College Football Handicapping: Michigan Resurgence
by Trevor Whenham - 9/16/2009
I bleed Maize and Blue, so the last two weeks have been blissful relief after two years of increasing agony. Michigan hasn't proven anything yet, and there is still ample time for this season to fall way off the rails, but what we have seen in the Wolverines' first two weeks is enough to give even the most defeated pessimist hope. For college football handicappers, Michigan's opening to the season probably requires an adjustment of expectations - suddenly a team that looked destined to win six games at most cold win a couple more than that, and could play the opponents that outmatch them tougher than we might have expected them to.
I'm not saying that Michigan is going to win the national championship or anything, but it seems clear that the Rich Rodriguez program is well on track in its second year. Here's a breakdown of the team to see where those adjustments in perception may need to be made:
Quarterback - This was the biggest question coming into the season, but it has been emphatically answered so far. The Wolverines came into the season with three quarterbacks in an apparent fight for the starting spot, with two true freshman leading the way. It took Tate Forcier less than a half to emphatically stake his claim for the top spot.
He's a scrawny true freshman, but he plays the position with the presence of an old man. There's still work for him to do - he's only thrown one interception in two games, but it was a rough one, and he is more inclined to run than perhaps he should be. Still, in his first game he threw three touchdowns in the first half to put the game away early, and in his second game he bounced back from that interception to engineer the winning drive in the dying minutes of the Notre Dame game.
He's been asked to do more than Matt Barkley already, and he's looked better than Big Ten star Terrelle Pryor out of the gate. Forcier will have his ups and downs as any freshman does, but It's not unrealistic to say that the Wolverines already have a Top 5 QB situation in the Big Ten, and it will only get better. That doesn't even take into consideration the lightning speed of the their true freshman, Denard Robinson, either. In one of his first plays from scrimmage he bobbled the snap, picked the ball up, ran the wrong way, and galloped 40 yards for a touchdown. If the team can find a way to work his speed into the offense more they could really have something special.
Rest of offense - Michigan hasn't lacked for strong play so far this year. Now all they need is some consistency. Junior Hemingway was the receiving star of the first game, but he missed the second game due to injury. Running back Brandon Minor missed the first game, but came back fairly strong in Week 2. Kevin Koger and Kelvin Grady have emerged as talented receivers, but now they just need to do it more regularly. The team has two easy games coming up next, so that will give the team a chance to define their roles and gel. It will be easier to assess what this team truly is by then.
Defense - The key word here is adjustment. The most frustrating thing about this team the last few years has been their seeming inability to adjust - if a team was succeeding by doing something in the first quarter they were probably still succeeding with it in the fourth. In the Notre Dame game the defense got shredded in the first half. New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson clearly has the ear of his unit, and he knew the right things to say, because they came out in the third quarter and totally shut down and confounded the Irish. All in all this still isn't a great defensive unit - it relies to heavily on young players, and the secondary is suspect - but it is a much better, and better coached, unit than it was last year.
Special teams - It got to be almost a joke last year - there was no kick that this team couldn't fumble. That has gone away entirely so far this year. The team has even returned a kick for a touchdown. The sample size is small, but the different tone and attitude evident on special teams so far this year is reflective of the change of attitude the whole team has enjoyed.
Schedule- Michigan has three games left that they will either win or awaken some serious concerns, including their next two. Eastern Michigan next week is grossly outmatched, and Indiana is by far the worst team in the Big Ten. Delaware State in five weeks is another christian being thrown to the lions. Michigan and Iowa in Weeks 5 and 6 have both looked weaker in their starts than they were expected to, so Michigan isn't totally outmatched, though the two games are the first two they play on the road.
Penn State and Ohio State both have to come to the Big House, but they both should still be able to win. That leaves three games - a struggling Purdue that Michigan should be able to beat, and games at Illinois and Wisconsin that will be determined largely by whether the teams can find their ways more convincingly than they have so far. If Michigan can at least maintain their play of the first two weeks then there are six fairly sure wins including the two they already have, two likely losses, and four games that are realistically up for grabs. That's a far more optimistic picture than I would have painted a couple of weeks ago.
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