When we entered the 2012 season, we were riding high after a Sugar Bowl victory against Virginia Tech and a top five recruiting class. Denard Robinson was going to be a senior. We had a 1,000 yard rusher in Fitzgerald Toussaint. Things were looking good.
But 2012 didn't exactly go as many of us Michigan fans expected. Here's a brief, cursory look at the general storylines of the year.
Brady Hoke: Ace Recruiter?
We can get plenty excited about the talent that Hoke and his staff are bringing in, but the truth is that we won't know how good the supposed five-star and four-star prospects are until they show us on game day.
Hoke's bold and brash recruiting tactics of pursuing juniors instead of seniors and disallowing visits to other schools after a verbal commitment had and continues to have everyone talking about the Wolverines--which is a good thing. It also kind of seems to be working.
If even half of the players in either the 2012 or 2013 classes live up to their hype, we are going to be seriously good, and it's not hard to see consistent 10-win seasons for the next three years. If all the players do, holy crap; the national championship becomes a legitimate possibility.
Linebacking Corp looks Solid
Michigan has designed their last three recruiting classes to do one primary thing: stop the run. The Wolverines have arguably more depth at linebacker than at any other position, with Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan, Antonio Poole, Royce Jenkins-Stone all in the mix right now, and players like Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray on their way in. Even if a stud like Jake Ryan goes down or leaves for the NFL, there's plenty behind him to make up for it.
As it relates specifically to 2012, the linebacking corps were probably the most consistent out of any unit. Keep in mind that this was a group that couldn't do crap in 2010 and who were were mildly impressed with in 2011. Greg Mattison's schemes combined with Hoke's staff have quickly set Michigan's defense on a path to be one of the nation's best sooner rather than later.
Offensive Line Depth Coming
For anyone afraid that Michigan's running game is leaving with Denard Robinson and never coming back, there's good news. The 2013 class features five offensive line prospects that are least rated four-stars by Rivals, and every one is in ESPN's top 250. Patrick Kugler was briefly considered the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2013 class. I don't know if he's still there, but his commitment made headlines, along with pretty much everyone else's.
As I mentioned in the "Ace Recruiter" part, if at least three of these guys turn out to be anything other than total busts, Michigan is in really good shape long term. They have some guys ahead of them in the 2012 class with Erik Magnuson and oh right Kyle Kalis (No. 1 prospect in Ohio, btw). All Michigan really needs is an A- grade tailback and we're going to be really hard to stop.
Devin Gardner Shows Up
Worried that Michigan would have to rely on true freshman Shane Morris or redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy in 2013 because Denard was leaving? Well, don't worry. Okay, yes, we were all freaking out during and after the Nebraska game because Denard was essentially done (though we didn't know it at the time) and Bellomy was not getting it done.
Fortunately, we have Devin Gardner, who showed that he's at least got the moxie to handle the starting job full time, even if he needs to work on his accuracy a tad like literally every quarterback everywhere. Gardner is especially dangerous because he's four inches taller than Denard Robinson but almost as fast. (Stop looking at me like that; I said almost.) He can see outside the pocket better than Denard ever could and makes good decisions when to scramble.
If Michigan was looking for another helpful item to make the full transition from spread to pro-style even smoother, they got one. Oh, and Gardner was also the No. 1 dual-threat QB coming out of high school. Just thought I'd mention that.
Brendan Gibbons: Good Kicker, or Great Kicker?
It wasn't that long ago that we were basically putting all of our hopes on Matt Wile to solve all our kicking problems. Turns out the problem was just Tony Gibson. Add in a solid special teams coach like Dan Ferrigno and OMG WE CAN HAVE FIELD GOALS?
Brendan Gibbons had a good season in 2011, but his season in 2012 was outstanding. Of the 21 field goals Gibbons attempted, he only missed three. I don't care what team you're rooting for, that's some reliable kicking right there. Obviously, some games live and die by the kicking game, but in general it just has to be decent. Michigan's was all that and then some.
Holy Crap, That Schedule was Brutal.
Only now do we realize the full force of angry scheduling deities. Michigan's schedule in 2011 was cake compared to this one. Michigan faced eight teams that were at one point ranked in the top 25, three of which were (or will finish) in the top 10, and two of which are playing for a national championship. Last year I think they faced one top 15 team: Michigan State. (If memory serves, Nebraska was ranked No. 17 when they played Michigan in 2011, but that was at home.)
One more thing: Michigan's toughest four games were all on the road, and Michigan lost each one. Points for keeping the undefeated home streak going, though. Next year's schedule looks to be somewhat easier with Alabama not on it.
This was obviously a disappointment for us because we were hoping that Michigan could knock off the defending champs on our way to possibly a national championship in year two of the Hoke era, or at the very least a Big Ten championship. Neither happened. Every game that Michigan was predicted to lose, they lost.
The Running Game.
This is probably my biggest personal disappointment. I make no apologies for favoring the punishing power rushing attack of schools like Wisconsin or Alabama to the Rodriguez spread option or the Leach air raid. I guess I'm just old school. (No, I'm not mustachioed. I have a beard...sort of...I'm working on it...leave me alone.)
I had genuinely thought that with a 1,000-yard rusher in Fitzgerald Toussaint returning, as well as college football's most dynamic quarterback under center, we would at least be a serious threat on the ground. Instead, Fitz's numbers took a serious nosedive, and when Denard tried his hardest to bail us out for the millionth time, the universe punished him for it (more on that in a sec).
Whether the running game suffered because Toussaint just decided not to run through the holes, or because he was off his groove from the whole suspension thing, or because the offensive line was just terrible, we don't really know. MGoBlog seems to think that the offensive line was decidedly sub-par. Sounds about right to me.
Denard's Injury and other stuff
You'll be hard pressed to find a Michigan fan that doesn't like Denard Robinson or cherish the effort he gave. The kid only picked us because Rodriguez offered a chance at quarterback. If that doesn't happen, Denard ends up either playing cornerback for somebody (unlikely) or in obscure Divison II land (more likely).
When Denard entered 2012 we had the highest of hopes. We heard all the talk about how quarterbacks progressed in year two of Borges's schemes. A faint whisper said that Denard had a legitimate chance at the Heisman. Instead, he chucks two INTs against Alabama. One against UMass. Five(!) against Notre Dame.
Then, just when Michigan's offense is getting conservative enough to where they're winning games while still using Denard as a threat (moderately, I guess), he banged his elbow and damaged a nerve in his throwing arm. In the next few weeks Denard would never throw a decent ball again, practically if not definitely destroying any chance he had to play QB in the NFL, which was already on thin ice anyway.
The good news is that Denard's speed will carry him relatively far in the NFL, even if it's not at a position he's initially envisioned for himself. He showed against South Carolina that you simply can't ignore a guy with that kind of playmaking ability. Run on, Denard. Run on.
Hype = Bad
If you were like me before the season started, you were really uneasy about starting out ranked in the top ten (at No. 8). You knew that it was far too high and that there was way too much hype going into the Alabama game. If you were like some other Michigan fans, you probably thought we had a legitimate chance to win and thought the ranking was appropriate. Well, now you know.
Let's get one thing straight: The No. 8-ranking happened for one reason and one reason only. It didn't happen because Brady Hoke said "This is Michigan" at a press conference a year prior. It didn't happen because Michigan had two 1,000-yard rushers in Denard and Fitz. It didn't even happen because Michigan won 11 games. It happened because Michigan won a BCS bowl. Period.
Every team that has won a BCS bowl has started out at least in the top 20 the following year. Oregon, who won the Rose Bowl, started out at No. 5. West Virginia, who smoked Clemson in the Orange Bowl, started out at No. 11. Bama started out at No. 2. Okie State started at No. 19 after the Fiesta Bowl. The only exception is USC, who started at No. 1 despite not even playing in the post-season last year. The hype bug bit them worse.
It still bit us pretty damn hard. All of our major losses came on the back of some kind of serious hype. Against Alabama it was the Cowboys Classic, the game of the week, the kickoff to start 2012, and College Gameday. Against ND it was a prime-time matchup, another game of the week, to see if our stumbling against the Crimson Tide was a one-time thing. Against Nebraska it was a showdown for the Legends Division. Against Ohio State it was to stop Urban Meyer's improbable 12-0 debut.
Not Winning the Big Ten
Let's be honest. The Big Ten was freaking terrible this year. Michigan might not have been a world-beater in the conference--hell, even Ohio State went to double overtime against Purdue--but you have to think that we would have at least fared better against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game than Nebraska did. There's simply no way our defense gives up 70 points to the run.
As much as Nebraska fans might troll around here and say that Michigan never had a chance in Lincoln, they got their just reward against Wisconsin. And what's more is that Michigan did have a chance. If Denard never gets injured and/or Devin Gardner is ready at QB, it's a totally different ball game. All Nebraska really did was see that we had an inexperienced redshirt freshman under center in a hostile environment and took advantage. You can't really fault them for that; Michigan would have done the same.
Excuse my shameless homerism, but what really sucks more is that Michigan would have been a better representative in the Big Ten championship and possibly the Rose Bowl, even without Denard carrying the offense on his back. The problem was that none of the teams that could have knocked off Nebraska did, and that's fair. They had the better conference record, so they got the nod. And then they got smoked by Wisconsin, and everyone in the Big Ten felt a little better.
It's tough to say whether the Big Ten will be this porous again. Obviously Ohio State will no longer be ineligible until they commit more violations (which, knowing them, is probably pretty likely), and if they're really moving to the same division as Michigan (as some suspect), then it places even more emphasis on The Game and Michigan's urgent need to win it. But, contrary to Buckeye whimsies, Michigan won't be falling into another winless rut in that department, which leads to the final section.
Where do we go from here?
This will doubtlessly be covered and re-covered by my fellow Michigan bloggers here on Maize n' Brew, so I don't need to offer up too much in the way of optimism. I will say this, though: for all the moderate and at times painful disappointments of 2012, we are headed in the right direction.
The little things that irked some Michigan fans over the years (failing to establish a recruiting foothold in both Michigan and Ohio, a lack of substance on defense, snapping losing streaks against rivals) have been corrected. We have griped about Borges and his offensive playcalling ad nauseum, but the fact remains that even in year two he wasn't entirely in his comfort zone. With Shane Morris (hell, even 6'4" Devin Gardner), a pair of 6'3" WRs, and a workhorse tailback, we should start to see more of the West Coast offense for which he's better suited.
The biggest question on defense, I suppose, is who eventually replaces Greg Mattison. He's getting up there (63), and while we can probably expect him to be here for at least four to five more years, someone's going to eventually have to take the reins once he decides to retire. I'm confident that Brady Hoke will find a similar coordinator with similar characteristics to lead the Michigan defense. Fortunately, though, we won't have to worry about that for a while.
Well, those are my thoughts. What say you, Maize n' Brew readers?