A Pessimist's Look at Next Season (and Why That Should Make You Optimistic)

I get it. That stretch of games wasn't just bad, it was horrible. They weren't just losses. They were shake-up-your-mindset kind of losses. They were holy-cow-what-was-that losses. I didn't know that Brady Hoke could go from being loved to reviled that quickly, but there you go. Accusations that the coaches weren't even trying to do anything for the team were a low point, and there were other popular logical fallacies going around the fanbase about the team. Michigan fans expect to win, and that's good; hopefully all of this has led to more discussion and information about the game. And anyway, ultimately it's something we'll all find out together starting August 30th, 2014 against Appalachian State.

At any rate, I wanted to write out some of what I saw of the team; take our team as is, add in some more bad luck, and see what comes from it. I'll look at different parts of the team, make a lot of pessimistic predictions for how things go, and then look at all our games next year and see how we do. Everything will count up to 30 (pretty arbitrary) Pessimism Points, to show I'm not pulling punches. And you may be pleasantly surprised and feel comfortable about this team again. Let's go:

* We get absolutely nothing from Drake Harris. +1 Pessimism Point This is pretty safe to assume, even though he's a highly regarded commit and Michigan fans saw his commitment as a monkey vanquishing for Hoke regarding getting on-the-ball talent. Harris missed all of his senior year to injury, and will have to adjust to the college game and fight with Jehu Chesson, Devin Funchess, Amara Darboh, Da'Mario Jones, Jaron Dukes, and Csonte York for playing time. Another +1 Pessimism Point if you think he'll decommit and sign with MichiOhio Stateabama.

* Our O-Line still causes problems all year long, in the form of false starts and holding calls - but not in 20-yard losses on bad snaps and 7 sacks in a game. +3 Pessimism Points Our offensive line will be surprisingly deep next year, and guaranteed to be better than this year's edition. After Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, this past year's O-Line was rough and green (like Michigan State! Oh, too soon?). And if Adrian Peterson and this year's 3-win Vikes teach us anything, it's that depth is more powerful than one or two Michael Jordans on your side. This ain't basketball.

But this year's squad will still be young and unproven: only four players in the depth chart (Chris Bryant, Joey Burzynski, Graham Glasgow, and Jack Miller) have played more than a season. The rest (Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Chris Fox, David Dawson, Dan Samuelson, Ben Braden, Blake Bars, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Patrick Kugler, and Erik Magnuson) will still be adjusting, causing annoying false starts and completely unnecessary holds that eliminate random 15-yard gains by the offense. It's reasonable to expect some of that, especially at the beginning of the year. Ok, moving on...

* Minus Brandon Gibbons, we have unreliable field goal kicking. +1 Pessimism Point Matt Wile will take over the kicking game, and a walk-on may come on and impress. But we were lucky to have a steady kicking presence the last few years. Expect better field position for the other team and more missed kicks this time around.

* We get slightly better at turnovers. -1 Pessimism Point Uh-oh, an Optimism Point. A misconception of this year's team was that we lost the turnover battle, but in fact we were +5 on the year, thanks to strong cornerback play and 17 interceptions. Devin Gardner cutting down on his 11 interceptions or his 11 fumbles (6 of which he lost) would cause a slight uptick in turnover margin (a great way to win games - just ask Akron), and with Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor returning next year our corners will be skilled and experienced. And the number of teams to get a +10 turnover margin this year? Only 17, of 123 teams.

* Devin Gardner gets injured for a couple games, Shane Morris comes in and plays mediocre. +3 Pessimism Points Hey, with how DG plays, this could happen. Shane Morris got some experience this year in garbage situations, and his numbers on the year didn't suck: he went 5 for 9 getting 7.2 yards per throw, 13 per completion, and a 94.0 QB rating. If he doesn't get better at all, a full game stat line would look a little like 16/29 for 209 yards.

* We get nothing but average B1G-starting competence from five-star Ondre Pipkins, Jr. +1 Pessimism Point Defensive line has been a revolving door since Hoke and Mattison arrived, with Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger of an 11-2 team leading to Will Campbell and Craig Roh at SDE for an 8-5 team, before Willie Henry et al. showed the chance for a little consistency and growth this past season. But don't expect the world from Pipkins going forward.

* Our recruiting takes a blow in this turbulent off-season. +2 Pessimism Points We haven't shown we can win with the recruits we're getting, so the simple, cold fact is we need to show what we can do. Simple as that. At the same time, this relates to our 2015 recruiting and won't actually affect next year's squad anyway, but screw it, I'm throwing in some Pessimism Points anyway. Cuz I'm a downer.

* Injuries ravage the safety position, leading to a tendency to give up the big play downfield all year long. +6 Pessimism Points We're pretty thin at safety anyway, with Jarrod Wilson, Dymonte Thomas, and Delano Hill sitting ahead of Josh Furman and Reon Dawson. Wilson is getting more stable and reliable back there, and Thomas is very athletic. But I'm trying to see what we're capable of next year in a bad-case scenario, and this makes it harder for our corners and prevents us from stacking the line of scrimmage as much. Let's keep going....

* Injuries ravage our running back position, as well. +5 Pessimism Points I'll also pick on this to be mean. After Derrick Green, we have De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson, and there's no running back coming in with the 2014 class at the moment. If a couple running backs get injured, you'll be relying on the third plus Justice Hayes and Dennis Norfleet for a consistent ground attack, with Kerridge, Houma and Shallman in for short yards. And, of course, DG. Not bad, overall. Speaking of...

*Devin Gardner improves into the player we know he can be. -2 Pessimism Points This is, again, pretty realistic, but very, very important. If the offensive line can perform, create holes for the running backs, and the RB's can work on their conditioning and pass protection, it will all show up in the stat line for Devin Gardner.
The following is a look at Devin Gardner's play this past season. He had 3 echelons to his play: extraordinary, solid, and mother-in-law. Even in his solid games, he averaged almost 300 yards per game.

vs. Ohio State, Notre Dame and Indiana (2-1) 69.15%, 416 yards per game, 10/1 touchdowns/interceptions, and 58 rushing ypg, 4.7 ypc, 5 rushing TD's

vs. Central Michigan, Akron, Minnesota, Penn State (3-1) 60.0%, 221 yards per game, 7/7 touchdowns/interceptions, and 73 rushing ypg, 6.1 ypc, 4 rushing TD's

vs. Connecticut, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa (2-3) 54.1%, 165 yards per game, 4/3 touchdowns/interceptions, and 3.4 rushing ypg, 0.243 ypc, 2 rushing TD's

As it stands, Gardner will be only the second Michigan QB to eclipse 3,000 passing yards in a season (the other was John Navarre). If he eliminates his worst performances and has, say, four extraordinary games and eight solid ones, his numbers would look like this:

63.1%, 3432 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 15 INT, 816 rushing yards, 15 TD's

Even a more pessimistic version of that (4,000 yards, 35 TD's, 60% passing) means things will be dynamic next season.

* The B1G is a better, tougher conference next season. +3 Pessimism Points This is despite the fact that now, Rutgers and Maryland are a part of our yearly lives. Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Penn State are looking up, and hell, Maryland was ranked in the AP Poll for a hot second earlier this year and Rutgers went 6-6. A strong B1G is good for us at the same time as making our schedule more challenging.

* A lack of creativity from Al Borges +2 Pessimism Points Say Al Borges' calls get predictable from time to time, causing a couple drives to stall. Even if that's the case, having a quarterback who can check in and out of pass plays and dump the ball off to running backs and tight ends makes positive yards out of bad calls. And Devin Gardner will also be able to scramble for positive yards when nothing's there so long as he's not taking so many jarring hits.

* A couple more injuries to every level of the defense. +4 Pessimism Points I'm just throwing everybody to the dogs, I guess. But this is to point to the burgeoning depth at all the other positions of our defense. Linebacker features 6 or 7 reliable players, and corner and the D-line are also stabilizing and deepening. We're getting to a point where we can sustain good play with our back-ups, because we're not breaking in true freshmen anymore with so many RichRod recruits falling through. Now, if you lose a Keith Heitzman, you still have Frank Clark, Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Mario Ojemudia, Taco Charlton, and Chris Wormley. As a team gains depth, it gains consistency. We're getting to a point where we can suffer losses like this and still perform.

* We lose a game in a fluky fashion. +2 Pessimism Points Just cuz. All right, let's go.



Appalachian State Mountaineers (4-8)

Win. It's a revenge game, obviously, and Appalachian State can't keep up with a motivated Michigan team. Remember, if you're thinking about Akron or UConn, remember that Devin Gardner had 7 turnovers in those games, all of them self-inflicted mistakes. Devin Gardner will not be turnover-prone like he was and our O-line will be patched up a lot better than it was.

@ Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-4)

Loss. Everett Golson returns, but Louis Nix III departs for the NFL and both the offensive and defensive coordinators are gone to be head coaches at new jobs (Chuck Martin to Miami (OH) and Bob Diaco to UConn). Stephon Tuitt, the other solid rock of the Notre Dame D-line, has to decide whether to go to the NFL and is apparently unhappy about losing Diaco.



However, Notre Dame seems to be strong on offense, especially at running back, and in the secondary. Golson could have a Jameis WInston-like effect on the Fighting Irish, and I think we won't be ready for them this early in the year.

Miami (Ohio) RedHawks (0-12)

Win. This is a bit of a wild card because new, potentially talented head coaches can energize a team and raise their quality several degrees. But even so, this may take a few years to turn Miami (OH) around.

Utah Utes (5-7)

Win. Utah played a ridiculously tough schedule this year, and played well against it. They beat Stanford and hung tough with Arizona State and UCLA but fell to Oregon 44-21 and Washington State 49-37. The real concern for Utes' fans is the health of QB Travis Wilson, who may or may not play next year after it was discovered that there was damage to the arteries that led to his brain. If Wilson is able to play, the Utes are a respectable, talented team, whose weaknesses are in their passing defense. If not, there are few good QB options to lead the team.

Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4)

Win. Minnesota was 8-2 at one point in the year. They also are unhappy about falling behind us in bowl selection despite a better overall and league record, so they're going to be motivated against us to win the Brown Jug. Another point about them, they have a Spartan-like ability to make good players out of unranked guys. But their offense was in the bottom fifth of college football and will lose their only wide receiver to get more than 165 yards (tight end Maxx Williams did get 341 yards and 4 TD's). The Gophers will be motivated and determined to run the ball effectively, and have a junior QB in Philip Nelson, but I still think we should pull out a win, even if we're not clicking on all cylinders. But if we're feeling our injuries, not playing to our potential, or starting Shane Morris somewhere around here, it may be tough to pull out.

@ Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-6)

Win. I think Rutgers will have a hard time in the B1G at least in their first year, but are actually outrecruiting most of their new foes - at 35th in the nation for 2014, they're pacing Iowa, Northwestern, Michigan State, Maryland, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, and Minnesota. But outside of running back Paul James, there's not much to worry about just yet.

Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5)

Loss. Penn State has been recruiting well under Bill O'Brien and have a burgeoning QB in Christian Hackenberg, who threw for 2955 yards and 20 TD's against 10 picks and should be better in Year 2. O'Brien definitely brings a cache to college recruiting. Even with a sanctions-ridden team, he's gotten four 4-star verbal recruits for 2014, and not surprisingly, they are a QB, TE, and two WRs. Also, there is the fact that Bill O'Brien outcoached Brady Hoke in our matchup on October 12th, comes from Bill Belichick pedigree, and has kept his team penalty-free and focused all year. He's a legit coach with good pieces to work with. If we have problems at safety or running back, this is a team to lose to.

bye week

@ Michigan State Spartans (12-1)

Win. The Spartans lose Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Isaiah Lewis from their defense, and most people expect the defense will regress a little next year, while their offense seems poised to step up and carry more of the load, returning QB Connor Cook and every wide receiver and running back except leading senior receiver Bennie Fowler. The Spartans will also have their work cut out carving out their O-line, as seniors Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti, and Dan France all graduate. Cook is a good B1G quarterback, possibly very good, and never underestimate Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi, but come on, they're little brother. Michigan, and Devin Gardner, will be motivated.

Indiana Hoosiers (5-7)

Loss. Just cuz. And I love their offense. And the Gene Hackman movie Hoosiers.

@ Northwestern Wildcats (5-7)

Win. Northwestern's played us tough, and I don't necessarily want to be in their way next year as they try to prove the flukiness of their 1-7 B1G record this past year. But we will have something to prove, too.

bye week

Maryland Terrapins (7-5)

Win. Maryland will be transitioning to the B1G and has problems with the interior of their O-line. Next.

@ Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1)

Win. Ohio State will be missing Carlos Hyde but probably retain Braxton Miller (1033 yards rushing) for his senior season. Who will tote the rock? With Hyde goes 1408 yards rushing. Senior Jordan Hall takes with him 536 yards rushing. Fourth-leading rusher Kenny Guiton is graduating, too, and he was the back-up QB who played in Miller's absence. Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson are freshmen with high per-carry averages who may take over. But four-fifths of Ohio's starting OL are seniors, too. With Devin Gardner, good receivers, kinks worked out by now in a young O-line, great linebackers, great corners and solid depth, we should take back The Game. About damn time.



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