Sunday, July 09, 2006
A REASONABLY ANTICIPATORY ASSESSMENT OF: MICHIGAN
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SMQ spins the wheel for a hastily-rendered but not too-soon look at a random school's prospects for the fall, sans inevitable academic and criminal suspensions, sudden transfers, debilitating injuries and other miscellaneous misfortunes of the long summer
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When is 7-5 not 7-5? When it's the best 7-5 team in history!
PAST FIVE SEASONS: 44-18 (31-9 Big Ten) - 2005: 7-5 (5-3 Big Ten), Lost Alamo Bowl
STARTERS BACK, ROUGHLY: 16 (8 Offense, 8 Defense)
WHAT'S CHANGED: "Much-maligned" Defensive Coordinator Jim Hermann's hop to the NFL led to joy and hymns of praise across the state, as it also means, fans hope, his conservative tendencies go with it. Michigan gave up late, go-ahead scores in six games last year (including back-to-back wins over Penn State and Iowa, in the latter case a tying score), which was blamed largely on Hermann and Carr's wont to tone things down and back corners off to an excessive degree with a lead. Ron English is in with a mandate from Carr to "be more aggressive and get after the quarterback."
WHAT'S THE SAME: Chad Henne has 24 remarkably consistent starts under his belt now, which means 'ooh, big shiny young guy' hype has long been worn down by the complacency and criticism of familiarity. Michigan fans know now what Henne can do (throw hard) and what he can't (run; throw accurately short-to-medium balls with a high rate of predictability), and if he's not Matt Leinart, or even Brady Quinn, he is at least slightly ahead of John Navarre's pace - 5,800 yards and 48 touchdowns in two years, with a 59 percent completion rate and an improving TD-INT ratio (23-8 in '05, compared to 25-12 as a freshman), should invalidate, or quiet, much of his "Hennebriated" reputation. Though it probably won't.
GO LONG, YOUNG MAN: The success of the passing attack relative to the run was partly due to the changing abilities, strategies and patterns of the modern game, but mostly to injuries to backs and linemen and talent on hand at quarterback and receiver. Where Henne's go-to guy in '04 was leaping, big-play freak extraordinaire Braylon Edwards, a top-three overall pick for whom SMQ would have cast a no-regrets Heisman vote, in '05 it was steady Jason Avant, who required studious, vigilant, chart-based fans like Brian to advocate the subtle wonders of his game. The result: Michigan had 15 pass plays over 25 yards for the season last year (for some comparison, Edwards alone caught at least nine balls over 25 yards three straight years; Michigan opponents completed 21 passes over 25 yards; Michigan State and Ohio State each doubled UM with 31 and 30, respectively; Iowa had 27, Northwestern 25, and Notre Dame a ridiculous 43 pass plays over 25 yards), despite the presence of blistering Steve Breaston, The Sporting News' top-ranked receiver in the nation before last season, and righteous freshman Mario Manningham. Breaston is nowhere to be found on TSN's preseason "Top Receivers" list this summer after averaging 11.19 on 26 catches (he averaged less than 8.6 yards on 34 catches in '04, so if that looked like all-America potential, what's with the snub this year?), but he and Manningham do offer more likely downfield targets for Henne's mini-bazooka than Avant; Manningham, especially, who is built more like Edwards, caught six touchdowns and averaged more than 16 yards per catch in five of the nine games he caught at least two balls (and was pegged as TSN's ninth-best receiver entering '06, for the record).
The X-factor along these lines is Mike Hart's ankle and the line's competence, which combined to keep the little fireplug on the bench, Henne's head on a swivel and safeties firmly in pass coverage as a result. Hart is not a burner
(career long: 34 yards), but the persistent attention defenses must pay his abilities will not only open up the downfield and play-action options, but also the screens UM runs often and very well, which could get Breaston - who ain't winning too many jump balls in traffic - into the secondary more often, too.
GET BACK TO WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED: Opponents ever so slightly upped their yards per game, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns against Michigan for the third straight season, and, with the exception of Notre Dame - which still produced a 100-yard game on a ton of carries - pretty much every decent rushing attack gave this bunch hell last season (dominating Eastern Michigan and Indiana drove the stats way down, but UM gave up a very middling 155 ypg, 4.2 ypc against winning teams, which doesn't include 173 on 4.7 by Michigan State). That trend ought to reverse at least somewhat with monstrous Alan Branch clogging up lanes, tearing into backfields and eating running backs for his mid-game meal en route to staking his claim as the next great Michigan lineman alongside LaMarr Woodley, easily last season's most productive defender in sacks and tackles for loss despite missing all or parts of about five games. A pair of new but very large defensive tackles shouldn't stop Dave Harris and Prescott Burgess from more closely resembling the usual group of NFL-bound destroyers at linebacker; Shawn Crable starts the season on the bench but shouldn't end it there.
OVERLY OPTIMISTIC POST-SPRING CHATTER: In addition to completely freaking and issuing double-digit win ultimatums to LLLLLoyd Carr after an unspeakable - oh the horror! - 7-5 season, UM fans are holding their breath over Hart's ankle and hamstring. A couple other running backs turned some heads - including a somewhat trimmed down Kevin "Gravy" Grady and Carlos Brown, who also took injured Antonio Bass' occasional spot as "utterly predictable running quarterback" - in the Spring game, but it was No. 20's reassurance that made headlines:
Awwwww, that shit is on now.
REASON FOR HOPE: Healthy Hart. Talent level is still tops in the Big Ten along with Ohio State; the defensive ends can wreak havoc and receivers can stretch the field. Henne, Hart and Breaston, among others, count now as veterans.
REASON TO BE AFRAID, VERY AFRAID: Defense continued sliding towards the middle of the pack. What if Hart goes down again, and/or the O-line continues to be shuffled week-to-week? Henne occasionally goes cold, which consistently meant an 'L' in '05 (0-4 when he completed under 50 percent last year, which he did only once, in a win over San Diego State, as a freshman).
IF THIS TEAM WERE ANY POP CULTURAL, HISTORICAL, LITERARY, POLITICAL OR OTHERWISE NOTABLE FIGURE, IT WOULD BE... General Henry Seymour Rawlinson, 1st Baron Rawlinson of Trent: Rawlinson's innovative "bite and hold" tactic called for the British Second Army gain valuable ground during World War I and hang on to it for dear life rather than follow up a victory by attempting a risky effort at "breakthrough," just as Lloyd Carr has typically called for his team to "bite and hold" leads at the expense of a potentially bigger, more dashing victory.
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I say, my good man: was that a 3-deep 5-under zone? Smashing show!
HONESTLY, WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE, SMQ'S THINKING... Ten wins, back on New Year's Day. Potential for Big Ten championship. Certainly this is possible - this team looks exactly like every Michigan team. All of its losses last season were close, tight games against good teams, without its clock-killing running back and a slew of other injuries. It takes very little improvement from there to get back to a top ten-level team, and this group ought to be plenty improved.
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PREVIOUS REASONABLY ANTICIPATORY ASSESSMENTS:
June 3: Boston College...June 4: Arkansas State...June 6: Hawaii...June 8: Virginia...June 10: Rice...June 11: Boise State...June 14: Tulane...June 18: Oregon...June 21: Colorado...June 24: South Florida...June 26: Fresno State...June 30: Minnesota...July 2: UAB...July 7: Virginia Tech
ABSURDLY PREMATURE ASSESSMENTS:
April 3: Central Michigan...April 4: BYU...April 5: Kentucky...April 7: Bowling Green...April 8: Southern Cal...April 11: Rutgers...April 12: Marshall...April 13: Florida State...April 15: San Diego State...April 16: Alabama...April 19: Oregon State...April 20: Buffalo...April 21: N.C. State...April 23: Arizona...April 24: Memphis...April 25: Louisiana Tech...April 28: Iowa...April 30: Toledo...May 2: Ohio State...May 3: Mississippi State...May 5: Southern Miss...May 7: Louisiana-Lafayette...May 11: Akron...May 12: North Carolina...Michigan State...May 15: Air Force...May 17: Stanford...May 18: Georgia Tech...May 21: Connecticut...May 23: Purdue...May 24: Navy...May 27: UCLA...May 28: New Mexico State...May 29: Tennessee
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i'm starting up my big 12 preview. ballz on you for creating a great preview structure that i can't copy.