Next up in our preseason Q&A is Michigan. Zach Travis from Maize n Brew was kind enough to answer some questions about the Wolverines.
1. How do you look back on 2012? You only lost to top teams, but also won some games at the very end against MSU and Northwestern. Brady Hoke considers every season without a Big Ten Championship as a failure. Was 2012 a failure?
There are a certain amount of mixed feelings about 2012. To an extent I agree with Brady Hoke that anything short of a conference title is a disappointment, and when you look at the number of close games that this team lost - both in conference against Ohio State and Nebraska and out of conference against Notre Dame and South Carolina - there is a lot of disappointment and feelings of "they left something on the table". A few plays here and there and a better handle on the backup quarterback situation, and Michigan could have 10 or 11 wins if everything goes right.
However, given the level of the schedule, the continuing transition on offense, and some of the lucky scrapes (Northwestern, MSU), Michigan probably ended up right about where it should have. This is still a team that is rebuilding depth and transitioning its roster to something very different than what the last staff focused on. I'm fine with 8-5 in the sense that it wasn't a major step back in the progress that Hoke has made so far on campus. There were some good moments, some tough losses, and the team didn't ever seem really out of contention after the beatdown in Dallas to start the year. But that goodwill is going to begin disappearing in the next year or two as this team fully becomes what the coaching staff wants.
2. Devin Gardner takes over after having moved to receiver, and it looks like moving back was certainly the right call. He looked good at the end of the year, though South Carolina was the only notable defense he did well against. Expectations seem to be through the roof, with many thinking he could leave for the NFL after this season. Are expectations too high, or is he going to be the real deal?
There is always going to be a segment of Michigan's fanbase that irrationally elevates player X to Heisman contender status on a year to year basis. I think these fans might be setting the bar too high, but I'm also not going to rule it out given how well Gardner played at times, and the strides he has made this off season. That is to say he could be that good, but it would take a major step forward and a lot of fortunate breaks.
Still, I think a more realistic expectation is for Gardner to be somewhere around the third best quarterback in the league, help lead this offense as it continues to transition to the pro style (there are still question marks surrounding him on offense), and set himself up for a very good senior year in 2014. Basically a continuation of last year wherein he plays very well a lot of the time but struggles a bit against some of the better defenses in the league. A certain amount of his success is going to be predicated on how well the young interior line plays, and what contributions some of Michigan's new starters at the skill positions can bring, but one thing Gardner showed last year was the ability to make big plays happen both on the ground and through the air. How well he plays will go a long way toward establishing Michigan's ceiling for production. I'm optimistic, but I do imagine there will be struggles at times.
3. The defense looked good at times, but the lack of firepower in the Big Ten certainly helped the pass numbers for teams. Only about six defensive starters return. What are going to be the strengths and weaknesses on this side of the ball?
I think the strength of this defense is once again going to be based on stopping the run and limiting big plays. Since Greg Mattison took over the unit, Michigan's run defense - especially in short conversion situations - has been night-and-day better than two years ago. After three years of confusion and throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks under Rich Rodriguez, Michigan's defense has a dedicated scheme and a very good teacher and tactician leading it. This has also helped stop big plays as Michigan's defense is rarely caught out of position anymore. More than anything else Brady Hoke has done, building a functional and dependable defense has thus far been his greatest achievement.
The weakness will most likely be big plays by the defense. Michigan hasn't had a great pass rush yet under Mattison, and depending on whether you believe the hype building behind Frank Clark or Taco Charlton, Michigan may or may not finally have a pass rush specialist that can challenge opposing offenses consistently. This will be further complicated by Jake Ryan's injury status, as he could be out all year and one would think that even if he returns by November it will be in limited capacity. He has been Michigan's most consistently explosive defensive player, and that is a loss that will hurt, but shouldn't cause the defense to be ineffective or too vulnerable. This should still be one of the best units in the Big Ten, but I think the unit is still a year away from going from really good to possibly great.
4. How important was beating MSU last season? In the grand scheme of things, neither team reached a BCS game nor won the division, and one game doesn't change the minds of recruits, but with back-to-back games in East Lansing in 2013 and 2014, the streak could have extended even more. How important was breaking the losing streak on the final kick for the direction of the program?
Very. I don't buy into the line of thought that MSU isn't one of Michigan's rivals or that we are back to "business as usual". The strides that MSU has made under Mark Dantonio have been impressive, and beating MSU was the last of the rivalry games Hoke needed to win. While I think Michigan has a good chance to win in East Lansing in each of the next two years, it is nice to have that added pressure taken off. Also, I don't have to hear about the streak from my friends anymore, so I've got that going for me.
5. Lastly, I imagine U-M fans are happy with the new division setup? Are you of the belief MSU will fade into oblivion? Or are you more of my belief that MSU will compete for the division every few years when the pieces are in place?
As I said in the last answer, I don't see Michigan State turning into a doormat again (John L isn't walking through those doors), but given the current trends in recruiting, I think Michigan has a very good chance to once again take the upper hand in the rivalry, and the divisional alignment sets up well for Michigan and Ohio State not only in terms of the added importance, but also getting Maryland, Rutgers, and Indiana on a regular basis to pad the schedule.
People outside Columbus and Ann Arbor are going to decry the "Big Two/Little Twelve" talk. Michigan State fans in particular cite player development, and rightfully so. It is hugely important and Michigan State - especially defensively - has proven to be excellent at identifying and coaching under the radar players into all-conference caliber players. The same goes for Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and even Nebraska. You don't have to have top-ten talent to win in the Big Ten, and as Michigan under Rich Rodriguez proved, just putting some high profile names on paper every February isn't going to win you any games.
Ultimately, I think this is where the difference is going to be in the coming years. Michigan had been waning a bit before Rodriguez took over, and even as Tressel was busy throttling the rest of the Big Ten, it was always with one foot on the brake. In the last two years Hoke has shown an ability to win at Michigan with what random pieces were left over after the Rodriguez years. He did it by building a sound, capable defense which was the polar opposite of what the unit had been just a year before. Meanwhile, Urban Meyer has a pretty good history of developing winners without the conservative approach that sometimes cost Tressel. If both programs can not only develop talent at a high level, but also start out with, on average, much better rated players, it bodes well for Michigan and Ohio State to distance themselves a bit from the rest of the pack.
However, these programs won't have all the best players, and these aren't the only two coaching staffs that know how to coach kids to be NFL draft picks. Michigan State, along with all those other solid Big Ten programs previously mentioned, will continue to mount challenges to Michigan and Ohio State even if both of those programs top out somewhere around the level that recent recruiting trends would indicate. Unless both reach the absolute best case scenario (something approximating a pair of rust belt Alabamas - which I don't expect) then there is room for other teams to mount competitive challenges.
Michigan State looks to be one of these teams. I have little doubt that the defense can continue to play at a high level. The only concern has to be whether Mark Dantonio's unimaginative
The real wildcard in the east is Penn State. If Bill O'Brien can weather those draconian sanctions while keeping the talent level in Happy Valley respectable, Penn State could become the real problem for Michigan State, as that would be one more power program in the same division running at or near full speed. This would further hamper Michigan State's recruiting efforts in Ohio and Pennsylvania while providing one more serious challenger to the eastern throne. But to be totally honest, I have no idea what to make of Penn State, this year or over the next few seasons.
Thanks again to Zach for taking the time to answer some questions.