The Michigan Wolverines started the 2006 season with modest expectations. They were coming off a disappointing 2005 that saw five losses. Most experts lumped them in the mushy middle of the Big Ten competing for second place behind the Ohio State Buckeyes. All of that changed when they completely dominated #2 Notre Dame in South Bend in week three. The 26 point victory launched them in the polls from #11 to #6, and from that point on expectations changed.
On the backs of a suffocating defense and a highly skilled offense, the Wolverines cruised to an 11-0 record setting up the Game of the Century of the year when they put their perfect record and #2 ranking on the line against the also 11-0 and #1 ranked Buckeyes. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, their stingy defense that held eight opponents under 14 points during the year gave up an uncharacteristic 42 points to Ohio State. Although they only lost by four points, it wasn't that close. Ohio State managed to maintain a double digit lead through most of the game.
With only one loss there was much heated debate about giving Michigan a rematch with Ohio State for the National Championship. But in the end the Wolverines would have to settle for an appearance in the Rose Bowl to play USC. Michigan was completely overmatched in that game and fell by an 18-32 score. It marked Michigan's fourth straight loss in a bowl game. This year with a large amount of talent returning on offense expectations are high as Michigan is a heavy favorite to win the conference.
Are introductions really necessary here? Penn State fans know Chad Henne well. Henne almost committed to the Nittany Lions as a high school senior before changing his mind at the last minute. He went on to Michigan where 2007 will be his fourth year as a starter. When his career is over he will likely hold every passing record there is for the University of Michigan. He's a Heisman Trophy candidate and a possible first round draft pick. When he committed to Michigan it opened the door for Penn State to sign Anthony Morelli...so we got that going for us. If Henne goes down for any reason, don't be surprised to see true freshman Ryan Mallet, a highly recruited quarterback from Texas who enrolled early and participated in spring practice.
The guy who unquestionably makes the Wolverine offense go is running back Mike Hart. Hart is a small running back with a history of trouble staying healthy. Last year Hart returned from an injury plagued 2005 and rushed for 1562 yards and 14 TD on his way to being named a second team All-American. Henne is not a very mobile quarterback, so Hart is the running game, and after him there isn't much depth in the backfield. Brandon Minor backed him up in 2006 as a freshman and gained 238 yards. I suspect he'll see more carries this year to keep Hart fresh and to gain some experience for 2008.
When Hart kills you it's like radiation poisoning. Four yards here six yards there that add up to long drives. When Michigan wants to kill you quickly, they turn to the best tandem of wide receivers in the conference, Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Both guys are tall wide receivers that can outrun most safeties and toss most corners aside. Arrington landed himself in Lloyd Carr's doghouse in the spring but managed to work himself out of it and has rejoined the team. One guy who was not so fortunate was Carson Butler, a young tight end with tons of potential. It remains to be seen how much of a loss Steve Breaston will be in the offense, though Michigan seldom finds trouble plugging in good wide receivers.
The offensive line is one of the best in the league if not the best. They have to replace their right tackle and center this year, but the Wolverines are loaded with tons of highly recruited talent in the wings. The good news is they return All American left tackle Jake Long and the very talented three year starter Adam Kraus at left guard.
There's no doubt this offense is loaded with a bunch of possible first round NFL draft picks. Many people say this is a 35-40 point offense, but I'm not so sure. Last year Henne was nearly perfect, Manningham and Arrington were amazing, the offensive line and Hart stayed healthy, and the offense ranked #38 in total offense in the NCAA. In scoring offense they ranked #26 with a 29 point average. They struggled through a three game stretch of Penn State, Iowa, and Northwestern only averaging 18 points. It's probably no coincidence that Manningham was injured and did not play in those games. As star studded and talented as this offense is, keep in mind they have Lloyd Carr for a coach. Carr has been known to go conservative when he's up by a touchdown or two, so I wouldn't expect a high scoring offense, but they have the ability to score every time they get the ball from anywhere on the field which is a luxury many teams don't have.
The Wolverines rode their dominating defense to an 11-0 record last year. Too bad the season was 13 games long because their defense really let them down in the last two games against Ohio State and USC. Even though they gave up 72 points in their last two games, Michigan still ranked #1 in the country in run defense only giving up 43 yards per game on the ground. The pass defense was not so great with opponents averaging 225 yards through the air. Now, I always think this statistic is a bit deceiving. Remember in 2004 when Penn State had the best pass defense in the league? That's because teams ran at will on them and they were often in the lead so there was no need to pass. With Michigan, teams couldn't run and they often found themselves playing from behind so they had to throw. When you look at pass efficiency defense the Wolverines were a very respectable #25 in the NCAA.
The heaviest losses come on the defensive line where Michigan has to replace Rondell Biggs and All Americans Lamar Woodley and Alan Branch. These guys combined for 20 sacks and 10.5 TFL in 2006. They also lost a few backups so we should see some new faces on the line. Jamison, Taylor, and Will Johnson are all Juniors so they're probably ready to step up. Brandon Graham is a sophomore at defensive end. Backing these guys up are a slew of freshmen and sophomores. They are highly recruited talent, but the defensive line should clearly be less dominant than 2006 which pleases Anthony Morelli and other Big Ten quarterbacks very much.
Losses are also heavy with the linebackers as Michigan has to replace Prescott Burgess and All Big Ten selection David Harris. These guys were number one and two on the team in tackles last year. Shawn Crable returns at strong side linebacker for his senior season. John Thompson was Harris' backup last year so he figures to be the leading candidate to start in the middle. But don't count out junior Austin Painter or redshirt freshman Obi Ezeh. Both guys supposedly had really good springs. Senior Chris Graham is the leading candidate to start at weakside linebacker. He's had trouble with injuries in the past. He has good speed but his tackling is suspect at times. It's a good bet the linebackers won't be as good as 2006, but they'll still be pretty good.
In the secondary the Wolverines have to replace Ryan Mundy and All American Leon Hall. Morgan Trent will go from being the #2 to #1 cornerback. He has great speed, but his coverage skills and tackling were questionable at times last year. Sophomore Johnny Sears looks like the other corner. Senior Jamar Adams is a solid safety, but sophomore Stevie Brown looks like the leader for the other safety spot. The secondary was suspect toward the end of last year. Now they lose Hall and have to break in two sophomores. They should be good, but probably not as good as last year, especially with all the talent lost in the front seven.
Special teams should be an area of concern for Michigan. They return Zoltan Mesko who could be one of the best punters in the league this year which is good. But they have to replace the very reliable field goal kicker Garrett Rivas with freshman Bryan Wright. He might be pretty good though since he reportedly hit a 57 yard field goal in high school. The huge loss is going to be Steve Breaston who holds the school record for kick and punt return yards. Michigan has struggled at special teams in recent years, and this year may be more of the same.
Tough but favorable. They get Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State all at home. Only four road games with the toughest being Wisconsin. Potential trap games look like October 20 at Illinois and November 3 at Michigan State. Illinois may take some teams by surprise this year if Zook starts putting the talent together into a cohesive unit. The Michigan State game falls right before a tough two game stretch against Wisconsin and Ohio State. Michigan has won five straight in the instate rivalry, but State has circled the game on their calendar and even mounted a countdown clock in the weight room. The Wolverines need to be careful they don't get caught looking ahead to the Badgers and Buckeyes.
Call it a good year if...
Michigan goes undefeated. Most people have them ranked in the top five to start the season. Expectations are high in Ann Arbor and anything less than a Big Ten championship and a spot in the BCS title game will be a disappointment.
Send Carr into retirement if...
Henne, Hart, or Manningham get injured. The defense gives up 25-30 points per game. Special teams aren't so special. Michigan gets upset by Oregon or Penn State, get caught looking ahead against Michigan State and lose to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Worst case scenario I could see the Wolverines going 8-4 with an invitation to the Outback Bowl.
Everyone gushes over the offensive talent, but I get the impression everyone looks the other way and just trusts the defense will be ok. They may be right. It seems easier for teams to reload on defense than it is on offense. Ohio State had to replace a ton of talent on defense in 2006 and managed to go undefeated through the regular season. Maybe Michigan can do it too, but I wouldn't bank on going undefeated when you have to replace five of your front seven and your secondary got scorched in their last two games of 2006. Combine the unsettled issues on special teams and this team has too many questions in my mind to predict an undefeated season.
Getting through the Big Ten undefeated is extremely difficult. With three or four teams with a legitimate shot at competing for the title this year it's going to be even harder. The games against Penn State and Wisconsin will decide how the conference shakes out. I think Michigan has to be the favorite to win the conference, but with games against Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and a determined Michigan State they have to drop one in there somewhere. I'm going to say they finish 11-1 and win the conference title. We'll have to see if that's good enough to land them in the BCS championship game.