A Hell of a Roller Coaster: The Story of 2013

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Gardner took a lot of sacks this season. That's putting it mildly.

You look around the Michigan blogosphere and there's not a lot of reflection on 2013. There's some, granted, but not a lot. That's probably because 2013 was a season that we really, really want to forget. As a testament to that, I started this article on January 2nd and it's been sitting the queue for over a month, while I picked and plucked at it, trying to get it just right, trying say what can be said about the 2013. But like all things that are terrible, there is no right way to describe 2013.

So I guess I'll just start with the obvious: it was bad. Sure, 2013 wasn't the worst season in the history of Michigan football, but when you line up expectations and predictions with performance and results, it quickly arises to among the worst. The Wolverines entered the 2013 season with the promise that the offense, having succeeded impressively in the last five games of 2012 where Devin Gardner stood at the helm and Al Borges went to the pro-style attack he so loved, would be one of the more explosive offenses in the conference.

Instead, Michigan fell flat on its face. Despite two impressive showings to start the season where Michigan handled MAC opener Central Michigan and won decisively against Notre Dame, the Wolverines soon found themselves in nail-biters against teams everyone expected them to throttle. We really should have sensed something was wrong when games against Akron and Connecticut (neither of which finished with winning records that season) went down to the wire. A loss in four overtimes to Penn State, a crushing defeat at the hands of Michigan State, as well as noncompetitive losses to Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl doomed the season, destroyed all momentum, got Al Borges fired, and possibly even put Brady Hoke on the hot seat.

So, what happened?

The Offensive Line was Not What We Thought

Boy, ain't that the truth.

There is this prevailing notion in college football -- does it apply to all sports? hell if I know -- that if something is bad or terrible then it cannot possibly get any worse. People say this all the time. "The good news is that the [offense, defense, whatever unit] was so bad they can't possibly be worse." No. Wrong. They can. They did. And they were.

We kind of made excuses for the 2012 running game: oh, it sucked because half of the OL were walk-ons and career back-ups, once these highly-touted freshmen come off their redshirts, then watch out! Watch out for what? For a unit to give up 36 sacks and put up a rushing offense ranked 103rd in the nation?

So we told ourselves (and are still telling ourselves) that freshmen are freshmen, and Michigan's young offensive linemen, no matter how many stars they had to their names as high schoolers, were clearly not ready for college football. Either that, or Michigan's coaching was indeed the problem, which could be why Al Borges was scapegoated and fired, and why offensive line coach Darrell Funk should be on notice.

The Wolverines now have to replace their only two stalwarts of the offensive line: Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. The play of these two seniors obviously could not and did not make up for the putrid play of the interior, but at least now Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, and Eric Magnuson all have game experience, and a good amount of it. Patrick Kugler, David Dawson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, and Dan Samuelson are all coming off redshirts, but even so, don't expect too much from the pups.

We will not be fooled again.

Al Borges Called Great Games...and Terrible Ones

I still don't think the firing of Al Borges will immediately fix every problem Michigan had, but what's done is done. As much as I might stand firm to the idea that Borges himself was maybe 20%-40% of the problem rather than 90%-100% of the problem, he was an immensely polarizing figure because he tried to make work what simply couldn't or wouldn't work. As much as we all wanted to power through a defense, Michigan's offensive line was not going to make it happen, and in that respect, Borges's constant attempts to do so are justifiably questionable, and criticism is warranted.

When Al Borges got the offense doing what he wanted (or, at least, partially what he wanted), it was a thing of beauty. He called a near-perfect game against Notre Dame, set all kinds of school records for offense against Indiana (against an admittedly terrible defense, but still), and threw everything but the kitchen sink at Ohio State, an opponent most expected to shut Michigan out. Despite the claim that Borges is not a good developer of quarterbacks, Gardner did cut down significantly on his interception rate as the year went on. Granted, you can demand to know why Gardner wasn't farther along at the beginning of the season, but as the expression goes, better late than never.

The Offense Regressed from 2011, and 2012

What made things so encouraging in 2011 was that Borges worked with pieces he wasn't entirely comfortable working with and helped Michigan to ten wins when everyone thought eight was more likely. He stuck to the spread/pro-style hybrid in 2012 because he had Denard Robinson. But once Denard got injured, in came Devin Gardner, and Borges slapped on his apron for some pro-style cooking.

The result was impressive. Gardner's numbers at the end of 2012 are well-documented, and the general thinking from the Michigan fan base was this: if Borges had only mere weeks to coach Gardner to that type of performance for five games, and if he no longer has to tailor the offense to Denard Robinson, then the offense could be amazing in 2013.

It wasn't. It was worse. This, too, is partly the reason for Borges's firing. Not only did he call games inconsistently, but Michigan just seemed to get worse offensively week to week. All the encouragement from the end of 2012 was either called into question or seen as a mirage. As much as Hoke preached that Michigan was going to run the ball like any number of pro-style teams (Stanford, Wisconsin, Alabama, Michigan State), the Wolverines could not. At the end of the day, the offensive coordinator is responsible for the offense, and so it makes sense that Borges would be cut loose.

Greg Mattison is Not Above Reproach

The miracle that Hoke and Mattison did when they took over the defense from Rich Rodriguez and Greg Robinson was nothing short of spectacular and sent many Michigan fans down the path that Michigan's defense will be elite (SEC-elite) by 2013 or 2014.

Well, how exactly has it gone? Michigan has been solid on defense overall. The defense kept the team in games countless times in 2012. They were good, but not great, at the beginning of 2013, but a lot of this was excused due to the injury to Jake Ryan, Michigan's leading tackler at linebacker. As it turned out, Ryan's injury was not as bad as we all thought. When he came back, Michigan's defense didn't take a huge, visible step forward, but Ryan's playmaking ability was indeed a welcome sight.

However, the defensive output in Michigan's final two games of the 2013 season were the worst of Greg Mattison's career as Michigan's defensive coordinator under Brady Hoke. They had no answer for the duo of Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, who both ran rampant over them. They were also completely listless in the bowl game against a 7-5 Kansas State team who had lost to North Dakota State to start the year.

Many blame this on Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett being practically All-World at his position; others say the Wolverines came in to the game and simply didn't care. As the defensive coordinator, it is Mattison's responsibility to properly prepare the defense, no matter what the game is and no matter who the opponent is. It is poor motivation like this which separates the teams who get upset by Appalachian State and the teams who take care of business.

Michigan's 2013 Season was an Embarrassment

I never thought I'd ever say this, but I'm jealous of the Spartans. Although it didn't have a pretty start, Michigan State's 2013 season ended pretty much exactly the way we wanted Michigan's to end: delivering a crushing, heart-breaking defeat to Urban Meyer's Buckeyes to win the Big Ten Championship, and a victory in the Rose Bowl to top it off.

The 2013 season that Michigan went through looked a lot like what the Spartans endured in 2012, only without the spectacular defense. Predicted to at least win the final incarnation of the Legends Division, Michigan instead lost three games they should not have lost (Penn State, Nebraska, and Iowa) and very nearly lost games they should have won handily (Akron, UConn, Indiana). They also got embarrassed on national television in the bowl game against Kansas State. Against every spoken word that said Michigan had the edge, the Wolverines came in and played down (or up) to their competition, resulting in the wild roller-coaster ride of a season where the lows were very low and the highs were very high. Most Michigan fans will tell you that the lows were not worth it.

The team that Brady Hoke Michigan wanted to be in 2013 existed. It just existed in East Lansing. If you look at Michigan State this year, that's what Brady Hoke wants Michigan to be -- on both offense and defense. Tough, hard-nosed, get-after-the-ball defense and a smashmouth, run-it-down-your-throat offense. Michigan State started as the laughingstock of the Big Ten offensively, and Michigan quickly switched places with them. In a year that celebrated the anniversary of the first ever Rose Bowl, where Michigan played Stanford back in 1902, here's what happened: Stanford played, but Michigan sat out. Michigan State won the Rose Bowl and now has claim to all the glory that Michigan wanted (even expected) for Hoke's third year.

Is There Any Hope?

This is Michigan, for God sakes!

...so probably not.

2013 has been a testing and trying year for optimistic and reasonable Michigan fans alike. Even the most skeptical fans hardly expected less than 9-3. There were small things throughout the year that led some to doubt that Michigan might knock off Ohio State for a Big Ten title, such injuries to wide receiver Amara Darboh and linebacker Jake Ryan, as well as the seemingly endless battle for the center position, but no one expected that those things would somehow lead to Michigan falling to 7-6.

You can look at Brady Hoke's track record and have a few reactions. On one hand, it's not like he's never developed talent, hired a competent staff, and gotten the most out of his players. We can see that in his final year at Ball State (their first undefeated regular season in school history), his second year at San Diego State, and his first season at Michigan. Hoke has recruited impressively for his first three seasons and by all accounts those classes should eventually pay dividends, even if when they do so Hoke isn't the one standing on the sidelines.

On the other hand, how can Hoke constantly preach all this mumbo-jumbo about Michigan being Michigan and having the expectation of winning the Big Ten Championship and wanting to run the football and then present one of the worst rushing attacks Michigan football has ever seen, in his third season? You would expect that by a coach's third or fourth season, he would have some answers to what his program would look like. At the very least, his team would have an identity. Michigan has neither.

I don't really know where you go from here if you're either a rational or overly optimistic fan. You can demand Hoke's firing just as most of us demanded Rodriguez's for putting up an epically bad defense in 2010, and Michigan can go through another coaching search and we can hope that this time they get it right. Or you can trust Brady Hoke and hope that the 2013 season was the worst we will ever see under him and that we will hopefully never see a season like that again. (Well into his tenure at Michigan, even Bo Schembechler had a season where his team flopped to 6-6.)

I have said many times that I like and trust Brady Hoke. I love what he stands for and how he represents Michigan, but even I'm at the point where I want the guy to stop talking about how Michigan is going to win. It's time that he and the Wolverines go out and actually do it. The 2012 Sugar Bowl was not a national championship or a Big Ten championship, and while we were all impressed that Hoke seemed to turn around Michigan so quickly in his first year, it doesn't excuse a terrible season or grant him tenure to sit back and let whatever happens, happens.

Hoke has shown that he is more aggressive situationally than either Lloyd Carr or Rich Rodriguez. So, in that sense, Michigan has a fighter. Also the fact that he made the decision to cut loose Al Borges -- I personally think that was all Dave Brandon -- shows that neither he nor anyone else in the Michigan athletic department is content with Michigan going 7-6. Someone high enough in the athletic department -- whether it's the head coach or the athletic director, or both -- wants to win badly enough that Michigan made the bold move of getting arguably one of the best pro-style offensive coordinators in the business after the last one wasn't working out. That alone should be enough to quell and defeat the notion that the program is accepting mediocrity.

However, that Michigan came into 2013 so vastly unprepared in their running game is perhaps the biggest concern. Not only did they have a load of highly touted freshmen coming off redshirts, but they also had the security of leadership from senior offensive tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. On top of that, Michigan brought in two highly touted running backs in Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith to carry the load, yet the two of them combined couldn't get even close to 1,000 yards. Despite the claim that we were only running a spread in part because of Denard Robinson, the Wolverines got worse with the offense they preferred, seemingly with the personnel they preferred. That Michigan wanted so badly to be a power-running team and failed so miserably at it is the most annoying part of this whole ordeal.

As is the way of things, the ineptitude of Michigan's running game and subsequent firing of Al Borges of course prompted some in the Michigan fan base to proclaim that Michigan must therefore go to a spread because the way of the pro-style running is dead and cannot be done. Plus there are even whispers that Doug Nussmeier will be more spread oriented.

I am not a spread zealot. I'm not any kind of zealot when it comes to offense. I don't believe that one offensive system is necessarily better than the other. Teams have shown that any offense can win at a high level (indeed, at the highest) when it is doing what it has set out to do. Michigan's coaches don't have to so much change to an offensive system that a few bloggers wish them to because that offense is supposedly The Future(TM), they just have to run their offense (the offense they want to run) right.

I don't care if Doug Nussmeier brings back some spread concepts. I don't care if Michigan becomes a triple-option team. I don't care if they go full Air-Raid or full zone-blocking run or where every play is a bubble-screen. I just want Michigan to win.

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