College Football

Big Ten Previews, Pt. 9: Michigan Wolverines

So far under the Brady Hoke tenure, reality has yet to line up with expectations.

Following Hoke’s 2011 debut in which his Wolverines went 11-2 and beat Virginia Tech to claim its first BCS victory since the 2000 Orange Bowl. Hoke followed that with a no. 7 recruiting class, and went into 2012 surging high.

But since college football is a “what have you done for me lately?” game, 2011 feels a lot farther away than it is. The Wolverines went just 8-5 in 2012, and 7-6 in 2013 with an offense that completely tanked down the stretch, resulting in the termination of offensive coordinator Al Borges. Hoke prefers a more conservative (“conservative” in this case means “not spread”) offensive approach, so he brought in Doug Nussmeier, former OC of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

2013 RECAP
The first half of the season was very up and down, and the second half was just down. After shellacking Central Michigan 59-9 and escaping #13 Notre Dame 41-30, the Wolverines needed a last-second goal line stand to beat Akron (Sagarin ranking: 137) and a fourth-quarter comeback after being down 21-7 to best UConn (Sagarin ranking: 121).

In one of the weirder results of the season, Michigan blasted Minnesota 42-13, but fell to Penn State 43-40 in four overtimes. The offense found its feet in a 63-47 romp with Indiana (but most teams’ offenses found their feet against Indiana), but promptly lost them again in back-to-back weeks of negative rushing totals against Michigan State and Nebraska.

Average score, first seven games: Michigan 42.4, Opponents 26.7 (6-1)
Average score, last six games: Opponents 27, Michigan 20.3 (1-5)
(Minus Ohio State: Opponents 20, Michigan 16.2)

Michigan matched field goals with Northwestern for a 9-9 regulation score before winning in overtime, lost to Iowa, and came up just short of shocking #3 Ohio State in a 42-41 shootout that of course everybody saw coming, and ended getting flattened by Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

To say that this was an inconsistent team would be a start. But game to game you had no idea which Wolverine team would show up. At least as the offense lost its footing the defense stepped up, but it wasn’t enough.

MICHIGAN OFFENSE
Nussmeier takes over, having led an efficiency-based pro-style machine in Tuscaloosa for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He inherits quarterback Devin Gardner, that enigma of a quarterback who can go 13-of-28 for just 98 yards one week (Iowa) and 32-of-45 for 451 yards the next, and on a broken foot, no less (Ohio State). Gardner is a microcosm of the entire Michigan offense:  boom-or-bust. Either pass for 451 yards or 98. Either score 63 points or 6.

Since the now-departed Fitzgerald Toussaint regressed badly throughout his career, Gardner had to step up and be both the passing and running game, accounting for over 3,700 total yards, a third of which went to the also-departed Jeremy Gallon, the stud wide receiver (and current New England Patriot) who registered 1,373 receiving yards in 2013. While Gallon is one, Gardner’s other two favorite targets, tight-end-turned-receiver Devin Funchess and tight end Jake Butt, return for 2014 though Butt’s return date is still unknown (he suffered an ACL injury in spring ball).

I can’t decide whether the OC change favors Gardner or not. Borges, throughout his career, has been a West Coast coordinator, calling short passes to open up the run game. Nussmeier at Alabama was run-first, so Gardner will probably be asked to make fewer quick reads and throws, but also be asked to throw more downfield.

Unfortunately Nussmeier doesn’t inherit much of a running back corps. With Toussaint gone, Derrick Green takes over bringing in a not-so-spectacular career average of 3.3 yards per carry, though in limited action behind Toussaint. Green will surely be called upon more often in Nussmeier’s run-first approach, but he’ll have to fight for yardage behind whatever becomes of the offensive line, which in 2013 was one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

And that offensive line? An even bigger enigma than Gardner’s quarterbacking. After being devastated by injuries early, this line ranked near the bottom of every major statistical category. Bottom ten of adjusted line yards. Bottom eight of third- or fourth-and-one conversions. Bottom three getting stuffed for no gain or less. Bottom sixteen in sacks allowed.

Naturally in April, this offensive line produced two NFL draft picks.

With the two leaders gone, what will Nussmeier do with this line? He should have talent to draw from; after all, Hoke keeps bringing in top ten recruiting classes (despite middling on-field results). Optimism would suggest that the line couldn’t possibly get worse, but offensive lines take time to gel, so hopefully in the meantime the Wolverines can have a few fewer negative yards-rushing games.

MICHIGAN DEFENSE
Defensively, the Wolverines are hoping a whole lot of youth becomes a whole lot of experience.

Now, “youth” doesn’t mean “bad.” The Wolverine defense was solid in most areas in 2013 and barring injury, should improve given how little turnover it faces.

Jake Ryan, a freshman phenom who saw his sophomore season abbreviated by an injury suffered in 2013 spring ball, returns and hopefully stays healthy the whole season. Ryan is a fumble-forcing and backfield-tackling machine, and the Wolverines are definitely better with him.

They might face some work in the secondary: despite notching several tackles for loss and providing excellent run support, leading tackler Raymon Taylor got targeted hard and both corners occasionally got burned deep, allowing 42 passes of 20+ yards. Safety support can help that, but safety is about the only position that suffered losses on this defense. But cornerback Blake Countess returns from a six-pick campaign, and Taylor notched four. Expect the interception numbers to possibly decrease this season as the corners might play a bit more conservatively to counteract the loss at safety, but all in all I’m not worried about this defense.

MICHIGAN SPECIAL TEAMS
The name to remember is Matt Wile. The senior handles the kickoff and punting duties for the Wolverines, and now that Brendan Gibbons is gone, the placekicking duties as well. His 2013 field goals were a perfect 100% inside of 40 yards (two for two, as it were), but only one for three beyond the 40. Half of Wile’s kickoffs in 2013 were touchbacks, so we know he’s got the leg strength, he just needs to work on his accuracy.

On the return end . . . uh, can Gardner return kicks, too? Dennis Norfleet returned kickoffs at a decent 23.7 yard average, but the punt return position is wide open.

2014 SCHEDULE
michigan sag 14
A team with this many question marks on offense is tough to forecast. There are three games I’m automatically counting as wins (Appalachian State, though lol, Miami Ohio, and Rutgers) and three I’m chalking up as losses (at Notre Dame, at Michigan State, at Ohio State). The other six are a complete mystery to me. Even an offense that struggles to get its wheels turning could ride a strong defensive showing to wins over Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern, while Utah, Indiana, and Maryland look capable of scoring alongside anyone.

And Michigan fans? If you want to get an early taste, the Wolverines are hosting a free open night scrimmage on August 16 (a dang cool idea).

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