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Stewart Mandel: A Year Too Early

In his latest mailbag column,'s Stewart Mandel is touting Michigan as a potential sleeper national-title contender:

I find it more than a little amusing that I feel better about the Wolverines' national-title chances than I have in years, even though they'll likely start lower in the preseason rankings than they have in quite some time because of their disappointing record last year. Like you said, this team is loaded with experience on both sides of the ball. With Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and Tyler Ecker, they will have no shortage of weapons offensively. Jake Long is one of the best linemen in the country. And besides nosetackle Gabe Watson, the defense welcomes back nearly all of its key cogs. I think the offense will become less predictable under new coordinator Mike DeBord (who held the same position during UM's 1997 national title season), and new defensive coordinator Ron English is highly regarded.

Because the Wolverines went 7-5 last year, however, I'm guessing most pundits will automatically discount them. That would be a mistake. It's always wise to look beyond the record in assessing a team's season. It'd be one thing if four of those five losses were 20-point blowouts, which would mean they've likely got a long way to climb. On the contrary, the Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State and Nebraska games all went down to the final gun. Michigan also dealt with a lot of injuries at key positions. I'm not saying Lloyd Carr's team doesn't have question marks, but you can see why they may be a potential sleeper. Remember, that '97 team wasn't highly ranked to start the season either.

Um, it's also always wise to look beyond a team's roster when assessing its upcoming season. With road trips to Notre Dame, Penn State, Minnesota, and the Columbus Correctional Facility, does Mandel really think UM could be contending for a national title? It strikes this observer as highly unlikely.

2007 is a different story. With home games against ND, OSU, Oregon, Minnesota, PSU; no Iowa; Drew Stanton, Troy Smith, and Brady Quinn all gone; and Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Jake Long, Alan Branch all seniors and experience in the back seven, Michigan will have no excuses to not be a top-three team all season and in the national-title hunt until the OSU game. No excuses. If Carr can't get it done that year, then he should just be fired, because it ain't happening.

And honestly, given that I don't think this team can realistically expect to be much better than 8-4 in 2006, I'd use the upcoming season as the platform off of which the 2007 national-title campaign is launched. The next next year is our year. It has to be.