The Michigan college football season kicks off tomorrow. As I've said before, thanks to the impass between the Big Ten Network and Comcast, I won't be able to see it. Unless I go to a bar. Seeing as how the opponent is Appalachian State, I'm not exactly rushing out to do that. They're not a complete cupcake, being a long time contender for the Division I-AA crown (or whatever it is they're calling it these days ), capturing it the past three years. But Michigan is expected to contend for the BCS championship so while it might not be a complete blowout, I'd be stunned if the Wolverines dropped this game.
Michigan is expected to contend for the title heading into the season because they've returned their triplets, the big three offensive players. Manningham, the star receiver from last year even though he missed a few games due to injury. Henee, the four year starter since his days as a true freshman following the Henson/Navarre years. And Hart, the engine that makes it all run. They're ranked #5 heading into the season. And as any Michigan fan will tell you, that's a recipe for disaster.
Unlike last year, this team is expected to do well. Michigan is expected to do well every year but this one, the tenth anniversary since their last national championship, the hopes are sky high. They won't be a surprise, they won't sneak up on anyone, and they're going to be under a lot of pressure to live up to those expectations. I'm taking the standard pessimistic view in hopes of being pleasantly surprised instead of ruefully despondent at season's end.
But, as I see it, they're going to need every point that gaudy offense is expected to provide. Because while they've returned a raft of starters, including the key trio, from last year's offense, the defense is new and untested. The secondary, in particular, looks like tissue paper early on. I have bad memories of the defensive schemes of my collegiate years which we affectionately termed, “Keystone Cops” cropping up whenever I think about this defense. Especially after the way they were exposed against teams that could actually play last year.
There are a lot of rookies on the defensive side of the ball but what really concerns me is the rookies on the bench. There's a distinct lack of quarterback depth behind Chad Henee. He's been so rock-solid and consistent throughout the years, but his backup is only a freshman. A stud recruit freshman, granted, but one who's had the playbook scaled way back because he won't be able to do everything Henne does. Should Henne go down with an injury, the team could be in for trouble.
Another issue of concern is the schedule. Appalachian State might be the first lamb to the slaughter upon the altar of the refurbished Big House, but the season gets underway in earnest next week when Oregon comes to town. They kick off a brutal three week stretch where UofM will play a group of scrappy, underrated teams. Oregon is the first, and they're a second tier team from the stacked Pac-10 who've been consistently good the past several years. Then comes the traditional rivalry game against Notre Dame, soon to be dropping off the books for a few years. The Irish are going to be breaking in a new quarterback but itching to avenge last year's blow-out. Then there's Penn State, who were going to be my sleeper choice for the Big 10 title but then everyone started making that pick so I'm going to have to go with Indiana or something. Fortunately, all three of those games are home dates for the Wolverines. Part of a schedule that's loaded with home dates (They also get something of a break, missing out on games against Big 10 also-rans Iowa and Indiana in favor of some doormats like Illinois and Northwestern.).
Unfortunately, they close out the season on the road. The season ending tilt against OSU is in Ann Arbor this year. Which would be great except the Wolverines haven't beaten them since 2003. Henne's never beaten them at all (Nor has he won a bowl game, for that matter). But to get there, they face a game, on the road, at Madison, in the November cold, against a Wisconsin team that's as good a bet as any to take the Big 10 title outside of the Big 2. And, if they pass through that unscathed, there's a match looming against a Michigan State that would just love to play spoiler and upset an undefeated season.
It looks scary. And I'm not sure the hype is warranted. Not at the moment, anyway. Get back to me after the Notre Dame or Wisconsin games. But it's been ten years since the magical season of '97. And heading into the 13th year of the Lloyd Carr regime, there's definitely a sentiment of “what have you done for me lately?” Last year was the closest they've come to matching that success and that was a season they overachieved. Realistically, I think I'll be happy if they manage to beat the Buckeyes this year. Which is always a daunting prospect but it's a home game, the Troy Smith era is over, and OSU is in the middle of a reloading year, so the chances are better than they have been in a while.