The Michigan Wolverines entered the season with hopes of winning a Big Ten championship, but a goal of at least winning the division and making the conference total game. Michigan State entered the season with big questions on offense. Northwestern had the highest expectations possibly ever. Nebraska had some questions entering the season. Iowa was on a downswing and Minnesota was still rebuilding under Jerry Kill. Now 11 weeks into the season is turned upside down.
Northwestern was ravaged by injuries and is 0–5 in conference play. Iowa is already bowl eligible and 3–3 in conference play. Minnesota has overcome head coach Jerry Kill’s health problems to start 8–2 and actually controls their own destiny to the Big Ten title game. Michigan St. has overcome early offensive problems to start 5–0 in the Big Ten. Meanwhile Michigan is 2–3 in conference and 6–3 overall.
Going into the season, there was some potential, but that theory was tied to everything breaking right. Instead, most things have broken the other way for the most part. Let’s get the defense out of the way first. Football Outsiders has them ranked 16th in defensive FEI, which makes a lot of sense. Their defense has been very solid, and overlooked all season. The defensive line has improved as the season has gone on, and a lot of their lapses can likely be attributed to spending so much time on the field.
The offense has been horrible though. Football Outsiders FEI has them ranked 57th, which actually seems high. Devin Gardner got the reigns as the season started, after looking good part time last year. But nine games in, it suddenly seems more obvious why he was moved to WR in spring 2012. It seems like he has struggled to make smart decisions and has thrown 11 interceptions already. The offensive line has been abysmal (more on that in a minute), but Gardner has been sacked a ton. Many of those times it seems like he has just held the ball too long. The struggles are far from entirely this fault, but the QB will always take a good chunk of blame.
Fitzgerald Toussaint has had issues running the ball. He is down to 3.5 YPA from 4.0 in 2012 and 5.6 (!) in 2011. While a chunk of that can be blamed on the offensive line, he has struggled to make something out of nothing. He has never been a big yards after contact guy, but it seems non-existent this season. Jeremy Gallon has looked spectacular and will end up near the top of the Michigan record books before he is done. Devin Funchess has almost fully converted to WR, and if it weren’t for him and Gallon Michigan would be 3–6.
The offensive line is anchored by projected top 10 pick Taylor Lewan. 5th year senior Michael Schofield bookends the line. The three guys in the middle were all first year starters, and none of them made it this far. They have been downright awful at times, and Nebraska clearly saw something on film that allowed them to blitz like mad and shutdown Michigan’s offense.
The play calling seems awful. Boos reigned down in the 3rd quarter in the loss to Nebraska, but that was most likely directed at the coaching staff, who continued to call run after run despite the fact the ball wasn’t moving. A lot of people (including yours truly) are calling for offensive coordinator Al Borges to be fired. Does that make sense though?
Flashback to summer, when most college football analysts were saying that Michigan was still a year away. With Jake Ryan out until October, a young offensive line, a lot of new starters on defense it seemed logical that it would take a year going. All of the great Brady Hoke classes are still coming up, and he is still dealing with the fall out from what Rich Rodriguez left behind. But to quote Al Borges himself “this is Michigan for godsakes.” Narrowly escaping Akron and UConn, choking away a game to a depleted Penn St. team and rushing for negative yards in two straight games shouldn’t happen. A downright refusal to try and spread the field out and run a offense that would probably do a better job of countering the weaknesses of this team just seems shortsighted.
With Northwestern and Iowa left before Ohio St., Michigan can still bounce back and get to 8 wins. 8–4 isn’t a tragedy, and maybe Borges survives that. This team will be very interesting next season. Devin Gardner should be back, but blue chip recruit Shane Morris will have a season under his belt to give him a better chance of competing for the starting job. Toussaint, Gallon, Dileo, Lewan and Schofield will all be gone though. That means that in addition to whichever three interior linemen survive the battle, there will at least be two new tackles next season. Sure Derrick Green is a blue chip running back, but he hasn’t looked great yet, and there isn’t another guy on this team with a decent number of carries. The offense will rest on whoever plays QB and Devin Funchess.
The theory that this team might be a year early seems a little off. Next year will be another year of adjustment on offense, even though the defense should be better (they lose just two starters and in all but one case have a solid replacement lined up). Now might be a perfect time to make a coordinator change. It would give Morris, Green and the offensive line a year to learn a regime and still have two years of eligibility left. If Michigan loses out (6–6), a change will have to be made. 8–4 or 9–3 and it doesn’t happen. But in reality, it might be better for them to lose just to force a change.