The reaction to the losing to Michigan State two Saturdays ago by many within the Michigan faithful points to an issue that has plagued sports fans for years. The anger, disappointment, and embarrassment following Michigan’s 4th straight loss to the Spartans reveals an ugly truth, Michigan fans have lost perspective. As early season wins began to pile up, the warm sensation that comes with thoughts of winning the Big 10 Championship began to take over. Many fans forgot or ignored the expectations they held for this team before the season. Except in the case of the unobjective homer, most Michigan fans and media pundits predicted 7-9 wins at the start of the season. Somewhere along the way Michigan fans lost sight of the realistic expectations most had to begin the year. Now while there is nothing wrong with hoping and dreaming of winning the Big 10 championship, those hopes should not extend to an expectation. There are inherent dangers in expectations being raised beyond reality, in many cases perspective is lost. Suddenly the 7-9 wins that most expected is not good enough. Not only do we want more, we expect more. It is those unrealistic expectations that are primarily responsible for the loss in perspective which in turn gave rise to the “sky is falling” reaction to the loss to the Spartans. Ironically the pendulum has now completely swung in the other direction. Many fans now view the lost to Sparty, which many of these same fans predicted in the preseason, as the harbinger of certain calamity.
The Michigan fan base has not only lost perspective on the season and the team but also on the QB. A ground swell of support in favor of replacing Denard Robinson with backup Devin Gardner or moving Denard Robinson to another position next season sprung up after the San Diego State game. The notion reached a fever pitch following the loss to Michigan State with more than a few media hacks openly suggesting the existence of a QB controversy.
For those who haven’t completely suppressed the rational side of their brain allow me to provide some perspective on the reality of where Michigan football currently is and what the future holds.
1) Michigan is still on pace to meet or exceed the expectations most fans had before the season began. The loss to Michigan State has not changed the fact that Michigan simply needs to win 1 of its remaining games to tie last year’s 7 win total. In addition, Michigan simply needs to win 2 of its remaining games against Purdue, Iowa, and Illinois to reach the 8 win plateau that most of us would have happily acceptable at the start of the year. While no one wants it to happen, in theory Michigan could lose to Ohio State, Nebraska, and Iowa and still win 8 games which is still likely to land Michigan in a January bowl game.
2) Despite the same roster that yield disastrous result a year ago, the Michigan defense has improved by leaps and bounds. Nowhere is that fact more evident than in the number of points that Michigan has given up and the amount of takeaways. The Michigan defense has reduced its point allowed per game average from 35.2 ppg a year ago to 14.7 ppg. That equals a ridiculous 20.5 ppg improvement. Most schools are thrilled to shave 5-6 points off their points allowed average much less the 20 ppg that Michigan has. Through 7 games the Michigan defense has also forced 19 turnovers (8th best in the country) after forcing just 19 all of last season. The cynic will simply brush these improvements off as insignificant or the result of a weak schedule but it is worth nothing that these improvements were made without a sudden infusion of talent or the return of a large number of starters. In reality the Michigan defense is manned by a large number of first year starters and the 2 deep includes a significant number of true and redshirt freshman as well as walk-ons. The improvement on defense is not a fluke and the unit should continue to improve as the years go on and the overall talent level on defense increases.
3) Michigan is currently sitting on a consensus top 3 recruiting class in the country for 2012. Two out of the 4 major recruiting services (Scout.com and MaxPreps) rank Michigan as having the #1 overall recruiting class in the country. Given the manner in which Michigan lost to Michigan State it is worth noting that Michigan’s top ranked class contains 5 offensive linemen, 6 defensive linemen, 4 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs. In addition Michigan has secured commitments from 2 of the top junior prospects in the 2013 class, including the quarterback many consider to be the best in the country. While recruiting rankings aren’t always 100% accurate, especially when examining individuals, they give a pretty good indication as to the overall talent that is being accumulated for the future.
Consider this, since 2002 when Rivals.com began ranking recruiting classes there have only been 3 teams that have averaged a top 10 recruiting class that did not finish in the top 10 in winning percentage over the same period. In addition, all of the teams that averaged a top 5 recruiting class finished in the top 10 in winning percentage, with 4 of the 5 winning multiple national championships. Does that mean Michigan is guaranteed to finish with a top 10 finish or win multiple national championships? No, but it does increase the likely hood of those events occurring.
4) Denard Robinson, who a portion of the fan base would like to see replaced or moved at some point over the next year and a half, is responsible for 95% of the yards and the points that Michigan has accumulated offensively. Despite his limitations in the passing game Denard Robinson continues to represent Michigan’s best chance for victory. Denard Robinson is one of only 2 player on the offensive roster who is capable of consistently breaking big plays and keeping opposing defensive coaches up at night. The importance of those two factors cannot be understated. Despite the popularity of ball control offenses, big plays are important. In Michigan’s case big plays are especially important. Michigan does not have the talent level to consistently sustain drives and overcome penalties against top level competition. The longer an offensive drive continues on the greater the likely hood of suffering a penalty or committing a turnover. Talent wise Michigan is not in position to overcome many penalties, a holding penalty usually means the end of an offensive drive for the Wolverines.
5) A change at the QB position will also lead to a change in the way opposing teams defend Michigan. Opposing teams leave WRs uncovered or in constant 1 on 1 coverage because of the ever present danger pose by Denard Robinson. Teams aren’t loading the box and leaving receivers uncovered because they fear Fitz Toussaint or Vincent Smith. Remove Denard Robinson from the equation at QB and you remove the favorable passing situations that so many believe Devin Gardner is better served to take advantage of. Devin Gardner does not present the same ever present threat to opposing defenses that Denard Robinson does, making it unnecessary for opposing defenses to overcommit to stopping the run.
In addition, Michigan becomes much easier to defend without Denard Robinson in the lineup or with Denard lined up at a position other than QB. The last thing any offense wants to do is become easy to defend. Football coaches will tell you that they want to put as much stress on the opposing team as possible. That simply does not happen in Michigan’s case without Denard Robinson at QB. Denard Robinson taxes defensive coordinators in ways few players in college football ever have.
It is important to understand that Michigan is undergoing a process of change. That process is not quick and as the loss to Michigan State showed, often times it isn’t pretty. It took Michigan years to dig itself into the hole it now finds itself. It is going to take years for Michigan to dig itself out. Anyone expecting a quick and easy fix is destined to find themselves disappointed. As mentioned, there is nothing wrong with hoping for greatness, even this early in the process. It is important to maintain a realistic and rational perspective however. Raising expectations because of strong early returns is the enemy of maintaining a rational perspective. At the same time, one loss, no matter how bad, does not change the realities of the situation. The future is still very bright and while a Big 10 title may be out of reach, the present doesn’t look so bad either.