The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it? By looking ahead to next year, of course. So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored). Next up: Meeeeeechigan.
MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (@Ann Arbor, MI; 2:30pm CT; ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)
In case you missed it (or forgot about it)... PART ONE
OK, what should we expect when Michigan doesn't have the ball? Michigan's two best defenders from a year ago, DE Brandon Graham and CB Donovan Warren, are gone; they took their talents to the NFL and left the defense scrambling to find new leaders and difference-makers from a crew of misfits that's been torched by nearly every program they've faced over the past two years. Along the defensive line, they lose the aforementioned Graham (a massive blow, considering he was the first Big Ten player taken in last year's draft and, at times, the most dominant defensive player in the league; we don't say that lightly as charter members of the Adrian Clayborn For King Terrormonster campaign, but Graham really was that good), but return the other three starters in Ryan Van Bergen (40 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery), Mike Martin (51 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks), and Craig Roh (37 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT). Van Bergen and Martin played defensive tackle a year ago, while Roh was a defensive end, but with the defense planning to play more 3-3-5 this fall, Van Bergen has been slated to move outside and Roh has been slated to transition into more of a DE/OLB hybrid position.
Big Blue also returns two starters at linebacker (three if we count Roh there) in seniors Jonas Mouton (66 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 1 fumble recovery) and Obi Ezeh (69 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 fumble recovery). Youth or inexperience isn't really the issue for Mouton or Ezeh; they've logged quite a few game reps by this point, so their deficiencies may be down to a lack of talent (or, from a more charitable perspective, a lack of fit in the current defensive schemes), which doesn't bode well for them making a magical transformation into the sort of game-changing linebacker that Michigan might need to turn things around on defense.
While the talent along the line or at linebacker hasn't been quite up to past Michigan standards (with a few exceptions, like Graham), they've usually at least hewed to respectable; the secondary, on the other hand, has been a flaming wasteland of despair and missed tackles. Even Warren, undoubtedly the best player in last year's secondary, wasn't exactly a star -- he went undrafted in last April's NFL draft. Michigan returns a trio of players with starting experience from a year ago in CB Troy Woolfolk (46 tackles, 0 INT, 1 pass break-up), SS Jordan Kovacs (75 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT), and S Mike Williams (56 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 pass break-up) but is going to be relying on some inexperienced players to fill in the gaps alongside them. One of those inexperienced players was expected to be the hugely talented and much-hyped DeMar Dorsey, but an admissions kerfluffle spiked his position on the team and left Greg Robinson without one of his best hopes for turning around the fortunes of this moribund unit. Sans Dorsey, they're looking at pulling from a grab-bag of mostly untested underclassmen, including Vladimir Emilien (1 tackle) and JT Floyd (17 tackles, 1 pass break-up).
A year ago, the middle of their defense was almost impossibly soft; Iowa fans need only remember the acres of open space that Tony Moeaki had to operate in last year. That defense still boasts the same middling linebackers and questionable safeties (Kovacs is a former walk-on and while it would be the height of hypocrisy for an Iowa blog to dis walk-ons, particularly at the safety position, let's just say we're well aware that it can take a while for walk-ons to mature into dependable starters; see: Greenwood, Brett in 2007 and 2008). Not to mention the fact that they're breaking in a new defense, which isn't the easiest thing to do; the challenge is mitigated to an extent by the fact that they have the same defensive coordinator (TEH GERG) and they're moving from more of a 4-2-5 a year ago to a 3-3-5 this year, so they're probably not dealing with sea changes in terminology or philosophy. But it's still a change and change means more thinking and less doing on defense, which is a problem. So you have a defense breaking in a new scheme and a handful of new faces; the bleeding on defense may not be quite as catastrophic as it's been the past two years, but this isn't likely to turn into one of the top 3-4 defenses in the league overnight. This is still a team that's going to need to rely on scoring a lot of points to win most of its games.
And just how "special" are the special teams? With the Space Emperor off plying his trade in the NFL by day and plotting the conquest of the universe by night, Michigan finally has need of a new face at punter. Enter: true freshman Will Hagerup, who has some mighty big shoes to fill in Mesko's absence. It's safe to expect a bit of a drop-off from the consistent excellence that the Space Emperor provided, which is a net loss for a defense that has plenty of its own problems to worry about. There's also a fresh face at placekicker, where Brendan Gibbons is expected to slot in; Gibbons was highly decorated in the prep ranks, but this year will be his first effort in the big time. It's probably wise to expect a few growing pains there.
Alright, brainiac, what's gonna happen? In recent weeks, as fans begin to pore over the schedule more and more, this game has emerged as one of the top "trap games" on the schedule. Not without reason, frankly; Iowa's track record in Ann Arbor is incredibly poor (since 1980, Iowa is just 3-8 in the Big Mausoleum), the game is sandwiched between massive home tilts with Penn State and Wisconsin, and the Michigan offense (most of which is returning) was more successful against Iowa than virtually any other team last year (the 28 points conceded were the most since Purdue ran up 31 on Iowa in 2007). And if you wanted to get really paranoid you could point to the fact that Iowa is just 2-5 in games after regular season bye weeks under Ferentz. So yeah, there's reason to be fearful, even if the Iowa-Michigan game in 2009 wasn't quite as close as the final score makes it seem and even if the Michigan defense may have more leaks than a busted condom. But this game is going to come down to a few key questions.
Will Iowa's 2009 road mojo carry over into 2010? A year ago there's little doubt that Iowa played its best football away from the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium; on the road (or on neutral fields), they blasted Iowa State by 30+ points, beat Penn State, Wisconsin, and Georgia Tech by double-digits, and took Ohio State to overtime. Meanwhile, in Kinnick they needed two blocked field goals to escape UNI, struggled to put away Michigan, Minnesota, and Arkansas State, and came up short against just Northwestern (again). For the sake of the season, we need to hope that Iowa rediscovers its home mojo in a hurry, given the murderer's row of teams headed there (Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State). But for the sake of this one game, we need Stanzi & Co. to get in a time machine and play like it's 2009 all over again.
Can Ricky Stanzi deny his inherent generosity and avoid gifting the other team six points off a STANZIBALL? If it seems like we say this about every game in this section, well, we probably do. But when your returning starter at quarterback threw four pick-sixes a year ago (and five total turnovers that were turned into immediate touchdowns if you count the WOOTENOCALYPSE play), it's kind of something that needs emphasizing. And, sure, Iowa improbably won every game in which Stanzi threw one of his patented STANZIBALLS right to an opposing defender... but you can't reasonably expect that luck to last forever. And you really can't expect it to last if you start doing it on the road; road games are tough enough to win without gifting the home team undeserved points.
Does the Iowa defense have some new tricks for the Michigan offense? We're not terribly concerned about the Iowa offense scoring points on Michigan; barring the offensive line turning into an unmitigated disaster, they should be able to hang a decent number on a Michigan defense that's still developing. But the Michigan offense is cause for some concern; esteemed FOTP Bama Hawkeye is fairly convinced that they can ride that offense alone to eight wins in 2010 and they did have quite a bit of success against Iowa in 2009 (195 yards and 3 TD on 45 carries). Iowa's record against run games in 2009 was pretty mixed. Iowa State was having quite a bit of success pounding away with their A-Rob last year, before OC Tom Herman decided the path to victory was by relying on Arnaud's arm; disaster ensued. The aforementioned Michigan attack did well, as did John Clay before the Iowa defense treated him like an accordian midway through the second quarter. Ohio State relied almost exclusively on its ground game against Iowa and it worked beautifully: 229 yards and 3 TD on 51 carries. On the other hand, Arizona's Nic Grigsby got swallowed up aside from one big run, Penn State got clobbered, and the Orange Bowl (or the first half, at least) was a tour de fource in run-stopping. Indeed, the games against Arizona and Georgia Tech may provide us with a glimpse of what to expect in 2010... or rather, what not to expect, as offenses do everything in their power to avoid Adrian Clayborn and his destructive powers. Let's hope Binns and the linebackers have their tackling shoes on.
So what's gonna happen? Picking against Iowa in this game has as much (or more) to do with the Michigan brand name and the Big House mystique than it does any of the players who are going to suit up in maize and blue to take on Iowa. This team slayed a lot of road demons a year ago and here's guessing that Stanzi & Co. have it in them to slay another one here: the defense slows (but doesn't stop) a pretty potent Michigan offense, while the offense takes advantage of holes in the Michigan defense to score enough points to pull out a 7-10 point win.
So how's the rest of their season gonna play out? No other team in the Big Ten divides prognosticators quite as much as Michigan. For the most part, teams in the Big Ten have been lumped into three groups: Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State are expected to be good; Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana are expected to suck; and Michigan State, just Northwestern, and Purdue are expected to be alright, with the potential for more if they catch a few breaks. But Michigan... Michigan's an enigma. Some have them pegged for a big bounceback year; Phil Steele ranks them fifth on his Most Improved list and says they have a decent shot at nine wins, while the aforementioned FOTP Bama Hawkeye has them pegged for 8 wins and a January bowl game (and a good one, not that Dallas Football Classic nonsense). Others see a fragile, somewhat inconsistent offense and a hugely inexperienced defense and wonder where the hell they're going to come up with eight or nine wins.
And just as there are (at least) two ways to view Michigan's '10 prospects, there are a few different ways to determine which part of their schedule is the most critical. From a talent standpoint, the toughest games they'll play will likely be either the three-game set against Michigan State, Iowa, and Penn State in October or the three-game set against Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in November. But there's also a compelling argument to be made for the notion that if Michigan doesn't get off to a hot start, it won't matter what happens in October and November because their goose (and RichRod's job status) will be cooked. A fast start is essential for a young team (and coach) enduring a great deal of pressure; no one wants to be a member of the third-straight Michigan team to fail to make a bowl game.
On paper, the first five games of Michigan's schedule look fairly easy: UConn, @ Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green, and @ Indiana. But is any schedule truly easy for a team that's lost 16 games over the past two seasons and suffered humbling defeats to the likes of Illinois (twice), Purdue, and Toledo? UConn is something of a dark horse contender to win the Big East, owing to the fact that they return eight starters on offense and defense and that they had a 2008 Iowa-esque tendency to lose close games (their five losses came by a combined 15 points). And it's not as if Michigan has been razor-sharp in their home openers in recent years... Notre Dame has some gaping holes to fill after the departures of their best offensive players, but Brian Kelly is well-experienced at making silk purses out of sow's ears; he brought Central Michigan to (semi-) prominence and masterminded Cincinnati's stunning rise to the top of the Big East with a team full of cast-offs and no-names.
UMass continues Michigan's new trend of only playing I-AA also-rans; they went 5-6 in 2009, although they did give Kansas State a fiesty effort (losing 21-17). Then again, they also gave up 52 points to Hofstra. Bowling Green ought to be your bog standard MACrificial lamb and Michigan did wallop those sorts of teams when they played them in 2009... but just as the specter of Western Michigan 2007 lingers over Iowa's games against mid-major opposition, so too does Toledo 2008 still hang over Michigan's head. They should win... but recent events make it impossible to call it a sure thing. And as for Indiana... Michigan struggled mightily with them a year ago, when the game was in Ann Arbor, before they were making still more changes on defense, and against an Indiana offense that's relatively loaded with weapons. Could Michigan go 5-0 in this stretch? Sure; none of these teams are all that challenging. On the other hand, could they also go 2-3 in this stretch? Sure; it's not a huge stretch to see them dropping games to UConn, Notre Dame, and Indiana.
After that stretch, Michigan goes full-bore into Big Ten play, with a pair of home games against Michigan State and Iowa before a bye week and a road date with Penn State close out October. This stretch in 2009 was when Michigan's season first began taking on water, as they dropped the Sparty game in OT, lost the weirdly tight night game to Iowa, and got knocked around by Penn State (although they did manage to work in a thorough beatdown of Delaware State, too; the bye week might pose stiffer competition in 2010). Ultimately, this stretch probably will be the tipping point of Michigan's season; if they emerge from their opening slate at 4-1 or 5-0, these games could either drag them back to the middle of the Big Ten pack or give them an opportunity to surge ahead on the comeback trail and really get the "OMG RichRod is a genius, Michigan is BACK~!" meme exploding. But if they emerge from those games at 3-2 or 2-3, these games have the opportunity to either put the nail in the coffin of their season or provide them with a springboard to salvage something respectable from this campaign. At a guess, they win one of these three; for our sake, let's hope it isn't the Iowa game.
This happened a lot the last two years.
Michigan closes out the season with a home game against Illinois, a road game against Purdue, a home game against Wisconsin, and a road game against Ohio State. Under RichRod, Michigan is a scintillating 1-7 against those teams, with the lone win coming in improbable fashion, when the thoroughly ass-tastic 2008 LOLverine outfit erased a 19-0 halftime deficit to beat the Badgers, 27-25. The much-reviled Michigan defense has been at its most putrid in those games, too; of those eight games, the D only held the opposition under 30 points against 2009 Ohio State. They've rattled off back-to-back 25-point losses to Illinois and lost a pair of shootouts to Purdue (including the utterly amazing 2008 affair, which featured a goddamn hook and ladder).
You wouldn't think they could lose a third straight game to Illinois (FUN FACT: Ron Zook has never beaten any Big Ten team three times during his tenure at Illinois; in fact, his two wins over Michigan are tied for the most wins he has against any Big Ten team), but few people would have predicted the woodshed beating they endured at the hands of Zook and Juice a year ago, either. You wouldn't think lightning could strike thrice for Purdue against Michigan, but are we really confident in TEH GERG's ability to upgrade that shambling band of zombies masquerading as a defense? You wouldn't think Ohio State would... wait, you would definitely think that Ohio State would pound the piss out of Michigan again. Scratch that. Commandant Sweatervest owns Big Blue the same way Hayden owned The Two Jims at ISU in the '80s. Ultimately, it feels like Michigan gets a win out of these four games (let's say over Illinois, because forecasting a third straight Fightin' Zooker win is just something I can't do sober), and possibly two. Best case scenario for them feels like 8-4 if they run the table in the early part of the schedule, but really this feels more like a 6-7 win team slugging it out in whatever the new equivalent of the Alamo Bowl is in the Big Ten's bowl pecking order (the Insight?). And it wouldn't be a huge surprise if the bottom continues to fall out on Michigan and their legion of speedy midgets and they flail their way to another losing season. There isn't much about this team that's immediately impressive.