There is something about this team that stands out to me. Something special. It's not because I think they are the best team in the land. Far from it. I see a certain intangible quality in this particular group of young men that is hard to describe. It is that quality that has bonded me to them in a way that exceeds even the 1997-1998 championship team.
It's a difficult proposition to explain. The 1997 squad wasn't supposed to win the National Championship, but did. Brian Griese was at the helm and Charles Woodson patrolled the secondary. Both men would become the highest paid professionals at their given positions at one point in their careers. One was a superstar among boys, the other a star in the making, though one that never completely formed. The rest of the team, kind of blends into the background for me. Their accomplishment is what I remember. While certain players stand out, the team had changed so much over the course of my four years at Michigan there wasn't a definable quality about that team. The results the previous three incarnations produced were so lackluster it was a difficult team to seize onto at that particular team going into the year.
That is why this team is so different. There is a quality in this team that makes you latch onto them so tightly. Not simply for the glory of ole' alma mater, but because they are dynamic, complicated, conflicted, over and under achieving all at once. There is an inherent contradiction that strikes you between the eyes when you look at these kids. There is the Mouth. The Rock. The Soul. The Rudder. The grumpy old man. The Star in the Making. The Should've Been. The May Be. The Please God. The Oh No. They all cohabitate this wilderness we've invested so much in.
It is these contradictions that make them so interesting. Last year's defense was supposed to be the best that ever was. Then two games later it was a though 2005 had reappeared. The offense was a juggernaut that torched a good OSU defense one moment, then a scared child running from his oppressors in Pasadena. This year there is a four year starting quarterback who will not captain his team. A pint sized running back who will own every Michigan rushing record by the time he is through but will never break off the 60 yard touchdown run. A former four star cornerback who, once widely regarded out of high school, is currently known as the guy that backed up Leon Hall or was flambe'd by Ball State. A Linebacking group comprised of tweeners, underachievers, former running backs and safeties, is expected to backbone a rebuilding defense.
All of these things make this team so intriguing. So human.
This team, more so than any other, represents Michigan. It is a gigantic, sterling jewel, but a jewel with flaws. For every wonderful thing we can think or say about this team, we can point to some flaw that keeps it grounded. As much as we expect the offense to be capable of space flight, we see the holes in the heat shield that make us nervous. Michigan has prepared these young men to take on the world both on and off the field as best it can. Now it is up to these young, flawed men to perform as they have been trained to do. To represent the school and themselves with pride and dedication. In doing so, they take us with them. Because of their potential, their skill and their confidence, they represent us. Michigan fans and graduates who see themselves as the leaders and the best as they take on any challenge on the playing field or otherwise. But, this team's weaknesses mirror our own. Those flaws of false bravado and inexperience are the same one's we've all faced heading out into the world.
We've grown with this group. From day one Henne, Hart and Long were a part of our consciousness. Mario, Adrian, Adam, Steve, Terrance, Shawn and Jamar joined us a little later, but they seemed to have aged with us over the last three years. Every team has its icons, but this one is different. The most crucial players on the field all seem to have come to us as one. They were a single piece, not assembled one by one like a baseball card collection. This team was cut from the same mold, the same fabric, and now championship or not, they leave together and take a piece of us with them. Henne growing up before our eyes. Hart blossoming from mighty legs to mighty mouth. Mario slowly grew into the spotlight. Adrian got himself in trouble and now is gradually maturing alongside his friends.
The offense will be among the best in College Football. I personally rate Chad Henne as the second or third best quarterback in college football. He will make mistakes. He will throw a ball ten feet over his receiver. But he will also take your breath away and lead this team like Patton through the dunes. Hart is Hart. There is little more I can write about him. The line will be the best in the Big Ten. While there are questions at right tackle and right guard, I am confident that Steve Schilling will control the right side and Jeremy Ciulla will prove steady until the return of Alex Mitchell or the emergence of a younger player. Of the receivers, I am most interested in the development of Greg Mathews. If he is capable of becoming the next Jason Avant (as Mgoblog suggests), then he adds another dimension to a potent offense. I feel this will be critical. As Carson Butler slowly works his way out of the dog house, Michigan will miss the security of the middle and short route catcher that Butler provided and I am not yet confident Massey can.
On defense I have my concerns at Linebacker. Crable will fearlessly patrol the outside of the line and Chris Graham will be passable until Jonas Mouton seizes the position from him by force. My intrigue comes at the middle linebacker position. How will Johnny Thompson fare? I have no answer for this. Our secondary will be improved, believe it or not. Johnny Sears was as bad as he could be last year. He will either improve or be replaced by Donovan Warren. Stevie Brown is a star in waiting and Jamar Adams will be a steady all-conference performer. As for Morgan Trent, he has the tools. Now he has the coach that turned Charles Woodson into a star. He will improve. Finally, the defensive line will be up to par. Terrance Taylor will plug the middle while Brandon Graham eats young and supple right tackles for breakfast lunch and dinner.
This team will be better on defense than we think and worse on offense than its hype. No matter what it will be our team. The team we grew with. The team we care about in a way we have not in a long time. We will say good bye to these young men at the end of this season and feel a twinge of sadness no matter the outcome of this season.
Michigan will go 11-1, with a loss to one of three teams (PSU, Wisconsin, or OSU).