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.

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