Preseason countdown: No. 25 Michigan

Michigan, you don’t have Rich Rodriguez to kick around anymore.

The truth that Wolverines fans don’t like to talk about at parties is that the experiment might have been on the verge of working.

Yes, there was some trouble with the NCAA, but overworking a team and having some compliance issues looks like rolling through a stop sign compared to the hot mess going on in Columbus. Yes, the RichRod era started out with an ugly thud, but that was to be expected in the process of changing around a stodgy and stale program that hit a ceiling. Yes, there wasn’t any success against Ohio State, but Michigan was hardly alone in that category over the last decade, and the losses to Michigan State were disastrous from a PR standpoint. Even beyond the obvious problems, Rodriguez never had a chance.

For all the positives and all the good things that came out of the first ten games of the 2010 season, it all went kaput after the embarrassment of the final three games. Losing to Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Mississippi State was no reason to get into a twist considering how great those three were, but it was the way the losses came that cooked Rodriguez’s goose.

The defense that was so awful all year long was next-level bad over the final three games — not including the debacle in the win over Illinois in early November — and was a Clown College against the Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl. Had the Wolverines been merely decent against MSU, and had they been able to put up more of a fight against the Buckeyes and in the second half against the Badgers, Rodriguez would probably still be the head man. It would’ve been close, but he might have survived.

Rodriguez might have been one more chance and one great defensive coordinator hire away from getting the program to where everyone had hoped it could be. After all, the offense worked.

Blame the defense and the poor special teams all you want, but the offense led the Big Ten, was eighth in the nation in yards, third in scoring, 13th in the nation in rushing, 23rd in passing efficiency, and second in the conference in passing yards. Denard Robinson became a superstar, and when he was dinged up, Tate Forcier produced. The receiving corps got through injuries and was decent, and the running backs were good enough to help pick up the slack.

And now Brady Hoke should benefit.

Timing is everything. Hoke is already ahead of the game by not being Rodriguez, and he gets the huge benefit of relatively lowered expectations that should’ve been there after Carr retired. He gets the break of the one-coach-removed buffer from a Hall of Famer. He gets the break of a team loaded with experience up and down on defense. He gets the break of everyone of note returning on offense. He gets the break of an offensive line that gets five starters back, and he gets the break of Denard Robinson staying, excellent depth across the board, and everyone getting the growing pains out of the way last year. Rodriguez would’ve killed for any sort of a break, and Hoke is getting them gift-wrapped, including the biggest whopper of them all.

Ohio State is about to suck.

It might not be this year, but the Buckeyes are about ten minutes away from getting their doors blown off by the NCAA. After losing seven straight in the series, and not coming remotely close over the last few seasons, Michigan isn’t going to be used as a punching bag anymore with Jim Tressel out of the picture and with all the program’s other issues.

So now, Hoke, one of the hottest coaching prospects going, has a fully stocked cupboard, tempered expectations for this year, and the big scarlet and gray menace in a world of deep hurt. This is the perfect time to be a Michigan head coach, and Hoke has all the tools and all the talent and ability to quickly put his own successful stamp on the legendary program.

So forget about rebuilding; Rodriguez did the heavy lifting last year. Forget about Ohio State; the arch-rival is in something called the Leaders Division. Forget about low expectations; something called the Legends Division isn’t all that great.

Iowa isn’t any big whoop this year; Michigan State is fine, but beatable; Nebraska is Nebraska, but it has a nasty schedule to deal with; and Minnesota and Northwestern are Minnesota and Northwestern. This Michigan team, with the right mix of coaching, experience, and talent, can win the Legends now. Not tomorrow, not after breakfast … now.

Michigan, it’s time to be Michigan again.

What to watch for on offense: Al Borges. Right now, if you were told that the 2011 Michigan offense was going to average 489 yards and 33 points per game, would lead the Big Ten and be tenth in the nation in sacks allowed, and would balanced enough to average 239 rushing yards and 250 passing yards per game, you’d be crazy not to take that deal. That’s what the 2010 Michigan offense did, and while the consistency might not have been there, and the production fizzled down the stretch, any step back taken this season will be blamed mostly on offensive coordinator Borges. He wants to get the power ground game going with the running backs and he wants a dropback, pro-style passer to sit in the pocket for ten days, but he doesn’t really have the pieces. Any offensive coordinator worth his salt would love to have QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, five decent running backs — maybe more — and a loaded offensive line to play around with. Borges has to fit his system to the players and not the other way around.

What to watch for on defense: The 4-3. Enough of this tippy-tappy, 3-3-5 stuff; the defense is going to get after the ball with a base 4-3 led by former Baltimore defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. There’s no excuse with linemen like Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Craig Roh that the front four can’t be decent, and look out if 6-foot-5, 333-pound NFL-sized tackle Will Campbell becomes a player. With the bulk and the experience up front, Mattison can use a smallish group of big-hitting linebackers to fly around and be more aggressive. The 2010 Wolverines rarely came up with game-changing defensive plays, and it didn’t do nearly enough to get into the backfield. That’s not going to happen under Mattison’s watch.

The team will be far better if: The coaching staff doesn’t try to turn Michael Vick into Peyton Manning. The right quarterback for the Michigan offense, at least the way Borges and Hoke would like to run it, is probably going into his senior year of high school. The Wolverines have a devastating weapon in Robinson and a very, very promising backup in Devin Gardner, but neither one looked the part of a dropback bomber this offseason. The receivers are in place to start putting the ball up deep, but the coaches have to figure out how to best utilize Robinson and Gardner to get the most out of their skills and not force them to be something they’re not.

The schedule: The Brady Hoke era won’t require much early traveling with the Oct. 8 game at Northwestern the lone date outside the Michigan borders until November. The non-conference schedule is quirky-interesting starting out against Alex Carder and a Western Michigan team with just enough juice to make it a firefight. Notre Dame is going to be a battle that could get Hoke’s tenure off to a rousing start, and after the Eastern Michigan layup, there’s the ironic game against San Diego State, Hoke’s old team, to close out the non-conference slate. The Wolverines have to beat Minnesota in the Big Ten opener with road dates at Northwestern and Michigan State to follow, and the bye week doesn’t help much with a relatively easy game against Purdue to follow. November could be a big, big problem starting out with road trips to Iowa and Illinois before closing out with Nebraska and Ohio State at home.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Robinson. Cam Newton stole Robinson’s thunder, but the Heisman race was all but over after the first eight weeks of the season. The team started losing, so the 191 rushing yards and three scores against Penn State and the 105 yards against Iowa weren’t noticed like they should’ve been, and while the passing was spotty, the rushing production made up for it and he was hardly the reason for the defeats. His future at the next level is as a receiver, and there might be times when he’s used by Borges as something other than a quarterback, but he needs the ball in his hands as much as possible.

Best defensive player: Senior NG Mike Martin. Contrary to the stats and the ugliness of last year, Michigan really does have good defensive talents. Martin might not have the NFL tools, but he’s a plugger who’s always working and is just the type of feisty leader to work a defensive front around. As long as the rest of the veteran line is fine and can do its job, Martin should be a factor both against the run and into the backfield.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore RB Stephen Hopkins, and/or junior RB Vincent Smith, and/or any one of a number of decent backs. Robinson is the team’s most dangerous rushing threat, but he wore down as last year went on. The new coaching staff is still going to run No. 16, but the idea is to keep his carries to a minimum and run him more effectively. Instead of running 256 yards for 1,702 yards, he might run 150 times for 1,000 yards but he’d be healthy for longer. For this to work, the running backs have to do their part.

The season will be a success if: Michigan beats Michigan State and Ohio State. Winning the Legends division is an attainable goal, and beating Nebraska would be nice, but the Hoke era will only start to take off if the Wolverines come up with wins over the rivals. The Ohio State problems have been well celebrated over the last seven years and in nine of the last ten seasons, but Jim Tressel’s teams were loaded at a national title level over the last decade. Michigan State has been good, but it hasn’t been Ohio State and losses to the little brother down the road don’t sit well. Three straight losses to Sparty might be seen as more unacceptable than losing to eh Buckeyes.

Key game: Sept. 10 vs. Notre Dame. Yes, of course the Michigan State, Nebraska, and Ohio State games are much, much bigger, but Hoke needs to beat Notre Dame at home in the second game of the season to set the tone for the first half of the year. If the Wolverines beat the Irish, a 6-0 start is likely going into the Michigan State game. RichRod beat Notre Dame in each of the last two years, and a loss might get the fans grumbling early on going into the Eastern Michigan layup.