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[Ed: This was originally published in our Michigan football season preview guide In the Huddle by Lindy's Sports. With Michigan set to visit Nebraska for the first time in over 100 years and this being the 15-year anniversary of the shared national title, I thought it would be appropriate to post for those who didn't read the preview mag. Before the season, I had the opportunity to speak with both Brady Hoke and Tom Osborne about it.]
It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed since Michigan stood atop the college football mountain and surveyed the landscape as national champions. In the 14 seasons that followed, controversy has surrounded the BCS nearly ever year, and all indications point towards some sort of playoff within the next couple of years. But for those who either have short memories or are too young to remember, the glorious season of 1997 also ended in controversy.
While Charles Woodson and Brian Griese celebrated the Associated Press title following a Rose Bowl win over Washington State, Nebraska claimed a title of its own, from the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll. Both teams officially share the national title from that season and both argue that their own is more deserving, but who is the rightful owner of the crown?
“That’s a great question and one that will never be answered, unfortunately,” said Brady Hoke, who was an assistant on Lloyd Carr’s staff at the time. “But at the same time, I think we had a pretty good football team that year.”
The coach on the other side of the equation, Tom Osborne, wanted a matchup between the two and was disappointed to have had to face Tennessee in the Orange Bowl.
“The team that we wanted to play was Michigan,” said Osborne. “Because of the Rose Bowl tie-up we were not able to do that, and that was unfortunate. So we went down and played Tennessee. We played the best we could and couldn’t control the votes, but we would have very much liked to have played Michigan.”
Both teams had impressive seasons and it’s hard to dream about going back in time and playing a game between the two without salivating. However, many Michigan fans believe the writers crowned the most deserving team while coaches gave the nod to Nebraska to honor retiring head coach Tom Osborne who had also won national titles in 1994 and ‘95.
“I could see maybe that type of sentiment if we had never won one,” said Osborne. “I don’t know that somebody would vote for a national champion because you’re retiring. Maybe somebody did, I don’t know, but since we had won some national championships recently, I would somewhat discount that thought.”
Nebraska fans argue that the Cornhuskers’ decisive 42-17 Orange Bowl victory over No. 2 Tennessee was more impressive than Michigan’s 21-16 win over Washington State, and it’s hard to dispute that fact. But if one looks back to the fateful November Saturday, dubbed “Judgment Day” by ESPN, one sees the discrepancy from the other angle. Nebraska fell from the No. 1 spot thanks to a miracle touchdown that helped the Big Red beat unranked Missouri in overtime, while Michigan captured a dominating 34-8 road win over then-No. 2 Penn State.
The win catapulted Michigan to the No. 1 spot and dropped Nebraska to fourth as Florida State and Penn State leapfrogged the ‘Huskers.
Nebraska’s miraculous win was disputed at the time because receiver Shevin Wiggins kicked the ball up into the air, keeping it alive after it had been broken up, and it fell right into the arms of a diving Matt Davidson. Critics argued that it should have been ruled an illegal kick penalty. It wasn’t and it became the symbolic play of the season for Nebraska.
“It’s just one of those things that happens,” said Osborne of the play. “If you’re going to go out and win them all in the course of a season, normally you can point to one or two or three plays that if the ball had bounced differently or somebody had picked off a pass, you wouldn’t have won.”
Michigan, meanwhile, didn’t face any controversy in rolling through its competition. Although Michigan piled up 34 points on Penn State, the Wolverines weren’t known for their offense that season. The calling card was the defense, which allowed more than 16 points just once all season, in a 28-24 win over 15th-ranked Iowa. That was Michigan’s closest game of the year, having to overcome a 21-7 halftime deficit, then score with 2:55 remaining to take the lead. Linebacker Sam Sword ended the game with a red zone interception with 31 seconds remaining.
Against an 0-2 Notre Dame squad in Week 3, Michigan needed 14 third quarter points to grab the lead and then relied on its defense to stop the Irish despite three fourth quarter turnovers. The Wolverines won 21-14.
In the second to last weekend of the season, Michigan faced a tough trap game in Madison but won 26-16, setting up a showdown with fourth-ranked Ohio State the following week. In that game, Michigan took a 13-0 halftime lead thanks to a 37-yard reception by Charles Woodson to set up the first touchdown and then a 78-yard punt return touchdown by Woodson.
In the third quarter, Woodson picked off Ohio State quarterback Stanley Jackson in the end zone and fellow cornerback Andrew Weathers returned an interception 43 yards to give Michigan a 20-0 lead. Ohio State scored a pair of touchdowns, but Michigan’s defense held on. The performance solidified the Heisman Trophy for Woodson, which he won over Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, who was shut down by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
While Michigan’s defense was king in ’97, Nebraska relied on its offense. The Cornhuskers scored 35 or more points in 10 of 13 games and scored more than 50 five times.
Just like Michigan played a pair of close games, Nebraska had a couple of dicey moments during its run. The aforementioned overtime win over Missouri was the closest, but Nebraska also had to hold on to beat a Colorado team that finished the season with a losing record of 5-6.
Heading into the bowl games, Michigan had 69 of 70 first place votes in the AP Poll and 46 of 62 in the Coaches, a solid majority in both. Following the bowl games, Nebraska made up a few votes in the AP (51.5 to 18.5) but it was the Coaches poll that saw the biggest shift. Nebraska captured 32 of the first place votes to Michigan’s 30.
Michigan faced six ranked teams throughout the season, four of which finished the season ranked. Nebraska played four ranked teams, and five that finished the season in the top 25. Another Michigan opponent, Michigan State, fell from the final rankings following a bowl loss to Washington, a Nebraska opponent.
The combined final record of opponents was 75-69 (Michigan) and 77-74 (Nebraska), so the difference is negligible. The Cornhuskers had an extra game due to the Big 12 Championship game.
As for common opponents, each team played Colorado and Baylor. Michigan beat Colorado 27-3 in the season opener while Nebraska held on to beat the Buffaloes 27-24. Michigan beat Baylor 38-3 while Nebraska beat the Bears 49-21.
“We felt we played a tough schedule, and Michigan felt they played a tough schedule,” said Osborne. “They won them all, we won them all. We felt we played a very difficult opponent in the bowl game. I’m sure they felt they played a very difficult opponent. We did win convincingly over a very strong Tennessee team, but votes fall where they may and I don’t have any problem one way or another.”
As you can see, determining which team is the rightful national champion is impossible without the two battling it out on the field. Unfortunately, the debate will live on and the two teams will continue the budding rivalry as Big Ten Legends division foes. And that’s just fine with Hoke who judges the success of his seasons on winning Big Ten titles.
“That’s so much out of our hands. I don’t know if there was any feeling besides we were proud that we went undefeated and went out and won the Rose Bowl.”
Six days after Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon announced he was firing embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez, the speculation, flight-tracking, and rumor-mongering was put to rest with the announcement of the hiring of Brady Hoke as the 19th head coach in Michigan football history. But while the waiting ended, questions abound as to whether this was the right move.
After proclaiming in last Wednesday’s press conference that he would seek out a “Michigan Man,” Brandon met with Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles, both former Wolverine players under legendary coach Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh was considered the top choice for most Wolverine faithful, and when he accepted the head job with the San Francisco 49ers, Brandon seemingly turned to Miles. While Miles’ ethics were called into question by many Michigan fans, most accepted him as a logical choice to replace Rodriguez given his success at LSU.
We went to bed Monday night expecting Miles to become Michigan’s new head man on Tuesday. However, early Tuesday afternoon, Miles was taken out of consideration when LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva stated, “Les has led this program to many great successes on the field and his players represent LSU well off the field. We look forward to many great years of LSU football under his leadership.”
It didn’t take long before Hoke was named head coach and Michigan fans are left with more questions than answers. Brandon insists Hoke was the guy from the beginning and that Harbaugh and Miles were never even offered the job, but if that’s the case, then Brandon has a lot at stake in the coming years.
Don’t get me wrong; beginning with Hoke’s introductory press conference on Wednesday, I’ll fully back the new coach and root for him to become Michigan’s next Bo. If he can turn the program around, he will certainly become a legend in Ann Arbor. But that doesn’t mean I think it was the right move for the short term or the long term.
For starters, I think Brandon jumped the gun and caved into the pressure in his first year as Michigan’s AD. Of course he will mask it by saying that leaders have to be willing to make tough decisions even when unpopular, but in reality, the pressure from the media and boosters was too much, forcing Brandon’s hand at least a year early.
Rodriguez had improved each season, from 3-9 to 5-7 to 7-6 and a New Years Day bowl game. Granted, the bowl wound up being the worst bowl loss in Michigan history and the three-year stretch is the worst percentage-wise in in Michigan history, but that’s as much a reflection on the original decision to hire him as it is about his ability to coach. Fans, boosters, and alumni were screaming for change when Lloyd Carr retired and then-AD Bill Martin hired just what they wanted. However, it was going to take time, which apparently was never agreed to by those requesting the change. The year-over-year improvement at least warranted a fourth year, given the number of returning starters and the vast amount of youth on the defensive side of the ball. At the very worst, if Rodriguez failed to improve in year four, Hoke would still be available and Brandon could make the decision much earlier in the process than Jan. 11 so as to not hurt the incoming recruiting class.
This is nothing against Hoke as a man or as a coach. He represents everything a Michigan football coach should: a passion for Michigan football, previous coaching experience at Michigan, a history of success, hard-nosed recruiting, and unquestioned ethics. I grew up with his niece and nephew, proud that I had a connection to a Michigan coach during the glory years of the late 90s. I like the guy and think he will succeed at Michigan…eventually.
Unfortunately, I think this decision means another two or three years before we can expect to challenge for Big Ten titles. The past three years have been spent recruiting for the spread offense. Recruiting Denard Robinsons instead of Tom Bradys, Martavious Odoms instead of Braylon Edwards, Vincent Smiths instead of Tyrone Wheatleys, and Patrick Omamehs instead of Jake Longs. In short, Hoke will have to fit Rodriguez’s guys into a completely different system than what they were recruited for and have practiced in the past three years, which is exactly the issue that landed Rodriguez on the unemployment line after just three seasons.
Brandon said one of the pieces of criteria for the new coach is the ability to adapt his system. The biggest question Hoke will face early on is whether he can adapt his traditional pro-style offense to fit the skills of Robinson, the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. If Robinson chooses to remain in Ann Arbor, this move could ultimately help his NFL potential by making him a more complete quarterback. Perhaps Hoke will bring back former UM quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler who developed John Navarre and Chad Henne, and in his most recent gig, Tim Tebow at Florida.
Regardless, it’s hard to imagine hiring Hoke as being an upgrade from keeping Rodriguez for a fourth year. Will 2011 yield better results with Hoke? It’s doubtful.
Next season’s Wolverines are going to be a good team no matter who is coaching, with 10 starters returning on each side of the ball and the addition of senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk who missed the entire year with an injury. The schedule sets up nicely with Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State all at home and Penn State and Wisconsin off the schedule. A fourth year in Rodriguez’s system and a second-year starter in Robinson would have surely improved on its 33 points per game. And the defense would have been better with the return of Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, who missed the final five games, and simply because as the nation’s 110th-ranked total defense, there’s virtually nowhere to go but up.
A serious run at the Big Ten title was not out of the question for next season under Rodriguez, and with several top recruits including Demetrius Hart, who had committed to Rodriguez (and has since committed to Alabama) in the fold, the program was destined for success. It just didn’t happen quickly enough for an impatient and arrogant fan base.
Now, here we are with the irony of all ironies, with the same fans and boosters who were clamoring for change because nine wins a season wasn’t good enough now calling for a mulligan. The school was embarrassed the past week with a national coaching search which, at least on the outside, looked like a joke, because of a decision that leaves Brandon in a tough spot if the transition this time around turns out similar three-year results as the one he just ended. I don’t think we’ve become Notre Dame yet, but if that happens, we’re well on our way.
All that said, I hope Hoke proves to be the best possible option for Michigan football and goes out and wins the Big Ten championship in 2011 and restores a sense of pride and the air of ‘the Victors’ to Ann Arbor. He certainly knows Michigan traditions, the importance of beating Michigan State and Ohio State, and how to win in the Big Ten. While I can’t fault Rodriguez for lacking those attributes, it’s one area in which Hoke is an improvement. And who knows, maybe it means more than we think. Welcome back, Coach.
As if any more commentary on the current Michigan coaching situation is called for, I need to bring closure to the regular season by injecting my stance into the conversation.
It has been no secret over the course of the past three seasons that I have supported Rich Rodriguez. I have been one of a group that has been declining in number and popularity by the week and I’m not quite ready to give in just yet.
It was our beloved legend Bo Schembechler who once said, “When your team is winning, be ready to be tough, because winning can make you soft; on the other hand, when your team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing.”
I suppose you can support the team but not Rodriguez, and the argument could be made that if you truly want what’s best for the team you should want the coach who has gone 15-21 in the past three seasons gone, but I’m still believing. I’ve never been one to make knee-jerk decisions. I believe in giving people a chance and standing by a decision. I also think a college football coach should be given at least four years, or long enough to field a team full of his own recruits.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way things work these days. We’ve let our fast food mentality permeate our sports expectations to the point that if a coach doesn’t win the national championship in his first season, fans are already calling for his head.
In the case of Rodriguez, the reasons things have gone the way they have gone have been discussed over and over again, so I won’t get into that. Instead, I’ll present my reasoning for wanting to keep him.
To begin with, progress has been made in each of Rodriguez’s first three seasons. In 2008, the team went 3-9; in 2009, it went 5-7; and in 2010, it is currently 7-5 with a chance to make it 8-5 with a New Years Day bowl win over Mississippi State.
The tired, “Yeah but it’s Michigan” meme needs to stop because it’s arrogant and ignorant. I want nothing more than to be winning Big Ten championships and playing in BCS bowls year-after-year, but three years ago we were all clamoring for a change from that. We were the ones unhappy with simply competing for Big Ten titles each year and getting blown out by USC in Rose Bowls. We were the ones excited when Lloyd Carr retired because of the possibility of ushering Michigan football into the modern era.
Then the father of the spread offense came to Ann Arbor and inherited a team full of Carr’s guys, and they weren’t the ones that led the team to those Big Ten titles. They’re now playing on Sundays. He was left with walk-on Nick Sheridan and freshman Steven Three to quarterback his first Michigan team. We all know how year one went: offensive ineptitude at a level Michigan hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
The offense scored just 243 points in that first season, an average of just 20.3 per game, as it struggled to move the ball on anyone other than Minnesota. It lost at home to Toledo, Northwestern, and Purdue and got trounced by Notre Dame, Illinois, Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Those games weren’t even competitive and we all had our egos bruised.
|Scoring Off. Ranking||98||45||22|
|Rush Off. Ranking||60||27||11|
|Pass Off. Ranking||108||81||35|
|Total Off. Ranking||111||59||6|
|Scoring Def. Ranking||80||79||102|
|Rush Defense YPG||136.92||171.92||187.67|
|Rush Def. Ranking||49||92||94|
|Pass Defense YPG||230.0||221.42||260.25|
|Pass Def. Ranking||87||69||111|
|Total Def. Ranking||69||81||108|
|*Rankings reflect national ranking|
Year two saw Rodriguez bring in some of his own guys, his first true recruiting class, and he finally had the anchors of his offense in quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.
Forcier was the quarterback to lead the Wolverines that season and the freshman growing pains were evident but the team showed significant progress. It scored 354 points, an average of 29.5 per game, and stayed competitive for much of the season. It beat Notre Dame, took Michigan State to overtime, and nearly came back to beat Iowa on the road, but still failed to really compete against Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, and lost again to Purdue.
Progress was made, but it was essentially a freshman offense. It’s hard enough to win with a quarterback who was at prom six months ago, let alone when his surrounding cast is made up of youth as well.
This season, enormous strides were made offensively and Michigan improved to one of the best offenses in the nation, scoring 412 points, an average of 34.3 per game. The team turned a lot of heads eraly in the season with the breakout performance of Denard Robinson, who beat out Forcier for the starting spot. Robinson broke the NCAA FBS quarterback rushing record by 149 yards and still has a bowl game to add on to that.
Michigan crushed Connecticut, which won the Big East, outlasted Notre Dame on the road, and won a three-overtime thriller over Illinois, but was still unable to beat the big boys of the Big Ten, which has been the biggest knock on Rodriguez to date.
The critics say that beating up on the Indianas and Purdues of the world don’t mean anything if he can’t beat Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and most importantly, rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. That’s true, but it depends on whether your definition of improvement consists of a giant leap for mankind or stepping stones. If you expect Rodriguez to be Neil Armstrong, then you’re sorely disappointed. But if you see the slow and steady improvement as reason to believe, then you should be confident that the wins over the big boys are coming soon.
Two years ago, Michigan wasn’t good enough to beat Toledo. Last year, it could beat the MAC, but couldn’t beat Illinois or Purdue. This year, it beat Illinois and handled Purdue on the road, but still couldn’t crack the top dogs. The logical line of progression would be a couple of wins over those guys next season.
I believe it’s coming because the offense is only going to get better with another year of experience and only one departing starter, and the defense only has one way to go: up.
With the offense, let’s take a look at Oregon. Last season, the Ducks went 10-3, averaging 36 points per game. It had the nation’s sixth-best rush offense and 33rd-best total offense. It outscored the majority of its opponents, but lost 19-8 to Boise State and also lost to Stanford and in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. In short, it was a really good offense, but still waiting to break out.
This season, the Ducks’ offense exploded. It is first in the nation in points per game (49.33), second in total offense, and fourth in rush offense. Most importantly, it’s undefeated and set to face Auburn in the BCS title game on Jan. 10.
I think Michigan’s offense has a chance to blow up next season similar to Oregon this season. Robinson will be in his second season as the starter, all the running backs will return with the addition of big-time recruits Justice Hayes and possibly Dee Hart*, all receivers return from a group that was pretty dynamic this season, including one of the Big Ten’s best in Roy Roundtree, and the majority of the line returns as well. It will be the fourth season in Rodriguez’s system, which will allow the unit to function on a higher level.
While the offense has progressed in each of the past three years, the main problem has been the defense which has seemingly gotten worse each year. But despite the decline from allowing 28.9 points per game in 2008 to 33.83 this season, I believe the defense is due to break out like the offense did the past couple of seasons.
It’s no secret that this year’s unit was riddled with injuries and youth. Just as it’s hard to win with a freshman quarterback, it’s even harder to stop anybody with freshmen on defense. One or two freshmen can succeed if surrounded by experienced talent, but when your entire defense is relying on freshmen surrounded by sophomores, you’re begging for trouble.
I’m not trying to make any excuses for the defense, but we knew heading into the season it was going to be rough. Then, the week of the opening game, the senior leader of the unit, Troy Woolfolk suffered a season-ending ankle injury, leaving the defense without its leader.
Next season, Woolfolk returns, and the only defensive players who played prominent roles that Michigan loses are linebackers Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh and lineman Greg Banks. Mouton was hit-or-miss this season. He was Michigan’s best linebacker by default, making some big plays, but he also tended to overpursue and take poor angles, leading to big runs. Ezeh lost his starting spot midway through the season and Banks played well at the end of the season, but his departure will allow Craig Roh to move into the end spot that he should have been in all season.
The one bright spot of playing so many young guys so prominently is the experience they gained. Many people criticized Rodriguez for playing his guys and installing his offense right from the start in 2008, but that has paid off with one of the nation’s best offenses this season. The defense will follow a similar progression in the next couple of years. If it can just improve to average next season, it should be good for another couple of wins.
This season, it’s 102nd in the nation in scoring defense. It doesn’t have to be top ten, but even if you put it at 60th, which is exactly middle-of-the-road, it would have given up 7.5 points less per game. That would have turned many of the losses this season into much closer games and would have given the offense a chance to win them.
The most popular conjecture among Michigan fans right now is that defensive coordinator Greg Robinson should be fired, but I’m not 100 percent sold on that either. The young defense needs consistency above all, since it has had three different coordinators in four years. The only reason I’d be in favor of giving up on Robinson is if Rodriguez can lure West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel away from Morgantown.
Casteel was Rodriguez’s coordinator at WVU and runs the same 3-3-5 defense that Rodriguez has Robinson running at Michigan. Casteel has kept the Mountaineers’ defense ranked highly, and this season it ranks second in the nation, giving up just 12.75 points per game. Michigan would be in the BCS national championship game this season with that defense.
All that to say, I think Rodriguez has the building blocks in place to continue getting better and to warrant another season in Ann Arbor. His players love him, he does some great things off the field, and his speech and actions at last Thursday’s Michigan football bust shows a passion that Michigan fans should revere, not mock.
Jim Harbaugh^ seems to be the flavor of the week right now, just like Rodriguez was three years ago, and he’ll most likely still be at Stanford next season. If I’m wrong, and continued progress isn’t present in 2011, then I may be willing to go after him at that time. I just don’t think the time is right yet.
*There has been some recent speculation of Hart switching his commitment to Alabama, but nothing has been confirmed yet.
^I do like Harbaugh, and if Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon does decide to can Rodriguez and hire Harbaugh, I will fully support him. But like I said above, I’m not ready to give up on Rodriguez yet because I think his best days are ahead.
Since last week was Michigan’s bye week, I decided to take a week off to regroup and catch up on sleep. I spent Wife Day 2010 making the ultimate sacrifice: accompanying my wife and her parents (all die-hard Notre Dame fans) to the Notre Dame-Navy game in the New Meadowlands Stadium.
It just so happened to fall perfectly during Michigan’s bye week, meaning I didn’t have to draw the ire of the in-laws by wearing my Michigan garb to the game while following the game updates on the Blackberry all game as I did two years ago when I accompanied them to the ND-Navy game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore during the Michigan-Northwestern game.
This time around I threw on a shirt with the Ireland flag on it to somewhat appease them (hey, it’s Irish but not the Irish).
As I watched Navy fullback Alexander Teich shred the Irish defense for 210 yards and three touchdowns and the Notre Dame offense fail to get anything going, it really made me proud to be a Michigan fan. Not despite what we have gone through the past couple years, but because of what we’ve gone through.
Throughout the entire game, I got the pleasure of listening to Larry, Mo, and Curly, three Notre Dame alums who looked to be in their 50s and were seated right behind me, banter on about the state of the Notre Dame program. They already have the pitchfork out for ND head coach Brian Kelly. And they have already written off junior quarterback Dayne Crist, despite the fact that he was playing without his top target, Michael Floyd, calling for Nate Montana after Crist’s second quarter interception that led to a Navy touchdown just before the half.
While I was thoroughly enjoying that running commentary, I was following Iowa State’s win over Texas on my Blackberry. Yeah, that’s right, I said Iowa State’s win over Texas. A year after playing for the BCS National Championship, Texas is struggling to remain competitive to the point that some are suggesting that Mack Brown is on the verge of retirement because the game has passed him by.
I strongly doubt that’s the case, but Texas could be headed to a 7-5 or 6-6 season, which is as good or worse than where Michigan is headed this year.
A week earlier, I sat in a sports bar in D.C. watching Florida drop its third straight game, this time at the hands of Mississippi State. Yep, Mississippi State. At 4-3 and with games against South Carolina and Florida State remaining, 7-5 is likely, which would be the worst record since Ron Zook’s last season in 2004.
Meanwhile, on the west coast, USC is 5-2, but lost to 3-4 Washington and struggled to beat Virginia and Minnesota. With No. 2 Oregon on the slate this week and Arizona, Oregon State, and UCLA still to come, USC looks to be headed to a down season as well. Add in the probation Pete Carroll left behind and the violations sure to come by Lane Kiffin in the coming years, and things aren’t looking up in L.A.
With so many recent college football powers struggling this season, it’s hard not to look at Michigan’s situation and get excited about where the program is headed. Michigan was in a similar position to Florida and Texas in the late 90s when Lloyd Carr guided the Wolverines to the National Title and subsequent double-digit win seasons. But then the losses started to creep up. 10-2 gave way to 9-3, which gave way to 8-4 and 7-5. Before we knew it, a senior-laden Michigan team lost at home to Appalachian State and got trounced by Oregon the next week.
Yes, Michigan was a game away from the BCS National Championship in 2006, but Carr wasn’t able to beat the big boys in bowl games and forgot how to beat Ohio State once Jim Tressel took over. In short, Michigan wasn’t Michigan anymore. It was just an old reliable Toyota, while Michigan fans were screaming for a Lamborghini.
When Carr retired after the 2007 season, athletic director Bill Martin made the decision to transform that Toyota into a Lamborghini with the hiring of Rich Rodriguez. Japanese had to become Italian, which meant statues with robotic arms had to become dilithium with dreads, linemen had to be able to actually move instead of just get in the way, six-foot tall jump-ball receivers had to become slot-ninjas that were just as adept at run blocking as catching passes, and linebackers had to be able to move sideline-to-sideline to chase down running backs.
The general mindset these days, especially in sports, is one of impatience. We want our coaches to win national championships before we get to the pick-up window for our Big Mac. And if it’s a minute too late, we want a refund.
But as Michigan fans, we need to take a step back and examine the process, take a look at how far we’ve come in the past two-plus years. Maybe Les Miles would have turned us into an instant champion or maybe he’d be driving us crazy. It’s time to stop wondering about what if and start looking at where we’re headed.
Notre Dame is a perfect microcosm of what we don’t want to be. Since Lou Holtz left Notre Dame in 1996, the Irish have hired five head coaches, four of which have coached a game, and many are already calling for the latest to go. In eight of those 13 seasons, Notre Dame lost six or more games and is headed that way this season as well.
Michigan reached that the past two seasons, but is on pace for just four or five losses this season, which means the team has grown leaps and bounds since Rodriguez’s first season and is headed in the opposite direction of the aforementioned teams.
2008 was a shock to Michigan fans everywhere, many of whom had never witnessed a losing season. We were shell-shocked and our egos were bruised. But the product on the field was like Ichiro Suzuki trying to become a Cardinal in the Vatican. Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan trying to run the spread resulted in a dismal 3-9 record and an average of just 20 points per game.
In 2009, two Italian engineers were hired, one from San Diego and one from Deerfield Beach. They were still a little new to the Lamborghini business, so the initial model yielded limited results. Flashes of brilliance eventually stalled and the result was slightly better at 5-7, with an average of 29.5 points per game.
This season, those engineers have a year under their belt and are coming up with some great concepts, but are still trying to piece together the right formula. The engine is more precise, churning out 36 points per game through the first seven and already as many wins as last season, but the old Toyota brakes still need some work. Pads and discs are on backorder, so for the rest of this season, it’s all about seeing how far down the throttle can go.
The next three games should tell the story. Coming off a bye week, Michigan heads to Penn State, which looks to be without freshman quarterback Robert Bolden and a host of other injured starters. If any game is ripe for the picking it is this one. Illinois and Purdue follow, and there’s nothing to indicate Michigan won’t win at least two, if not all three, of those.
At 7-3 or 8-2 heading into big showdowns with Wisconsin and Ohio State, Michigan will have met or exceeded expectations from the beginning of the season, with a long shot to steal one of the final two.
If you can’t see the year-over-year progress and get excited about the near future of Michigan football, then it’s time to jump ship, because you were probably one of the poor souls booing the team off the field at halftime last week.
While it’s frustrating to lose games, if you take a deep breath and look at the transformation that’s going on with our beloved football program, it’s pretty exciting. The reason we can be excited and glad we’re not Notre Dame, Texas, Florida, or USC right now is because we are progressing; our pendulum is on the upswing.
And in couple of years, when we’re riding our Lamborghini past Ohio State’s Chevy and into the National Championship, we’ll look back and realize that those trials and tribulations only made us stronger.
Being a Michigan fan that grew up in Ohio and currently lives in New York, I’m constantly bombarded with ridicule from friends and family about the state of the Michigan football program.
“Wow, Michigan has really fallen apart; I don’t think they’ll ever be the same,” one will say, or “Don’t you wish you had a quality coach like Tressel?” another will ask.
In passing conversation, especially with an Ohio State fan, it’s impossible to adequately describe the perfect storm that has been Michigan football the past two seasons.
So as we enter Week 1 of the 2010 college football season, let’s put into words how Michigan’s recent demise, while frustrating, is not quite as bad as it seems.
Be Careful What You Wish For
On the surface, it’s easy to pronounce, “Carr never had a losing season and Rodriguez has losing seasons in each of his first two years, therefore, Rodriguez is a terrible coach and must be fired.”
Yet, a little critical thinking will tell you that there’s more to it than that. The blame for the past two seasons should be as much on former Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin as on Head Coach Rich Rodriguez. It was Martin, after all, who decided to take Michigan down a completely new path to modernity following Carr’s retirement after the 2007 season.
Carr was a conservative coach who continued the success of his mentor, Michigan legend Bo Schembechler, combining with Bo and Gary Moeller to guide the program to 40 straight winning seasons and 33 straight bowl games. His teams were never going to go out and put up 60 points or step on an opponent’s throat while it was down. But they were never going to get blown out either.
That was both a blessing and a curse. Carr’s safe approach, whether it was punting on fourth-and-one from the opponent’s 45 with a minute and-a-half left in the half, or running three straight times to wind down the clock late in the game while clinging to a two-point lead, worked out more often than not. However, in the few instances when it gave the opponent enough time to score before the half, or gave the opponent the ball back with a chance to drive for the winning score, it was enraging. Michigan fans were constantly calling for Carr to stop being so conservative and some were even calling for him to be fired.
When Martin went out and hired an offensive innovator from West Virginia, some Michigan fans were disappointed that he didn’t get former Michigan offensive lineman Les Miles, while others were intrigued by the notion of the spread offense in Ann Arbor.
Martin knew upon hiring Rodriguez that, while he was an offensive genius, that coaching IQ fit a certain system. His style of coaching doesn’t mesh with the 320-pound offensive linemen and statuesque quarterbacks of Michigan past. He needs smaller, quicker offensive linemen and dual-threat quarterbacks. Whether you think that’s the sign of a good coach or not, that’s what Martin hired.
Right off the bat, Michigan fans expecting a carry-over from the Schembechler/Moeller/Carr regime were in for a letdown. That blame cannot be pinned on Rodriguez.
An Empty Cupboard Won’t Yield a Feast
Carr officially retired following the 2007 season, but he seemingly checked out a couple of years prior. He first hinted at calling it quits prior to 2007 and many believe that had Michigan beaten Ohio State in 2006 and advanced to the National Championship game, Carr’s exit would have come then.
He entered 2007 with a senior four-year-starter at quarterback (Chad Henne) and a hot-shot freshman (Ryan Mallett) backing him up. Part of Carr’s bait to hook Mallett, the number two quarterback in the 2006 high school class, was that the job was his when Henne graduated and Carr wouldn’t recruit a quarterback in the 2007 class.
Mallett, however, had trouble adjusting to Ann Arbor, butting heads with Carr during his freshman season, while being thrust into playing time during Henne’s injury-plagued senior season. By all accounts, Mallett intended to return home following that season regardless of who the coach was in 2008.
Following that season, Henne graduated along with four-year starting running back Mike Hart and left tackle Jake Long (the 1st overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft). Junior wide receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington chose to enter the Draft and left guard Adam Kraus graduated, leaving Rodriguez with just a handful of returning starters on offense, none of which were suited for his offense.
The coaching transition was further slowed when Rodriguez lost out on Terrelle Pryor to Ohio State and offensive lineman Justin Boren bolted for Ohio State, bad-mouthing the program on his way out.* Pryor’s talents fit Rodriguez’s system and would have made some difference in 2008 and Boren certainly had the talent, but wasn’t committed to working hard enough for Rodriguez’s system.
Instead, Rodriguez was left with less talent and experience on offense than the majority of college football. His choice at quarterback was a freshman (Steven Threet) or a walk-on junior (Nick Sheridan), neither of which had any game experience and neither was suited for Rodriguez’s system. That alone wouldn’t have doomed the Wolverines had there been an experienced supporting cast to make up for it.
The best running back Rodriguez had was also a true freshman, Sam McGuffie, a Carr recruit who would have redshirted in any normal situation. The top receiver was a true freshman as well, Martavious Odoms, one of Rodriguez’s first recruits at Michigan who is more suited to be a supporting receiver rather than the lead role.
It’s certainly no stretch to say that no team in college football history has succeeded with freshmen starting at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, no matter how highly-touted they are coming out of high school. It’s also no stretch to say that no coach in the country could have fared well with what Rodriguez had to work with in 2008.
Essentially, Rodriguez had two choices: to design a completely new playbook to fit the talents of the players Carr left behind or to begin installing his spread ‘n shred offense.
The former might have yielded another win or two that season, allowing Threet and Sheridan to be drop-back passers and McGuffie to run for three yards and a cloud of dust. Yet it would have set back the progression of the offense Rodriguez was going to install – the one he made his living on in working his way up from Glennville State to Tulane to Clemson to West Virginia and, ultimately, to Michigan.
The latter would at least get that progression started for Odoms and the rest of the players recruited by Rodriguez specifically for that offense.
Again, keep in mind that Martin didn’t hire a coach who then surprised everyone by running some wacky offense that no one knew about. Martin knew when he hired Rodriguez that he was essentially a system coach and the best in his field.
To expect that system to work from Day 1 is ludicrous even if he had Henne, Hart, and Long. Simply put, Michigan didn’t have the right players and that’s not Rodriguez’s fault.
Imagine if Schwinn Bicycle Company hired a new CEO who decided the company was going to start making airplanes. While the company is great at making bikes, handlebars and spokes will only fly so far. Mr. CEO would have to begin acquiring the necessary components to build airplanes and it wouldn’t happen overnight.
In the world of college football, players stay in a system for four or five years, making the roster turnover a slow process. It’s impossible to just get rid of 100-plus players of the old regime and bring in 100-plus of your guys. It takes four or five years to turn over the roster, and in theory, the results should progress each year.
By planting the seeds of his offense from Day 1, Rodriguez began to water the roots of his system.
In 2009, Rodriguez was able to land two quarterbacks that fit his offensive style, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. Threet transferred to Arizona State when he realized he was a square peg in a round hole and Sheridan was relegated to third string.
In one sense, Rodriguez has progressed with Odoms and the rest of the returnees from 2008 already having a knowledge base of the system. But on the other hand, he was back at square one, having to start another true freshman at quarterback.
Even so, the offense showed marked year-over-year improvement, going from 20.2 points and 290.8 yards per game in 2008 to 29.5 points and 384.5 yards per game in 2009. It just lacked consistency as a result of inexperience.
Reporters With an Axe to Grind
The next fodder for the anti-Rodriguez crowd is the allegation of cheating which was exposed by the Detroit Free Press last August. While all kinds of conspiracy theories exist, the fact is that the Free Press’ reports were nothing short of slanted, biased and exaggerated.
The paper’s writers, Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder, succeeded in creating a national sense of animosity towards Rodriguez and ego-boosting by fans of other schools.
The NCAA’s probe, released in February found five violations that in any other situation would be considered the minor, slap-on-the-wrist types that are constantly self-reported or overlooked by other schools. However, as a result of the “Freep Jihad,” the NCAA came down hard, finding five so-called major violations.
While all are nothing more than what would be found at nearly every other school in the country, the national perception is that Michigan and Rich Rodriguez knowingly cheated. It’s easy to create that perception when you’re a reporter with an axe to grind. Just find a couple of disgruntled former players who will gladly trash their former coach as well as a few ignorant freshmen and distort their words. In that way, the situation in Ann Arbor is different than everywhere else.
There is no doubt that Ohio State would find itself behind the eight-ball if the Columbus Dispatch decided to declare jihad on the school. Just this summer the Ohio State athletic department self-reported 13 minor violations between Jan. 1 and July 1, six involving the football program. In fact, since 2000, Ohio State has self-reported 375 minor violations (across all sports), the most of any school in the NCAA. By comparison, Oklahoma has self-reported 224 and Florida 112.
This leads to two possible conclusions: either Ohio State purposely crosses the line just a little bit, and decides every now and then to self-report just to keep the NCAA at bay; or Ohio State’s athletic department and coaching staff don’t monitor the rule book well enough to know that they shouldn’t keep making these kinds of mistakes.
Either way, if the Dispatch decided that instead of just reporting these violations, they were going to dive in and blow them out of proportion, the NCAA would almost certainly have to come down hard.
So the issue isn’t that Rich Rodriguez is a cheating scumbag; it’s that he didn’t meet the standards of two local reporters.
I’m not saying that Michigan wasn’t wrong, but failing to count 10 minutes of stretching as countable practice time certainly doesn’t justify the national perception created by Rosenberg and Snyder, nor does it create any more of a competitive advantage than those 375 minor violations at Ohio State.
To Paraphrase Arnold, We’ll Be Back
So now that Rodriguez finds himself firmly on the proverbial hot seat, many consider him all but gone if Michigan fails to have a great season this year. But that’s not the case.
If absolutely no progress is shown and another losing season is the end result, then it could happen. But a winning season, a bowl game, and signs of progress assure a fourth season on the job because 2011 promises to be a good one.
Following this season, Michigan loses only one starter on the offensive side (left guard Stephen Schilling) and two on the defensive side (linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton).
When senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk went down with a season-ending ankle injury last week, it was both a blessing and a curse. Woolfolk won’t be able to help out a very thin secondary this season, but intends to come back for his senior season in 2011, so a position that will be a weakness this season will be a strength next year.
In addition to 18 starters returning (19 if you count getting Woolfolk back), quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will be in their third season running the offense. By then, their comfort level will be enough to ensure an offense sure to be as vaunted as those Rodriguez featured at West Virginia.
The schedule also sets up nicely with Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Ohio State at home, Penn State off the schedule, and Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and San Diego State as the other non-conference opponents (although the conference schedule may change due to the realignment and addition of Nebraska).
In other words, Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon would be ill-advised to fire Rodriguez after this season unless things really blow up. I don’t support firing him this season anyway, since 2011 will really be the determining season.
Consider 2010 the primer for a run at the inaugural Big Ten Championship next season. Don’t write off Rodriguez and the Wolverines just yet, because it’s not quite as bad as it seems.
*Many have also piled on Rodriguez for the players that have left the program for various reasons, such as Boren and wide receiver Toney Clemons who transfered, Justin Feagen and Boubacar Cissoko who were kicked off the team, and others who failed to qualify. Yet they forget that Carr had the same troubles.
In 2007 alone, Carr dismissed tight end Carson Butler, defensive end Eugene Germany, and cornerback Chris Richards from the team for violating team rules, backup quarterback Jason Forcier (Tate’s older brother) transfered to Stanford, and linebacker Cobrani Mixon transfered to Kent State (all of which subsequently hurt the depth of Rodriguez’s teams).
This article is inspired by a similar article written by the Detroit News’ Angelique Chengelis.
As spring practice nears its midway point and the college basketball and hockey seasons come to a close, I can’t help but look ahead to August. August is when every recruit is on campus, not just the early-enrolling freshmen, battling in the sweltering heat to get ready for the impending season. It’s also when the magazines put out their college football preview issues chalk full of team breakdowns and predictions.
While I can’t wait for August to roll around and the season opener against Connecticut to kick off on September 4, I want to look ahead even further. Further even than next season. I’d like to present my bucket-list, if you will, of teams Michigan should schedule for out-of-conference games in the future.
The winds of change are sweeping through the Michigan athletic department with Dave Brandon, the former Domino’s Pizza CEO, taking over the Athletic Director post. Brandon, who played at Michigan under Bo Schembechler, has already steadfastly stood in front of reporters deflecting questions on the impending NCAA violations and announced that the first-ever night game in the Big House will take place in 2011 against Notre Dame.
With the shift in football philosophy the past couple of years away from the traditional pro-style offense to the spread-option attack of Rich Rodriguez, this isn’t your same old Michigan football anymore. Whether you think that to be good or bad, it’s the present reality.
Even the tradition has undergone a bit of a change as of late. The gameday music has shifted to less of the Michigan Marching Band and to more piped-in electronic music. The secrecy from inside “The Fort,” (Michigan’s practice facility, Schembechler Hall) has transformed into what some feel to be too much openness. Heck, maybe president Obama could use a few pointers from this coaching staff on openness.
Biggest of all, on September 4, the newly renovated Big House, complete with luxury boxes and giant brick façades on either side, will open up, signaling a departure from Michigan football as we knew it and an entrance into big-time, money-making college football. The only piece of tradition Michigan Stadium still holds onto is the lack of corporate advertising inside the stadium.
For a while, I resisted the changes. But time has a way of easing those concerns, and now I welcome them with open arms. I’ll always hold dear the days of Schembechler and Lloyd Carr. Yet I can hardly contain myself thinking about the possibilities of getting back to Michigan’s dominating fashion, but doing it in a 21st Century way.
The past couple of seasons have been hard to watch. Whether it was Sam McGuffie getting decapitated against Ohio State or Tate Forcier throwing an interception in overtime against Michigan State or the defense failing to stop, well, anyone, the past two seasons have been abysmal. 2010 presents a seemingly make-or-break year for Rodriguez, so having the usual suspects on the schedule (Notre Dame and a couple of cupcakes) is a welcome sign. Connecticut won’t be a push-over, but at least it’s not a power-conference rival opening the season.
Once we get back to the level of play one would expect from the nation’s all-time winningest team, whether it’s with Rodriguez at the helm or not (but hopefully with), I’d like to see the schedule take a departure from the usual Mid-American Conference cupcake feast to the meat and potatoes of the college football land.
So, I present to you, my wish-list for future non-conference opponents.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. Michigan fans despise Florida. The Big Ten despises Florida. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) stops at nothing to brag, rightfully or wrongfully about its college football supremacy in the past decade.
Head-to-head in bowl games since 2000, the SEC has won 15 and the Big Ten has won 14. However, head-to-head in BCS games, the SEC has a 3-1 advantage, and the SEC has claimed five national championships to the Big Ten’s one.
Michigan has done its part, going 5-1 against the SEC during that time, including 2-0 against Florida, both in the Gators’ back yard. In fact, Michigan has always done well against the SEC, compiling an all-time record of 20-5-1. Ten of those wins were against Vanderbilt, and Michigan has never played LSU or Mississippi State. The only school that has a winning record over Michigan is Tennessee, which pounded Michigan 45-17 in the 2002 Citrus Bowl.
Just think: Florida traveling to Ann Arbor or Michigan playing in the Swamp in a September showdown. Urban Meyer vs. Rich Rodriguez (assuming Rodriguez doesn’t get fired and Meyer doesn’t actually retire). The mastermind of the modern spread-option offense against the guy who’s used a version of it to claim two of the past four national championships. SEC speed vs…..SEC speed in the Big Ten?
It has all the makings of a huge game and Brandon should make it happen as soon as possible. The only problem? It would take a lot of convincing to get Florida to travel outside of the south for a non-conference game.
Since 1990, Florida has played 68 non-conference games. All but one of those were in the state of Florida and 56 of the 68 were home games. Of the 12 road games, 10 were at Florida State, one was at Miami, and the lone out-of-state game was a loss at Syracuse in 1991.
In other words, Florida hasn’t traveled more than 337 miles for an out-of-conference game in 19 years.
Getting Athletics Director Jeremy Foley to agree to travel the 1,033 miles to Ann Arbor will likely require Brandon to agree to travel to Gainesville twice, give up his first-born, and supply Foley a lifetime of free pizza.
But here’s to hoping.
Michigan has never played LSU, but with the recent success of the Tigers, and former Michigan player and assistant coach Les Miles at the helm, a match-up would be compelling.
As described above, Michigan has enjoyed incredible success against teams from the SEC, but this would be the first-ever game between the schools.
Imagine the possibilities: Miles, who was the undeniable favorite amongst Michigan fans and alums to replace Lloyd Carr, returning to the Big House, not as the coach, but as the opponent.
Or Michigan traveling to Baton Rouge for a night game in Death Valley, where LSU is 209-59-4 in night games since 1960.
This is probably more likely to happen than Florida, as LSU is willing to travel outside of its friendly confines.
The Tigers visited Washington last year, Arizona State in 2005, Arizona in 2003, Virginia Tech in 2002 and Notre Dame in 1998.
A home-and-home with Michigan would be compelling, whether Miles was still at LSU, or Michigan fired Rodriguez and hired Miles to replace him.
The Sooners get the nod for the third spot on my wish list because they are one of the few schools that Michigan has a losing record against.
The teams’ only meeting was the 1975 Orange Bowl. The Barry Switzer-led Sooners beat Michigan 14-6 to claim a second straight national championship.
Michigan hasn’t fared as well against the Big 12 in the past couple of decades as it has against the SEC, going 2-4 since 1990.
Oklahoma has been one of the best teams of the past decade, playing in four of the past 10 championship games and winning the national title in 2000, and featuring two of the past seven Heisman Trophy winners.
Bringing the Sooners to Ann Arbor would be a huge draw as the all-time winningest college football team takes on the fourth-best in an early-season matchup.
It would be the spread-n-shred against traditional power football and certainly have national championship ramifications for the winner.
4. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech has also been one of the best programs of the past decade and, like LSU, is an opponent that Michigan has never faced.
Tech doesn’t have the history of the others, but may represent college football in the 21st century more than any other team in the nation.
It was Virginia Tech that showed what the spread offense can do, when quarterback Michael Vick led the Hokies to the BCS National Championship game in 1999.
Coach Frank Beamer’s team has been one of the most exciting teams to watch with dominating special teams, and never shying away from playing big-time opponents.
Last season, Virginia Tech played Alabama and Nebraska in the non-conference schedule. In 2007, Tech traveled to LSU and in 2004, it hosted No. 1 USC.
A home-and-home would make sense regionally, because it wouldn’t be too far of a travel for either team. Night games in Blacksburg have dominated ESPN the past few years, and seeing the blue jerseys and winged helmets contrasted with the all-white with maroon trim of Virginia Tech would certainly be a sight worth seeing.
In 1988, No.1 Miami needed an onside kick and a two-point conversion in the final six minutes to cap a 17-point comeback, beating Michigan 31-30 in the Big House.
Michigan won the first meeting 22-14 in 1984.
Rodriguez has recruited the Miami area heavily since taking over in 2008, so the game would make sense recruiting-wise for Michigan as many of the players would be able to play in front of friends and family when Michigan returns the trip.
Eight players on Michigan’s roster this spring are from south Florida and three more arrive in time for fall camp.
Miami puts as many players into the NFL as any school in the country and a matchup between the two schools would surely be an instant classic.
1. West Virginia – But only if Rodriguez is still the coach at Michigan and leads them back to challenging for national championships.
2. Texas – The only meeting between the two was the 2006 Rose Bowl, which Texas won on a last-second field goal. The only reason I don’t have this higher on my list is because Ohio State just had a home-and-home with Texas.
3. Alabama – Nick Saban has built Alabama into a powerhouse in just a couple of years. The reigning national champs would make for a great matchup with Michigan. Michigan was 3-2 against Saban when he was head coach at Michigan State.
4. Florida State – Like Miami, Michigan and Florida State have met just twice, with each side winning once. In 1991, FSU rolled up 51 points, the most ever by an opponent in the Big House at the time. With FSU under the new leadership of Jimbo Fisher, a home-and-home with Michigan should be scheduled soon.
5. Stanford – Stanford is on its way up thanks to head coach and former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The programs have met 10 times before, with Michigan winning six, but the last time was in 1976. Like West Virginia, I only like this matchup if Harbaugh is still at Stanford.
6. Boise State – This one is more for the novelty. Boise State has been the “Cinderella” of the decade, knocking off Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and finishing 14-0 last season. Many have complained that BSU doesn’t play anybody out-of-conference, so if Michigan was willing, the Broncos would listen. Plus, the winged helmet on the smurf turf would be fun.
It’s unlikely that any of these out-of-conference matchups will happen at least until Michigan’s rivalry with Notre Dame takes a two-year break in 2018-19, but it would be fun to see, especially once Michigan gets back to being, well, Michigan.
In the meantime, however, I’m happy with a diet of cupcakes to help the young Wolverines grow up.
There was a time when Michigan-Ohio State was all you heard about during the third week of November. It was all over the airwaves, all over the television, all over the newspapers, and all over the Internet.
That time was not a long, long time ago. In fact, just three years ago, it was called “the game of the century” when both teams entered undefeated, ranked first and second in the nation.
This week, however, the game has been somewhat of an afterthought.
Headlines read “Once-mighty Michigan-Ohio State rivalry now just another game,” or “Ohio State-Michigan series has slipped in stature.”
Sportscenter teased a segment of Kirk Herbstreit talking about the weekend’s big Oregon-Arizona match-up.
Staring a sixth straight loss to Ohio State and a second straight losing season in the eye, Michigan hasn’t done its part to dispel the notion that the rivalry is dead.
Cheer up, Michigan fans. And lighten up, national media. Remember that things were the other way around last decade when Michigan went 10-2-1 against Ohio State from 1988-2000.
Ohio State wasn’t exactly in the doldrums that Michigan finds itself in at the moment, but maybe that makes Michigan’s run all that more impressive.
But it doesn’t mean the rivalry isn’t as big as it used to be.
Whether Michigan has the right coach or not, Michigan fans better show up loud and in full support of him and the rest of the boys in maize and blue on Saturday. Because there’s a group of Michigan men in Ann Arbor this weekend that know a thing or two about pulling off a major upset.
In 1969, Bo Schembechler’s first season as Michigan head coach, Michigan hosted the undefeated, first-ranked Buckeyes, led by Woody Hayes.
Many people regarded that team as the greatest college football team of all time. It had pounded Michigan 50-14 the year before in Columbus and Hayes’ crew had a 22-game winning streak riding into the ’69 meeting.
Michigan had struggled through six losing seasons in the last 10 years and brought Schembechler in from Miami of Ohio.
Bo was an outsider. He brought a tough love coaching style to Ann Arbor in the summer of ’69 and vowed to have the most well-coached, well-conditioned team in the Big Ten. Many players jumped ship and left the team, because they were used to the old way of doing things. But Bo issued a challenge: Those who stay will be champions.
In that first season, Bo’s squad got off to a 3-2 start, including a loss to its other rival, Michigan State. It entered the Ohio State game a 17-point underdog.
In the previous year’s meeting, when Ohio State scored its final touchdown, Woody Hayes went for two. When asked why, he replied, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”
Battered and humiliated, Michigan was hungry for revenge. And on that fateful November day in 1969, Michigan got its revenge and ushered in a new era of Michigan football. An era that spanned 40 years and ended last season when Lloyd Carr retired and Michigan athletic director Bill Martin hired the first man from outside the program since the man who began that era.
Rich Rodriguez, just like Schembechler, was brought in to resurrect a stagnant Michigan football program.
Rodriguez didn’t coach under Jim Tressel at Ohio State as Schembechler coached under Hayes, but he brought a high-octane offensive system to Ann Arbor that promises a new and exciting brand of Michigan football.
Somewhere in the past two years since Rodriguez was hired, he got portrayed as an outsider who doesn’t care for the Michigan tradition and doesn’t embrace its rivalries the way Bo and Woody and Carr and Tressel did.
Yet this week, the members of that 1969 team that pulled off that big win will be in attendance to help motivate the present squad.
Earlier in the week, leading up to the biggest game of the year, a sound was heard emanating from the practice field. That was the sound of legendary Michigan broadcaster Bob Ufer.
It was Ufer who wrote the following poem in the aftermath of that game 40 years ago from Sunday.
“They came to bury Michigan, all wrapped in Maize and Blue
The words were said, the prayers were read and everybody cried.
But when they closed the coffin, there was someone else inside!
The Bucks came to bury the Wolverines, but Michigan wasn’t dead!
And when the game was over, it was someone else instead!
Twenty-two Michigan Wolverines put on the gloves of grey,
And as Rivelli played ‘The Victors’, they laid Woody Hayes away!”
Those who stayed in 1969 became champions, just as Bo said. They won the Big Ten championship and represented the conference in the Rose Bowl.
Rodriguez’s entrance to Michigan was eerily similar to Bo’s, in a 21st Century kind of way. Players left because they couldn’t handle the demands. But some stayed. Good players stayed and endured the worst season in over 40 years. And they came back again for a senior season to try to right the ship.
Senior defensive end Brandon Graham will most likely be a first round draft pick next April, but on this day, all he cares about is capturing the magic of that ’69 team. He spoke to the team during the week in a players only meeting. You can bet he has these young guys fired up and ready to play.Can Graham will Michigan to a win on Saturday and give Rodriguez his signature win? The one that ends this two year run of futility and truly ushers in the new ear of Michigan football? No one gives Michigan a chance, but it’s time to add the intrigue back to the rivalry.
The boys in the winged helmets will certainly be juiced up and ready to go. The inspiration will be there, but the problems that have plagued Michigan all season won’t go away.
Michigan must play a perfect game to win. It must hope the Terrelle Pryor from the Purdue game shows up instead of the Pryor from every game since.
If Ohio State plays anywhere near perfect, it will win easily, just like it handled Penn State and Iowa.
I’ll split the difference and say that emotion and inspiration will carry Michigan early and Michigan will hang around much of the game, but fade down the stretch.
Prediction: Ohio State 26 – Michigan 17
But hey, they said the same thing 40 years ago, so I hope I’m wrong.
With the calls for Rich Rodriguez’s firing growing louder each week, and the threat of a second straight losing season, Michigan enters Ohio State week in what could be the most important game for the Wolverines in the history of the rivalry.
Sure, there was the “Game of the Century” in 2006 when both teams entered the game undefeated and ranked 1st and 2nd in the nation.
Sure, there was 1997 when Michigan needed a win to advance to the National Championship game.
Sure, there was the huge upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Bo Schembechler’s first season in 1969, a year after Ohio State drubbed Michigan 50-14, to claim a share of the Big Ten title.
But Saturday could be more important for the future of the Michigan football program than any of those.
No, there isn’t a Big Ten title on the line or a BCS berth to play for.
But for a young Michigan team struggling to find its identity in the midst of the most dramatic change to the program in decades, a win over Ohio State on Saturday would have huge ramifications for the future.
First and foremost, a win would make Michigan bowl-eligible. Though not guaranteed a bowl invitation with a 6-6 record, Michigan is almost certain to get one given its prestige and fan following.
Even if it is the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (formerly known as the Motor City Bowl) it would be a tremendous boost to the program for the extra practice time and national exposure.
The regular season ends this Saturday, Nov. 22. The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is held on Dec. 26, so Michigan would essentially have an extra month of practice. For a young and developing team, that extra practice time would be invaluable.
Many of the freshmen only had a month of practice time before the season started. Tate Forcier and a few others left high school early to enroll in January and participate in spring practice.
But most, including quarterback Denard Robinson, arrived just in time for fall camp on Aug. 10 and opened the season against Western Michigan on Sept. 5.
During the season, there isn’t much the team can work on as it prepares for each opponent week-to-week. Much of Rodriguez’s system was installed in fall practice to get ready for the season.
During game weeks, the practices are spent working on getting ready for that week’s opponent and fine-tuning certain details. Various players miss practices every week because of injury, stinting their learning ability and practice time.
New wrinkles may be installed or specific plays that the coaching staff thinks can exploit the opponent can be put in, but the vast majority of what the players learn (the schemes, the playbook, the fundamentals) is learned during fall practice.
That’s why many times a team can look quite different in a bowl game than it did during the regular season, because that month of practice serves as another fall camp.
Injured players get healthy, new plays and schemes are installed and practiced until they become second nature, and confidence is gained while the losses of the season are forgotten.
Look no further than Michigan in 2007, for example. The team, in Lloyd Carr’s final season, sputtered to an 8-4 regular season record. It endured a humiliating home loss to Appalachian State, a blowout at the hands of Oregon, and got shut down by Ohio State.
In the bowl game, the Capital One Bowl against a 9-3 Florida team led by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Michigan showed a much more dynamic and diverse offense than it had all season, winning 41-35.
It left Michigan fans wondering what could have been had Michigan played that way all season and also excited about the future of that style of offense once Rodriguez was hired.
And while Rodriguez’s offense has shown great promise and flashes of brilliance at times this season, it’s still plagued by inexperience.
A bowl game and the extra month of practice time would do wonders for this young and developing team.
In addition to the extra practice time, making it to a bowl game will give Michigan exposure on a national stage during the holidays at a time when everybody is watching, and a chance to finish on a high note heading into the off-season.
Nobody wants to endure eight months of misery like what followed Michigan’s 3-9 season a year ago. By finishing the season with a win over Ohio State and a bowl game, Michigan fans will be excited about 2010, and the players will be confident heading into the off-season.
The second reason Saturday’s game is so important is that beating Ohio State would help with recruiting. Michigan has quite a few visitors coming to Ann Arbor for official visits.
A chance to see Michigan beat its major rival in the Big House on the final week of the season would go a long way toward helping a recruit tip the scales in Michigan’s favor.
Eight of Michigan’s 24 commitments in the 2007 class were in attendance for the Michigan-Ohio State game in the Big House that year.
And while Michigan didn’t win that game, it wasn’t quite in the dire situation it is in now with a need for talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
If Michigan lays an egg against Ohio State and boos rain down from the stands, the attending recruits won’t have as good an experience as if Michigan pulls off the big win.
Some of the visitors expected to be in attendance on Saturday include: Chula Vista, Calif. four-star linebacker/safety Tony Jefferson; Pittsburgh four-star cornerback Cullen Christian; Jacksonville, Fla., four-star safety Rashad Knight; Detroit four-star cornerback Dior Mathis; and Eagle Lake, Fla., four-star safety/linebacker Marvin Robinson.
Robinson is already committed to Michigan, but has talked in the past few months about visiting other schools. A big win and a great experience on Saturday could help solidify his commitment.
Jefferson is currently committed to UCLA, and is visiting Florida next weekend, so showing him what it’s like to beat Ohio State in the Big House could go a long way toward stealing him.
Christian is also a prized recruit, since he’s a cornerback, a position Michigan really needs to fill, due to the dismissal of Boubacar Cissoko and possible departure of Donovan Warren to the NFL.
He has already visited UCLA and West Virginia (and possibly Pittsburgh), so Michigan has a chance wrap up his commitment with a great showing on Saturday.
Michigan needs to make this weekend special with a glimpse of what the future holds for the program and show these kids that despite the recent struggles, the program is heading in the right direction.
The third reason a win over Ohio State on Saturday would be huge for Michigan is for the support of Rodriguez and a reward for the senior class.A win won’t completely erase the anti-Rodriguez sentiment, but it will at least quiet down until next season and win back some of those who have turned against him.
His 8-15 overall record and 3-12 Big Ten record includes just one win over Michigan’s big three rivals (and that was Notre Dame this season).
That stat alone has caused much of the friction among Michigan fans, since one of their main charges against Carr was that he couldn’t beat Ohio State once Jim Tressel arrived in Columbus in 2001.
Winning on Saturday would make Rodriguez 2-4 in that category, but more importantly, give Michigan its first win over the Buckeyes since 2003.
In addition to helping quell the Rodriguez detractors, a win would give the senior class its first win over Ohio State.
Guys like Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, Brandon Graham, Stevie Brown, Greg Mathews, and Zoltan Mesko, who hung around through the coaching change, deserve a big win to cap off their careers.
Some of them (Graham and Mesko, at least) have bright futures ahead of them in the NFL and have played hard without complaining all season, despite not being Rodriguez’s recruits.
While “deserve” might not be the right word, since nothing in life is deserved, it would be a major disappointment for those guys to go their entire career without beating Ohio State.
A loss would end Michigan’s season at 5-7 (its second straight losing season) and give Ohio State its sixth straight victory in the rivalry.
It would send Michigan home for the holidays and keep the senior class winless against the Buckeyes.
It would leave feelings of despair and depression among Michigan fans worldwide until next fall.
It could prevent some highly-touted and much-needed recruits from choosing to play football at Michigan, and therefore, stunting the growth process even further.
So while many of the previous 105 games in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry have featured higher stakes in terms of championships, this Saturday’s game could be the most important game in the history of the rivalry for Michigan.
So let’s hope that everyone is all in for Rodriguez and the senior class when toe meets leather at high noon on Saturday.