Michigan fans seem to be conditioned to fear the other shoe dropping. From the much-ballyhooed teams at the turn of the century who fell short of lofty expectations -- Michigan never lost fewer than three games from 2000 to 2002 -- to 2005 -- the year where Michigan limped from #4 preseason to 7-5 overall -- and eventually in 2007 -- which was a disaster, minus the
Capital One Citrus Bowl over Florida of course -- recent history is littered with examples of Michigan teams never reaching their potential. Of course those disappointments were products of a very high standard, the Rodriguez era definitely put those seasons in perspective. The 2011 season was a wonderful catharsis after the dreadful three Rodriguez years; everything went better than expected, the incredibly divisive in-fighting was rectified by, well, winning, and Michigan's program regained a sense of normality. Needless to say, the accomplishments and memories from Team 132 won't be forgotten any time soon. Eleven wins, home victories against Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio, as well as a BCS Bowl win -- it was an impressive year regardless of the circumstances but the context, immediately after Michigan's worst three-year stretch ever, made it special.
It's understandable that Michigan is entering the 2012 season with so much hype and with such high expectations. Michigan returns a senior, multi-year starter at quarterback, several key contributors on defense and along the offensive line, and is coming off of an unexpectedly successful season. Never mind Denard's persistent and pronounced struggles with inaccuracy in the passing game, that there aren't any proven receivers, that the lack of depth on the offensive line is a bit terrifying, or that the defensive line is replacing a few stalwarts with totally unproven upperclassmen. Treating last season's razor-thin wins over Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Virginia Tech as remarkable anomalies, reveling in the glow of maybe-not-deserved but still totally awesome wins was the proper thing to do at the time, but now, it's easy to question whether or not Michigan is deserving of these lofty expectations. Michigan was really just a few lucky bounces from losing a few more games in the regular season last year. Fortunately, they didn't, and Brady Hoke is building an impressive program regardless, but the national perception of Michigan would be much different entering this season if Michigan had gone 8-4 last year.
Maybe I'm being too pessimistic. After all, Michigan does have one heck of a coaching staff that has done little wrong since arriving in Ann Arbor a year ago. Hoke's in-game decisions have been excellent, and while Al Borges and Greg Mattison made a few questionable calls, they still did a very good job (Mattison in particular, his work with that defense was amazing). Denard is certainly the most accomplished quarterback left in the Big Ten, and in terms of electric athleticism, he's unparalleled. Toussaint will probably have another excellent year regardless of any availability issues early on. Michigan's defense will be a strength; coaching from Mattison and the rest of Michigan's defensive coaching staff is invaluable. The secondary--fresh off of absolute ineptitude in 2010--should be very solid, heck, even Michigan's kicking game should be okay. Despite Michigan's potential strengths, there are still a few lingering, very legitimate concerns. A lack of depth on both sides of the ball remains a nagging issue, a daunting schedule looms large, and the dreaded "regression to the mean" in terms of turnovers and other general luck is just over the horizon. Michigan should be better in year two under Hoke, but keeping up the momentum from last year and winning the Big Ten is a tall task.
Michigan could very well go 8-4 this season. With an incredibly difficult opener ahead, as well as difficult away games in South Bend, Lincoln, and Columbus, not to mention a home game against Michigan State, it's a far cry from last season's rather manageable schedule. It's easy to envision Michigan losses in a quite a few of those games, not to mention that annual, inexplicable loss to a random, middle-tier Big Ten team (like Iowa last year). The narrative--"Michigan's back, baby"--would be thrown for a loop; the positivity from 2011 wouldn't cease to exist, Hoke's had too much success on the field and on the recruiting trail so far, but a slightly disappointing year would be a sobering dose of reality. There's been some variation of "Michigan could be better, but have a worse record" in numerous previews, and, well, it could be true. It's the cynical, slightly depressing thing to do, bringing up the what ifs. The preseason is time for unbridled optimism and most of the rhetoric and the narrative surrounding this Michigan team has been overwhelmingly positive -- it's just that Michigan could very well falter and fall short of the Big Ten title. Thankfully, most everyone is in firm support of the current coaching staff, but say the team drops the opener, loses to Notre Dame, and finishes with two or three losses in Big Ten play. It's certainly not impossible for Michigan to have a disappointing season and enter 2013 with a decidedly less positive outlook. The progress of the Hoke era would be temporarily halted.
With Alabama approaching, Michigan's going to be in for an exciting season with some big matchups, starting with day one. Projections have fallen on a pretty wide spectrum: some people think Michigan could only lose one or two games, make it to the Big Ten Championship, and beat Wisconsin. Others, like myself, are a little less optimistic: 9-3 or 8-4, another second-place finish in the division, and a trip to the Capital One Bowl might be the realistic scenario. With Michigan State and Nebraska in the Legends along with Michigan, it's not a cakewalk to the divisional title, let alone the Big Ten Title. These things could all happen. Michigan could disappoint. It's happened before.
Still, the successes of Brady Hoke, Greg Mattison, and Michigan's excellent coaching staff shouldn't be forgotten if Michigan hits a rough spot, because, frankly, everything's gone swimmingly thus far. The coaching staff could continue to impress, of course (I mean, look at the secondary) and Michigan could quickly retake its spot near the top of the conference. Michigan football is in a better place--and in better hands--that it's been in years, and that shouldn't be forgotten if there's a little adversity. A disappointing year would be just that: with the way that the program's being built and with the way that the coaching staff has done so far, 2012 would just be an aberration, because this program is going in the right direction.