Friday, August 29, 2008

Michigan football preview: It should be interesting


I can't put my finger on why, but there's something very sexy about low expectations.

Which is why, I surmise, this could be a very sexy season for the Michigan football squad.

What a difference a year makes.

Late last August, the Wolverines were ranked No. 5 in the country and considered national-title contenders. Pundits raved about the offensive trio of Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham. Who cared about the defense? Michigan could simply outscore people!

People, I guess, got caught up in the "sexiness" of Michigan's skill players and forgot about where the real work gets done -- in them trenches. And, of course, they misremembered what won Michigan its last national title -- great defense.

Obviously, nobody in Ann Arbor was feeling sexy after Appalachian State rudely broke up the "we're so great" party. I, for one, took a long shower after witnessing that game in person. And after the second loss -- this one lopsided -- to Oregon, people realized that the high expectations placed on the Wolverines were bogus.

So I'm guessing that being ranked No. 32 by the Associated Press is just fine and dandy in Rich Rodriguez's cubicle. Nobody expects his guys to compete for the Big Ten title. Nobody is talking 10 wins. Heck, Sports Illustrated predicted a 5-7 record for the Maize n' Blue.

There's no pressure on the winged helmets.

And that's one of many reasons this season is so intriguing.

The element of surprise is another. I have no idea what I'll see come Saturday afternoon. Absolutely none. Sure, I watched some West Virginia games while Rodriguez coached there, so I (kind of) know the spread offense he runs. But will he run the same version with the personnel he's inherited this season?

And speaking of personnel, I can't recall a season during the past 10 years when I was unfamiliar with so many of the offensive players -- particularly guys at the skill positions. Usually, without reading a single article, I can name the running backs and receivers. Not this year. Outside of Greg Matthews, I had no clue which WRs would be lining up in the spread offense until I checked out the depth chart.

Then I forgot their names a minute later. Players are going to have to establish themselves to make me remember them, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

We still don't even know who will start at quarterback -- or if it'll be a one- or two-man show at the position for the beginning of the season, the first half of the season, the whole season, etc.

Questions, questions, questions.

But sexy questions, at that.

What I do know -- I think -- is that the defense will be solid. Not 1997 great, but solid. The defensive line is the strongest part of the unit, led by upperclassmen Terrance Taylor, Brandon Graham and company. They could cause a little chaos in opponents' backfields.

If they do, they'll make life easier for Obi Ezeh, the sophomore who is the lone returning starting linebacker. Michigan's secondary -- as usual -- should be an adventure. At least there's some leadership back there, though, with senior cornerback Morgan Trent.

Perhaps all we can rely on from these Wolverines are two strong legs. Senior place-kicker K.C. Lopata and junior punter Zoltan Mesko will likely boot the ball just as well as they did a year ago.

So they're no fun!

Seriously, I can't remember the last time I was this intrigued by Michigan's season-opener. Usually, it's a warmup game for a highly regarded Wolverines squad. In other words, the boys better win by 30 or there will be serious questions afterward. Of course, there will be no taking opponents lightly after the debacle a year ago.

But still, the fact that Michigan isn't a convincing favorite aginst Utah inside the Big House is a good headline. Nobody is picking Michigan simply because it's "Michigan." Which, how convenient, fits perfectly this season, because Rodriguez doesn't give a damn about Michigan's tradition or what the block "M" means.

The new sheriff in town is doing things his way, a new way. And this is happening with many new players.

If nothing sexy can be said about the 2008 Wolverines, at least this much is true.

There will be nothing stale and old about this bunch. Unpredictably will reign supreme over a team that might just surprise a few folks (in both good and bad ways).

My prediction: 8-4, 5-3 in Big Ten.

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