The story of Michigan fandom for most is largely one of expectations not met. This extends long before the Threetidan year of 2008 or The Horror in 2007. I would imagine it goes back far before I can remember (I'll leave stories of the old days to those who were there), but what I can remember is entering every season feeling like it was going to be the year. I guess I was spoiled by experiencing the 1997 championship season before I knew how rare such an occurrence was. Every August I would read whatever previews I could get my hands on and take in the preseason rankings like they were gospel. "Fifth in the country you say? ESPN couldn't possibly be wrong about this!" Everything seemed so easy. Yet somehow, something always went wrong. West coast road trips yielded early losses. A Big Ten game to a "lesser team" such as Michigan State or Iowa or Wisconsin would end in defeat and doom the dreams we had for the season---as if nine or ten wins and a share of the Big Ten title was somehow a disappointing outcome.
The Michigan fan base wanted---nay, expected---greatness from our team at every turn, but championship seasons are incredibly hard to sustain. Not only does a team have to be great, it has to be lucky as well. Championship seasons aren't defined by the seven or eight easy wins, they are defined by the one or two games where everything goes wrong. If Oregon goes on to win the BCS championship this year, no one will remember the blowouts of USC and Stanford in primetime or the Thursday night massacre of UCLA, even though the brilliant play by the Ducks in all three games is indicative of just how dominant the team has been this year. No, the game that will define the Ducks championship season, outside of the championship game itself, is the Cal game. The one game of the season that turned into a dogfight: the prolific offense was stymied by Cal's defensive line, the Golden Bears' go-ahead FG was waved off after a stutter step by the kicker, and in the end the fastest offense in the country put together a nine minute drive to ice the game and escape with a two point victory while the star running back watched from the sideline on crutches. Great teams are defined by how they respond when the chips are down, and it is those games that make it so hard to stay at the top.
Twelve games is a long time to stay perfect, but the out-sized expectations never disappear.
For Michigan, the last three years have been far from a quest for perfection and more like a desperate grab for mediocrity as the walls seemingly crumble down on all sides. Two years ago the team rolled out perhaps the worst offensive unit ever to don the winged helmet. Two quarterbacks, both equally deficient to run the plays they were given were flanked with running backs who were either undersized freshmen or mistake prone juniors. The offensive line was a mess of underclassmen who weren't ready to start, position switches, and a desperate hope that somehow things would still work out. The best receiver on the team was the youngest and smallest of the whole group, a 5'8 kid from Pahokee, FL who returned punts and kicks as well as blocking like he was 50 lbs heavier than he was. A decent group of defensive players was shoehorned into a system that they weren't entirely comfortable with and unable to get any rest because of the inconsistency of the offense. Yet most of us predicted 6-6 and a bowl game, a far cry from what that team was capable of producing. Sure the team lost games it probably shouldn't have, but it won a game it had no business winning and stayed closer than it ever should have in the opener. In the end it was another case of expectations not met.
Last year the fans had every reason for optimism. The team finally had a quarterback to fit the system, the offensive line finally had some experience, and the running backs and receivers all returned. Even the defense promised to be better with a new coordinator. Most said 7-5 was the baseline, but everybody was disappointed when the team underachieved again. The offensive line was still too thin to last the season, the quarterbacks were still freshmen prone to mistakes, and the defense...well thats a whole different story. A hot start led to a late season collapse that was fueled by injuries and breakdowns all over the field. In the end it was just another year that didn't turn out like we expected. We wanted the kids to grow up faster than they could and took it for granted that they would avoid the injuries the team couldn't afford.
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After two years of seeing the team flop out of the gates or falter down the stretch it seems expectations were finally in line with what was actually possible on the field this year. Most fans looked at the returning talent on offense and the thin to non-existent depth on defense and predicted 7-5.
The last couple weeks the pressure has finally begun to let up before the stretch run, something that was unthinkable the last two years. In 2008 the final two games were a mere formality before the long bitter winter spent without a bowl or winning season for the first time in decades. Last year the final two games became a desperate struggle to hold on to the prospect of bowl eligibility that had slipped away in the two games before. This year? The Freep witch hunt and NCAA investigation were finally put to rest and shown to be a minor issue of paperwork and stretching, bowl eligibility was finally reached for the first time since the Lloyd Carr days, and the team bounced back from three straight losses in Big Ten play to win a historic shootout and a sloppy defensive battle. The Michigan Wolverines are more or less where we all expected them to be at this point in the season: sitting on seven wins and staring down the barrel of arguably the top two Big Ten teams.
From this point on the Wolverines are playing with house money. No one expects a win, and most don't even expect the games to be competitive. We've heard it all before:
"That defense is terrible, they won't be able to stop anyone."
"Denard Robinson has been exposed in Big Ten play."
"Those gimmicky schemes won't ever yield consistent results in the Big Ten."
These next two weekends might not lead to an upset. The "gimmick" offense might get shut down. The young defense might get exposed. This team could very well lose the final two regular season games, but it won't change the fact that something bigger has been accomplished this year. Regardless of the future of the program, this team has achieved one of the goals that alluded it for the past two years. Now comes the fun part.
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I wrote an article Wednesday outlining 83 reasons Michigan has no chance against Wisconsin. I was only maybe 1/4 joking. Yet, despite pointing out all the reasons Michigan shouldn't be able to win, I still truly believe the Wolverines can win both of the next two games if they play the kind of football that I have seen flashes of throughout the last two and a half months. However, I am not naive enough to believe Michigan will win. On top of the unforced errors the team has inflicted upon itself, the next two games still stand as the biggest challenges that this team has faced all season. By every statistical measure Wisconsin and Ohio State have distinct advantages on defense, and comparable numbers on offense:
- Wisconsin boasts one of the most dominant power rush offenses in the country (12th nationally), one that is only a handful of YPG and a couple tenths YPC behind Michigan. To complement this strength on the ground is the 8th rated passer in total efficiency. This is an offense that delights in running over the opponent until a play action pass opens up for a touchdown, and it all adds up to a top 10 scoring offense. If FCS Umass can pound the ball and exploit the safeties on play action, think what Wisconsin can do. On the other side of the ball the Badgers are top-25 in rush, total, and scoring defense nationally. A stiff challenge for Michigan's talented offense.
- Ohio State has an equally productive rush offense (13th) and scoring offense (6th), with a defense that is top five nationally in rush, pass efficiency, total, and scoring defense. Add in the fact that the game will be played, as Bob Ufer would say, in front of 10,000 alumni and 90,000 truckers (they have expanded since his famous quote) and the odds of victory by any measure seem even smaller.
Luckily, all the stats and scores and predictions won't matter when the clock strikes noon the next two Saturdays. The team that is better on the field for three and a half hours the next two weekends will walk out the winner. Michigan's offense has the talent to move the ball on any defense in the country and score at an alarmingly high rate when playing it's best football. This defense has shown an ability to make enough plays to win close games. Even the freshmen who were thrown into the fire early have improved. If this team puts together a full 60 minutes of solid, mistake free football it can win.
For the first time under Rich Rodriguez there is more pressure on the other teams to win these next two games. Seven wins and a bowl for Michigan is already assured, while Wisconsin and Ohio State are heavy favorites that are locked into the Big Ten title hunt. The next two Saturdays the Wolverines have nothing to lose while the Badgers and the Buckeyes have everything to lose. Sure, the odds might be stacked against an upset and the numbers might say it's not possible. But that's why they play the games.
As a fan, I am going to enjoy both these upset bids, say goodbye to the seniors that I have followed for the last four years, and cheer on the underclassmen that I will follow for years to come. I am going to put away my usual expectations of greatness and savor these games. This team has come a long way from September, and even longer from 2008. I owe it to all the players to appreciate this team for what it is, not what I wanted it to be.
Besides, there are only three more games to enjoy before the long off season starts and I inevitably get caught up again in thinking that, "this is going to be the year. I just know it."