I played the NCAA football games for a string of years, starting in 2005 when Larry Fitzgerald graced the cover and ending around 2011 when I realized class was more important than online dynasties. I might buy this year's edition for two reasons, those being the man on the cover and the new physics engine. I'm not sure if the physics used in this year's NCAA will be those featured in Madden, which are downright awesome.
My team wasn't always Michigan. Teams like Utah, Rutgers and San Diego State often graced the television screens of my online opponents around the country, but that didn't keep me from tracking the Wolverines' ratings. The team was usually one of the highest rated teams in the game despite wasting talent on an annual basis. The story is a bit different this year, with Michigan being rated as a good but not great team. Here's what both the offensive and defensive units need to do in order to live up to their NCAA ratings.
This rating seemed fair until I looked one row down to see that Michigan State had received an offensive rating of 90. I laughed, looked back at Michigan's rating to see if my eyes deceived me, then laughed again. Michigan's offense could perform poorly this year and would still be as effective as the Spartans' unit, so this rating seemed a bit peculiar to me. But I digress.
Michigan's consistency and overall effectiveness will mostly depend on the play of its interior offensive lineman. Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden, Jack Miller or whoever else plays will need to learn quickly. Al Borges loves him some play-action passes and roll outs, making the running game extremely important to the passing game. The interior usually isn't the part of the line that's stressed in the passing game, but Michigan's tendency to use play action places more emphasis on its interior, which will decide the effectiveness of those play-action passes through its play in the run game.
Second, someone needs to step up at the second receiver spot. Jeremy Gallon is a great receiver who requires single coverage and room to work with, so finding someone to take coverage away from him is paramount. Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Devin Funchess and others all need to make plays if the offense is going to live up to its rating.
Lastly, Fitgerald Toussaint, Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith need to play up to their potential. Toussaint may or may not come back ready to play, but there's no reason for Michigan to have a subpar backfield when it brings in one of the most impressive freshman duos in the country in Green and Smith. Smith is often forgotten because of the plethora of stars sitting next to Green's name; he would be one of the more talked about freshman in the conference if Green would have gone elsewhere.
Overall, Michigan really needs its young interior on the offensive line to step up on day one. Devin Gardner is a lock to play well for the entire season, but the men in front of him and the playmakers around him will be the ones who make or break the offense. Michigan could field a solid running attack with average interior play with tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield manning the ends of the line, or it could downright manhandle defensive lines if the young men in the middle come to play, setting up Gallon, Funchess and company for massive gains down the field.
It seems right for the defense to be rated slightly above the offense, doesn't it? Michigan's defense should be one of the better units in the Big Ten, and that's with all-world, havoc-wreaking linebacker Jake Ryan sidelined by a torn ACL. The defensive line is relatively young and could use more talent at a position or two. The linebackers should be fine thanks to veteran Cameron Gordon. Some problems could arise in the secondary, where two starters will be replaced and Michigan's best player returns from injury, but Michigan's recruiting should be enough to lessen the damage.
Much like on offense, the maulers are the catalysts for the defense. Quinton Washington has turned into one of the best nose tackles in the Big Ten and his backup, Ondre Pipkins, looks promising as well. The weak side defensive end spot is young and talented, even though it's filled with players who have yet to produce. The two problem areas could be at the three-tech and five-tech, where Michigan lacks true starters. Keith Heitzman, Matt Godin and Tom Stroebel will all be battling on the strong side; whoever emerges should be solid but not great. The same goes for the three-tech position, where Michigan has one average veteran in Jabrill Black, to go with a few promising yet inexperienced youngsters. Greg Mattison needs one of Godin or Stroebel to beat out Heitzman at the strong side and a young player to step up behind Jabrill Black on the inside.
The linebackers should be anywhere from solid to great depending on the opponent. The inside group of James Ross and Desmond Morgan will bang skulls with any running backs looking to come through the middle, but things get dicey when Morgan is forced to run laterally. The two will be backed by Royce Jenkins-Stone and Joe Bolden, who both show promise. The strong side linebacker situation is still in safe hands with Cameron Gordon, who will be consistent in run support and has the ability to rush the passer if needed, although he won't perform the duties as well as Jake Ryan would have. His backups are true freshman Mike McCray and former weak side defensive end Brennan Beyer. Beyer isn't the greatest athlete but should be serviceable in the run game. The linebacker core needs Desmond Morgan to start showing more strength and ability on the edge, and it wouldn't hurt if Cameron Gordon helped on the pass rush.
All the way at the back of the defense are the corners and safeties. This unit might be the most talented of the three, yet at the same time it could end up being the worst. The two starting corners should be Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess, who is returning from an unfortunate injury against Alabama. We never even witnessed the version of Countess that the coaches were raving about, so that version of Countess needs to reappear once again. The two have good but not great backups in Courtnery Avery and Delonte Hollowell, who could both help in long down situations. One safety spot is locked up by Thomas Gordon, with the other spot going to one of Jarrod Wilson, Dymonte Thomas. I think Wilson wins the spot and Thomas gets playing time at the nickel position, making the secondary young and promising altogether. This unit could be great if Wilson and Countess play up to their potential, or it could become a liability if Countess fails to return to form and the young starting safety plays inconsistently.
The Big Picture
At the end of the day I think Michigan will perform slightly under its rating of 91 on offense until the interior of the line gets its feet wet, at which time the offense could explode. A good to great offensive line would give one of the best signal callers in the country time to get the ball to a wide range of decent athletes, and the young stable of running backs would benefit greatly as well.
The defense is harder to predict because it presents a few more variables in my eyes, and it doesn't have a clear leader like offense does. The front seven will be as good as players like Jabrill Black and Desmond Morgan make it, while the secondary could be anything from below average to great. I'll put my faith in one of the best defensive minds in the game to have the unit ready by the time Notre Dame comes around. A solid showing in that game should boost the unit to a season that would solidify its rating of 92, if not improve upon it.
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