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Michigan Wolverines Season Preview

This past month, I have been focusing my writing towards Michigan football as part of an internship that I received over the summer. This position that I have provides Michigan Wolverines football coverage to rural Michigan newspapers. Some get published and some do not; for those that do end up in papers or online, I will post a link to each newspaper’s website. Lastly, as I complete each article (pregame and postgame plus some extras), I will try my hardest to put them on my blog in a timely manner. My first article, a season preview written about a month ago, is below. As always, feel free to leave comments!

Scott

The last time the Michigan Wolverines took the field, the Mississippi State Bulldogs handed Michigan their worst defeat in the storied franchise’s bowl game history, a horrendous 52-14 romping at the Gator Bowl. In a game that Wolverines fans would soon try to forget, the defense allowed 485 yards while the Bulldogs’ defense stymied the Big Ten Conference MVP Denard Robinson. Four days later, head coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff were fired, giving Rodriguez a three-year record of 15-22 as Michigan’s coach. Athletic Director David Brandon immediately embarked on a nation-wide search for the Wolverines’ new leader. Big name alumni like LSU’s Les Miles and Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh were tossed around, but Brandon chose lesser-known San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke for the position.

The initial talk around Ann Arbor was, “Brady Who?” Few were familiar with the former head coach at San Diego State University, who also served as the defensive line coach and associate head coach to Lloyd Carr in his first few years as Michigan head coach. However, Hoke’s first press conference, in which he stressed the importance of the team, strong character, and the rivalry with Ohio State, reminded many longtime Wolverines fans of the ideals that legendary head coach Bo Schembechler preached to his teams. Since that opening press conference, Hoke has exhibited unwavering confidence in his players; the real question will be whether the players can back up their coach’s expectations.

Offense

The brightest point of the Michigan football team last season was the offensive explosion of Denard Robinson. Under Rodriguez’s spread offense, the Big Ten Most Valuable Player became the first player in NCAA history to amass 1,500 yards rushing and passing, recording 1,702 rushing yards with 17 touchdowns while also passing for 2,570 yards and 18 touchdowns. As a whole, the offense ranked eighth in the nation in total offense (489 yards/game) and 25th in scoring offense (33 points/game).

Robinson and the Michigan offense will now operate under offensive coordinator Al Borges’s pro-style offense, which stresses a pocket quarterback and a dependence on the running back for carries rather than the option system in which Robinson thrived. Many questions this offseason have centered on how Robinson will adjust to receiving the snap under center and not in the shotgun formation, and also how the running backs will hold up throughout a difficult season.

Including Robinson, the offense returns a total of nine starters. Running backs Michael Shaw, Stephen Hopkins, and Vincent Smith will be counted on to shoulder the bulk of the running game and preserve Robinson’s health. Wide receivers Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms, and Junior Hemingway should see their workloads increase as a result of the scheme change as well. Notable returning offensive linemen include left tackle Taylor Lewan and center David Molk.

Defense

In coming to Michigan, Hoke brings with him much of his coaching staff from San Diego State. The biggest addition to the Michigan coaching staff, though, is defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who has spent the last three seasons in the same position with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. This is a welcome addition for a defense that ranked 110th in total defense last season, allowing an average of 450 yards to opposing offenses.

Mattison has scrapped the 3-3-5 defensive scheme used by Greg Robinson in favor of the 4-3 scheme, which will add another defensive lineman in exchange for a defensive back. With the four defensive linemen, Mattison hopes to induce more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and create a greater disturbance against the run. Last season, the Wolverines ranked 112th in pass defense (262 yards/game), 98th in sacks (1.38/game) and 95th in run defense (189 yards/game). As good as the offense was in 2010, the defense still allowed 35 points/game, ranking 108th in the country.

On the bright side, the Wolverines return eight defensive starters, and also get star cornerback Troy Woolfolk back from an ankle injury that took his entire 2010 season. Other notable returning starters include defensive backs J.T. Floyd and Jordan Kovacs, defensive tackle Mike Martin, and defensive ends Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh. If the Wolverines want to resurrect their past defensive dominance, they will need these upperclassmen to carry much of the load.

Schedule

Notre Dame presents the toughest challenge in the non-conference schedule, which also includes the opener against Western Michigan, and games against Eastern Michigan and San Diego State, Hoke’s previous employer. Michigan has defeated Notre Dame the past two seasons, but second-year head coach Brian Kelly has developed a quality team in South Bend. The rivalry game with the Fighting Irish will also be the first night game ever at Michigan Stadium.

Getting into Big Ten play, the Wolverines begin with Minnesota at home before heading to Northwestern for another night game. Michigan then travels to East Lansing to face in-state rival Michigan State in what should be a difficult test for the Wolverines, both offensively and defensively. The Spartans have knocked off the Wolverines the last three seasons, their longest win streak against Michigan since 1965-67. Following the trip to Michigan State, Michigan comes home for Homecoming weekend against Purdue before facing Iowa and Illinois on the road. With larger games against Nebraska and Ohio State closing out the schedule, the games against Iowa and Illinois could be trap games, as the Wolverines will certainly be preparing for a difficult home stretch. The new-look defense will have to contain Nebraska dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez to have any chance at beating the newest member of the Big Ten, and although Ohio State has run into trouble with the NCAA, interim head coach Luke Fickell and the Buckeyes still have a talented team capable of making an impact in the Big Ten.

Bottom Line

There is no reason to believe that the Wolverines can’t win as many games as last season (seven). Although the offensive format has changed from Rodriguez’s spread to Hoke’s pro-style, Robinson has exhibited the skill set and work ethic throughout practices to show that he can still be as dangerous in the new scheme. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has infused new life and a new system of his own into the defense. On the whole, the Wolverines have the talent and the proper leadership to put together a solid season.

Prediction: Brady Hoke said at Michigan’s media day this past Sunday that “if we don’t win the Big Ten championship, we’ve failed these kids as coaches.” Michigan fans are eager to see the program return to its former glory, but in a highly competitive Big Ten, that goal may be slightly out of reach.

9-3 (5-3 Big Ten)

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