under Borges's coaching, and with each of them, the most important change was the lack of interceptions. Like them, Denard will have his eye on the pros if he can mature into a complete quarterback.

The seniors of 2011 faced great adversity over the course of their tenures--from Lloyd Carr's retirement to Rich Rodriguez's termination. The expectation when Brady Hoke came in, though he may have told them otherwise, was not steep, considering where the program had been. It's a little different for the seniors of 2012, who are a part of a unit that is one of the most deep, talented, and experienced in the Big Ten.

Earlier this year, Hoke hoped that by taking the seniors to a Navy SEAL three-day training camp, it would help them develop the leadership abilities that the previous seniors had, and ultimately help them reach their potential. Admittedly, after the great success of the 2011 season, the seniors have a lot of expectations weighing down on them, but they have the experience and the support needed to meet those expectations.

"You maximize the time you spend here," senior defensive end Craig Roh said in Countdown to Kickoff, when asked about how he feels about his final year at Michigan. "This is my last period of my fifth practice. This is my last first full-padded day of practice. It's something that you just look at the opportunities and you [say] I have to take full advantage of every opportunity that I have, from here on out."

"This is Michigan," senior center Ricky Barnum added, echoing Brady Hoke's trademark phrase. "One man drops the rifle, another man picks it up and keeps marching."

If they can do that, they should be able to maintain the level of success Michigan had in 2011, and carve out legacies for themselves along the way.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Incoming Freshman Ondre Pipkins Sustains Neck Injury

Well, this isn't good.

It was reported Friday morning that incoming freshman Ondre Pipkins, a five-star defensive tackle from Missouri, was taken to the hospital after suffering a neck injury during fall practice. At the time he "had movement in all of his extremities," a relatively clear signal that the injury would not result in paralysis. Pipkins was taken to the hospital primarily as a precaution, the report said.

Pipkins (6'3", 340 lbs.) was a standout player at the 2012 All America Game and was expected to deliver some key depth to the Wolverines greatly in need of some assistance on the defensive line. He drew much attention from Michigan not only for his amazing play as a high school senior, which garnered him five stars on, but also for his encouraging and playful attitude. Pipkins had a popular impression of Michigan head coach Brady Hoke which circled the web.

According to a report update posted hours later by Kyle Meinke at (where the neck injury was first reported before Michigan's athletic department released a statement), Pipkins appears to be doing well. He is walking around; he is not wearing a neck brace.

The Michigan athletic department's Twitter feed released this update:

And Pipkins himself later tweeted that he was alright:

Along with this gem, reflective of his playful personality:

So, crisis averted? Looks like it.

There was definitely plenty of panic to go around when the news broke of Pipkins' injury and what it meant for Michigan's defensive line (It was Not Good). Obviously, because neck injuries are often very serious, the greater concern was whether or not Pipkins' football career was over entirely, which surely would have happened had he been paralyzed. Thankfully, this doesn't appear to be the case.

Pipkins' injury came in what has seemed like a series of unfortunate events for the Michigan Wolverines. Earlier this week, it was reported that freshman defensive end Chris Wormley (Toledo, OH) tore his ACL during practice, effectively forcing him to sit out the entire season. Roy Roundtree apparently "tweaked" his knee but is expected back in a couple weeks after surgery. Fitzgerald Toussaint is being disciplined after being arrested for a driving under the influence in late July. And Will Campbell is also being disciplined after being arrested back in May for drunken behavior in which he accidentally damaged the hood of a car.

Most of these players are essential to Michigan's depth chart (I think Wormley is the exception because he has the benefit of plenty of depth ahead of him), and all are pretty much questionable for the season opener against Alabama. So, no, it hasn't exactly been a great summer.

Going forward, obviously many people will be following the development of Pipkins' injury and recovery (which now appears to have merely been a stinger), but I don't think we should expect Pipkins' to play in the season opener. It's tough enough having to go full speed when you're healthy, but there's nothing worse for a player or a team when someone's injury gets aggravated. This isn't to suggest that Pipkins' shouldn't practice or that he should definitely take a medical redshirt. I am simply stating that we, as fans, should not take this episode lightly and treat it like it never happened.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Can Roy Roundtree become the Next Junior Hemingway?

When it was announced that wide receiver Junior Hemingway would be wearing a special commemorative patch in honor of Desmond Howard, who also wore No. 21, on the eve of the "Under the Lights" game against Notre Dame, all eyes were on Hemingway as to how he'd perform.

In Spring 2011, the coaches had raved about Hemingway's potential to be a great Michigan receiver. "His upside is absolutely phenomenal," wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski told Michael Spath in the 2011 Preview issue of The Wolverine. "I don't think Junior realizes how good he can be; he's that natural at the position ... He has everything you want and if he can get himself in phenomenal shape that man could really make a big name for himself." In the Maple Street Press-sponsored preview of the 2011 Michigan football season, produced by Brian Cook (founder of, the analysis was similarly blunt for the fifth-year senior: "It's now or never for Junior Hemingway. This is the kind of offense that suits him."

In 2010, Hemingway had 32 total receptions for 593 yards and four total touchdown grabs. He wasn't the definition of a prolific wideout, at least not statistically, but he was reliable, a crucial trait that wide receivers would kill for and all quarterbacks want in a target. He also had an affinity for going up and catching jump balls--which is why analysts believed he'd be perfect for offensive coordinator Al Borges' more pro-style set.

Maybe it was the wearing of the No. 21 jersey, but in 2011 Hemingway had roughly the same number of catches (34) but increased his receiving yards to 699, more than a hundred from his previous year. He averaged 53.8 yards per game, his longest reception was 77 yards, and most of his big catches came in big games. Hemingway proved the difference maker in close contests against Notre Dame and against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and he was named the Sugar Bowl MVP. I'd say that was a pretty successful senior year.

The bigger story, however, was that Hemingway had eclipsed projected starter Roy Roundtree in terms of production. Roundtree, who had standout freshman and sophomore seasons, in which he had 32 catches for 434 yards in 2009 and 72 catches for 935 yards in 2010, took a slight nosedive in the stats, catching only 19 passes for 355 yards--roughly half of what was accomplished by Hemingway that same year.

Of course, it's harder to have the same number of receptions when the ball is not thrown your way. Wide receivers can't control their quarterback's decision to throw the ball any more than a quarterback can control their wide receiver's ability to catch it. Roundtree's dip in production could be attributed to Michigan's shift to a more pro-style passing attack, which naturally has less receivers, whereas the spread offense has as many as five, or it could be attributed to Hemingway's reliability as a downfield threat. There were probably many times when Denard Robinson banked on Junior Hemingway's ability to catch a jump ball.

It's not as though Roundtree isn't reliable himself. As much as Hemingway did Desmond Howard proud wearing the No. 21 in the 2011 night game against Notre Dame, it was Roundtree who caught the game-winning touchdown pass with only two seconds on the clock. It was his only catch of the night. He apparently realized that if you want the ball thrown your way, you have to ask for it.

"We were in the huddle, and Roundtree said, 'I'm going to get the ball. Just give me the ball. Give me a chance, and I'm going to catch it,'" Denard Robinson told ESPN's Chris Fowler in a post-game interview. Despite that being his single catch of the game, Roundtree made sure it was a good one. "I’m a team player," he said in the media post-game press conference. "I’ll go out there and put my hand in the dirt and block. I’m not really concerned about the ball. As long as we win, that’s what I’m here for. I’m a team player. I’m not stingy with the football, and now look, I got the game winner."

So Roundtree's got skills. He excited the Michigan fan base with his freshman season where he seemed like he'd be the next great Michigan wide receiver, and as a sophomore, where he racked up great yards. However, Roundtree's abilities haven't been perfect in those campaigns. He dropped several easy-to-make catches, the worst of which were frequently on third down, most frustratingly in the game against Ohio State in 2010.

Frustrated by the 2010 defeat against the Buckeyes, Michigan blog Genuinely Sarcastic counted Roundtree among the wide receivers who failed to produce when it counted: "The wide receivers are pretty good at catching the ball...except against legitimate, 'old school' Big Ten defenses. Then they get alligator arms and start dropping everything." Things obviously got better in the 2011 campaign, where Michigan's receivers (including Roundtree) were instrumental in their 11-win run that included a victory over the hated rivals.

Going into 2012, the Sports Illustrated Big Ten Preview has Roundtree pegged as the starter for the second year in a row. Alongside junior Jeremy Gallon, Roundtree (now a redshirt senior) is expected to fill the gap left by high-reception targets such as Hemingway and tight end Kevin Koger, both of whom have started their careers in the NFL. Perhaps hoping that he will replicate the same senior-year performance as did Hemingway, the Michigan coaches have bestowed on Roundtree the No. 21 jersey and the Desmond Howard patch.

"I know what it takes to wear the winged helmet and I know what it takes to be a Michigan football player," Roundtree said in an athletic department press release. "I won't disappoint wearing this jersey. It's an honor to be associated with Desmond Howard. I will live with it for the rest of my life."

How he received the honor was something of a surprise. "Coach Hoke and I discussed it, and one day I came into the locker room and went to the No. 12 locker and didn't see my name anymore," he said. "I laughed, looked around and there it was, at No. 21."

This is an interesting tactic by the Michigan coaches, if a tactic is indeed what it is. Typically--or, rather, traditionally--an outstanding receiver receives the No. 1 jersey as a distinction, but this has always been a reward rather than a motivation. (Of course, there has been many chicken-egg type arguments on it: Is it the player that makes No. 1 great, or is it the No. 1 jersey that makes the player great?) The last person to wear No. 1 as a Michigan tradition was Braylon Edwards, who was already fairly accomplished as a wide receiver by the time he received the honor. And even then, the No. 1 jersey had started as a tradition for honoring famed wide receiver Anthony Carter, who originally brought the number recognition.

When Junior Hemingway received the patch that honored Desmond Howard, I always figured it was more based on coincidence and done more as a recognition of Howard than as a recognition of Hemingway. The patch was going to whomever was wearing Howard's number. It wouldn't have mattered if that person was a freshman or a senior. But when Hemingway took the patch as an opportunity to stand out, it is conceivable that the coaches are hoping that Roundtree will honor the Desmond Howard patch in the same way. Or, at least, that's what's indicated by making Roundtree switch numbers.

By wearing the patch, Junior Hemingway didn't become the next Desmond Howard, but he did have a successful and productive senior season when the Wolverines desperately needed it. Because Hemingway responded so well to the constant reminder that Desmond Howard wore No. 21, the coaches probably thought they were on to something. Despite Roundtree's immense skills, we should not expect him to become the next Desmond Howard, who won the Heisman trophy in 1991. However, if Roundtree makes the most of his senior year as Junior Hemingway did (effectively becoming "the next Junior Hemingway"), then that would not only help Michigan out of a tight spot, it would also be extraordinary and memorable.

It is certainly doable: there are no receivers on the depth chart with more experience than Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon, and Roundtree has already moved to Hemingway's spot (Flanker). When Denard Robinson has to throw the ball, he'll most likely have to throw to Roundtree.

During spring practice, he discussed his switch from Slot to Flanker. "I've played Slot before," Roundtree said. "I've been through it all. And now moving to Flanker, it's just going to help me learn another position, and seeing Gallon out there running never know. You may see us switch up sometimes because Coach Borges [is] really a mind freak when it comes to the playbook."

Facing its toughest schedule in years, Michigan will be counting on Roundtree to make reliable catches this season. And being that this is his last year, his situation going forward is fairly similar to Junior Hemingway's: It's now or never. If Roundtree can have a great season, Michigan will have a great season.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Expectations for Brady Hoke's Second Year

Last year, around this time, there was a lot to talk about in terms of news because Michigan had just hired new coach Brady Hoke and a lot of people were not entirely sure how his first year was going to go. We at the Michigan Fanatic wondered this as well, starting with the expectations for Hoke's first year.

As you can see, there were several priorities which hit the "High" mark in terms of our expectation: Most important was snapping the losing streak to Ohio State, and the second was showing remarkable improvement on defense. Snapping the losing streak to Michigan State also ranked on the extremely high mark.

Hoke snapped the losing streak to Ohio State, made Michigan competitive on defense, utilized Denard Robinson effectively, and won a BCS bowl, all of which is noted in the 2011 season-in-review post. Now Hoke enters his second year with arguably the most experienced offense in the conference, a potential Heisman candidate at quarterback, and great players at wide receiver, line backer, cornerback/safety, running back, and kicker, all of which are field tested and battle hardened.

So the expectations for Year Two are slightly different. Some are slightly higher, while others are slightly lower. You'll notice that there are less priorities in this go-around than last year's. That's largely because most of the priorities of 2011 were of a first-year coach, and Hoke has already achieved some of those.

1. Win the Big Ten Championship
Priority Level: High

Chalk this one up as Brady Hoke's No. 1 priority for 2012. He may have beaten Ohio State, he may have beaten Notre Dame, he may have beaten Nebraska, he may have won a BCS bowl, but as far as Brady Hoke is concerned, 2011 was a failure. Not a monumental failure, mind you, but he cannot reiterate enough how they failed to meet their goal, and their goal is to win the Big Ten championship.

The Wolverines have all the tools this year to signal that achieving this is not only possible, it is doable. Denard Robinson is a senior at quarterback. Michigan has depth behind him in Devin Gardner (who may be doubling as a wide receiver) and Russell Bellomy. Roy Roundtree is a senior. Jordan Kovacs is a senior. There is depth at running back with Fitzgerald Toussaint (whose current status is still undetermined) and Thomas Rawls. Vincent Smith is a playmaker. Even senior Will Campbell is looking to have a big year (the biggest of his career, actually) as the leader of the defensive line. All of the experience is there.

The only major concerns in Michigan's roster are on the offensive and defensive line. Team leaders such as David Molk at center, Ryan Van Bergen at defensive end, Mike Martin at defensive tackle, and Kevin Koger at tight end have all graduated. This leads some to believe that Michigan will, if anything, take a step back in terms of wins and losses. However, let's not forget that Hoke and Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches who both stress that the game is won and lost in the trenches, took a 110th-ranked defense and made them the 14th-ranked defense. If they can do that in one year, I'm confident they'll manage the offensive and defensive lines. If there was ever a time where Michigan is poised to make a run at the conference championship (something they haven't done successfully since 2004), it would be now.

Granted, Michigan doesn't have the benefit that, say, Wisconsin does. The Badgers have a cakewalk to the Big Ten championship, with two powerhouse teams in the Leaders Division ineligible to even compete in the postseason. In the Legends Division (Michigan's division), all of the teams are eligible, and all of them except maybe Minnesota are legitimate contenders for the spot. Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Northwestern have just a good a chance as Michigan does of going to Indianapolis.

Last year I placed this priority at the Medium level because I thought it was more important for Hoke to snap the losing streaks to rivals and establish some momentum. While even this year individual games such as Michigan State receive the Extremely High priority level, winning the Big Ten championship is a very big deal this year. There is no reason why Michigan shouldn't be able to do it. Let's hope they can.

2. Defeat Alabama in Season Opener
Priority Level: Medium

Is anyone really expecting this to happen? I would say that I'm hoping for it, but not expecting it. Obviously the implications if Michigan is able to defeat the reigning national champions are enough to make any skeptical or cynical Michigan fan giddy with excitement over the possibilities. Michigan is currently ranked at No. 8 in the coaches' poll, which may seem a bit high. I had expected Michigan to be somewhere around the 20-22 ranking, much like Penn State was when they faced Alabama in 2011. But I suppose it kind of makes sense: if Michigan loses, they drop to anywhere from No. 20 to No. 25. If they win, people are talking national championship and Michigan is in the Top 5, maybe even No. 1.

Brady Hoke's first game of 2012 is no where near as important as was his first game of 2011. I had listed that game as "High" on the priority scale because Hoke needed to establish some early momentum and take home the inaugural victory that eluded Rich Rodriguez when he coached his first Michigan game against Utah in 2008. That expectation was based largely on what it would mean for the results. For him to be universally seen as a better coach, Hoke needed to be better than Rodriguez. That meant he needed to win his first game.

When Michigan meets Alabama in Dallas, Texas, in the "Cowboys Classic" on September 1, it won't be Hoke's first game as Michigan's head coach. It won't have any bearing on whether or not he can lead Michigan to the Big Ten championship. Even if they lose to Alabama, the following game is against Air Force in the Big House--a game which many Michigan fans consider the true season opener. Hoke will be able to recover from a loss with a win over Air Force. A loss to the Crimson Tide won't affect Michigan insofar as it will be probably the toughest game they play until Ohio State. It is possible for Michigan to lose to Alabama and still go 10-2.

3. Defeat Notre Dame to create a Four(!) year winning streak
Priority Level: Medium

I still cannot believe we won the night game last year. I still watch the last 1:41 on Youtube and cheer when Roy Roundtree caught that touchdown pass with only two seconds left in the game. I still go read Notre Dame liveblogs and open threads and see the panicking comments of Irish fans: how they freak out that Michigan has beaten them yet again, how they realize that they are now 0-2 when they were supposed to go undefeated, how they waive goodbye to a BCS bowl. It is glorious schadenfreude.

I didn't expect us to win that game last year. Michigan's priorities seemed more focused on getting the defense together and focusing on rivalry games like Michigan State and Ohio State, both losing streaks that needed to be snapped. Michigan already had a winning streak going against Notre Dame. I was also trying to get people to focus more on the MSU and OSU games because Notre Dame seemed like one we could very well lose, and I didn't want people unnecessarily getting all upset with Hoke when it was just his second game. But no, he won anyway, and that propelled Michigan to a 6-0 start. Thanks, Brady. Thanks for making me feel like an idiot for predicting a loss. (He did the same thing with the Nebraska game.)

To say that Notre Dame and Brian Kelly are feeling pressure to win this game is probably the biggest understatement of the year. Things are heating up for the coach in South Bend, and Brady Hoke did Brian Kelly no favors by exasperating the 0-1 start to 0-2--and in a last-second thriller no less. If Brian Kelly fails to beat Michigan for the third time in a row (which will make Michigan's winning streak over the Irish top out at four, which started with Charlie Weis's final loss in 2009), it will signal the beginning of the end for the Kelly regime and there will be people within the Irish fanbase saying he has to go.

Having played Alabama, Michigan will already be battle tested by the time they face the Irish in South Bend. Yet like the game against the Crimson Tide, this one has no bearing on Michigan's standing in the Big Ten. Michigan can lose to both Alabama and Notre Dame and still play in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines have had the edge in the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry as of late, and no one seems to know what that edge is. Maybe Notre Dame is experiencing the good old-fashioned irony of some perpetual bad luck. A win against them would be great, and it would further the notion of the Irish's woes. If nothing else, this game will be a good indicator of how Michigan performs against other teams outside the Big Ten.

4. Snap the Losing Streak to Michigan State
Priority Level: Extremely High

This isn't just a pride thing anymore. The Spartans are legitimate contenders for the Big Ten title for the third consecutive year, and they are Michigan's most palpable obstacle to the championship. It used to be that Michigan State was the little brother who couldn't keep up with Michigan, no matter how hard they tried. It's not that way anymore. No one is making fun of Michigan State these days. The era of incompetence under John L. Smith (colloquially called "Sparty No!" by Michigan fans) is over. Mark Dantonio has shown that he can coach. As one Michigan blog points out, the Spartans have transformed into a legitimate football team.

So this isn't just some pithy rivalry over who has bragging rights for another year, where Michigan fans have to sit back and take verbal abuse from Spartans and reassure themselves that things will be restored to the natural order next season, or where Michigan State fans have to grumble and grudgingly accept another loss to Michigan while dealing with their annual inferiority complex. This has become a true rivalry where Michigan State has just as much of a conceivable chance to get to the Big Ten championship as Michigan does. That means that winning this game is more important than ever.

The Spartans have their weaknesses, however. They'll be breaking in a new quarterback in Andrew Maxwell, who served as the backup to Kirk Cousins for two years. Even Dantonio has admitted that replacing Cousins--statistically Michigan State's best quarterback of all time--is a massive challenge. Naturally, MSU fans are confident Maxwell is up to the task, but the biggest question going into 2012 will be if he can replicate Cousins' abilities as a leader. They also lose key playmakers at wide receiver and running back. B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol, Keshawn Martin, and Edwin Baker are all gone.

Where the Spartans really shine is in their defense, which looks to be just as foreboding as it was last year. The priority for Michigan to put something together when they were unable to do in 2011 cannot be anything other than astronomical. The Wolverines are also playing them at home. In 2010, everyone hoped that a defeat of the Spartans would mark a turning point for Rich Rodriguez, but it didn't happen--Michigan was humiliated. When Hoke came in, everyone thought the change at the helm would mean a change in the in-state rivalry when he traveled to Spartan Stadium. It happened on the recruiting trail, but not on the field. If Hoke has any hopes of getting to the Big Ten Championship this year, this is a game he absolutely has to win.

5. Beat Ohio State
Priority Level: High

I know what you're thinking: how could this be anything other than Extremely High? Well, when it comes to Michigan and Ohio State this year, there isn't quite as much riding on the table. Hoke has already beaten them as a first-year Michigan coach, entering the pantheon of other recent coaches to do the same in their first years (Schembechler, Moeller, and Carr). The victory snapped the losing streak, so a lot of the pressure is off to do so, and a lot of the scrutiny of whether or not Brady Hoke is the "Right Guy" has dissipated for the same reason.

Ohio State is ineligible to compete for the Big Ten championship this year. That statement, in and of itself, has several connotations for The Game that will be played on November 24 in Columbus. It will effectively be Ohio State's last game of the season. It will also be the only opportunity Michigan has to play Ohio State in the season. (In some circumstances, Michigan and Ohio State could theoretically meet for a rematch in the Big Ten championship game. That is definitely off the table this year, ramping up The Game's importance to both sides.)

Brady Hoke might consider this priority Extremely High. In fact, he probably does. Nothing would be better than for Michigan to spoil Urban Meyer's first year as the Buckeyes' head coach by coming into their house in their last game of the season and coming home with a victory. It would be adequate payback for all those years where Ohio State left Michigan heartbroken in defeat. Make no mistake: regardless of the circumstances, The Game is just as important as it always has been. Some will say that is more important to Ohio State than it is to Michigan. That just means, for Michigan, it's all the more important to beat them.