One last column before actual football kicks off. This week I’m going to try and prognosticate how the season will go for the three parts of football I care about in descending order: the Michigan Wolverines, the Big Ten, and the national college football landscape.
Alex Will Spend A Lot of Time Writhing In Agony on the Floor
The Michigan Wolverines will cause me a ton of stress this fall, but marginally less than last fall. Last fall the Wolverines went 7-6, a very mediocre season for one of the proudest programs in college football. 5 of those losses came by a total of 11 points and 3 of Michigan’s wins were by less than a touchdown and came down to the wire. In short, I was miserable and half-drunk almost every Saturday for three months.
The root problem was that the offensive line was horrendous. They gave no push in the run game and constantly exposed quarterback Devin Gardner to hits. (This leads to things like Gardner BREAKING HIS FOOT before halftime against Ohio State and proceeding to set yardage records against the hated Buckeyes anyway. Devin Gardner is amazing.) Their failings were helped along by Offensive Coordinator Al Borges changing his system every 3 weeks and refusing to add easy-yardage wrinkles to his playbook. It was a tire fire: sometimes it burned bright (record-shattering days against Indiana and Ohio State), and sometimes it smoldered (negative 68 yards rushing against Michigan State and Nebraska), but the whole thing stank. This year, the offensive line will still be bad, but it will also be older and more experienced. Or maybe not, since apparently true freshman Mason Cole will be replacing 5th-year Senior and back-to-back All-American and Big Ten O-Lineman of the Year Taylor Lewan at Left Tackle. That will go great, I’m sure.
However, the defense should be pretty damn great, if the practice indications are correct. The D has been the strong point of Head Coach Brady Hoke’s tenure, and this year’s is positively stocked. The secondary, linebackers, and defensive line all have tons of returning experience, multiple All-Big Ten players, and young talent coming out of the woodwork. The most notable young player is Jabrill Peppers, who arrived in Ann Arbor with more hype and expectations than any recruit since Charles Woodson. He’s since proceeded to live up to all that, apparently displacing All-Big Ten cornerback Blake Countess from a starting spot. That’s just bananas. More of that please.
So…Michigan will be mediocre to bad on offense. The passing game should be pretty good with Devin Gardner back at the helm and lots of good receivers for him to work with. But he will take a lot of hits from having to carry the running game himself and dealing with lots of pressure from a still-bad line. The defense should be among the best in the conference, and possibly even the country. Put those together and I think the Wolverines will go either 9-3 or 8-4 in the regular season. They will lose to 2 of Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State (i.e. their main rivals) and will gack up another game or two against a team they should beat. My eyes are on Utah, Penn State, and Indiana as the trap games. It will be better, but not yet great. Maybe next year.
The Big Ten Adds Up to 14, But is Dominated by Just Two
The Big Ten is entering a new era this season. As I wrote about two years ago, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins are defecting from their old conferences and joining the Big Ten. Yes, that brings the number of teams in the conference to 14. And yes, the conference is still named the Big Ten. Yes, I know. But least the stupid Leaders and Legends division names are gone! In their place we get East and West divisions, with the winner of each playing for the conference crown in Indianapolis come December.
The more powerful division definitely appears to be the East. The cream of the East are Ohio State and Michigan State, which combined to win 25 games last year (ed. Go Ohio! -Karen). They are also Michigan’s biggest rivals. Being a fan sucks sometimes. But they should be roughly as good this year. Ohio State is still helmed by perennial Heisman candidate Braxton Miller (or maybe not; if Miller is out for the year then Sparty is the clear favorite) and will score points in spades again. They might even be able to play pass defense this year with a new Defensive Coordinator. On the flip side, Sparty should still be a terrifying beast on defense. Thanks to great coverage and relentless pressure, the MSU defense has fielded one of the top defenses in the country over the past four seasons. They should be able to reload and continue their reign of terror this fall. Their offense should again be efficient, if not explosive, which is all that was needed to win the conference & Rose Bowl and finish #3 in the country last year. Considering the injury news from Columbus, the Spartans are my pick to win the inaugural East title. (Damn it all.) Penn State and Michigan will lurk and hope for luck. They are blueblood programs with lots of talent, but not as much as their rivals in the East. Some fluky games could let them win the division now rather than in the future. Indiana and Maryland will score points in buckets, but aren’t ready to be anything but a spoiler. Rutgers will probably not win a game against any of its new division rivals.
In the West, Wisconsin will be a favorite this year and going forward. The Badgers won the conference and went to the Rose Bowl three straight years (2010-12) and went 9-4 last year despite a new head coach and some dubious refereeing that cost them at least one win. The offense will be one of the best run games in the country and the defense will be competent. Behind them are Nebraska and Iowa. The former is an entertaining blueblood program that can’t seem to break through and win like they used to. Iowa will be good, but probably not better than 8-4 or so. Such is the result of having Kirk Ferentz as your coach. Minnesota has been bad forever, so their 8-win season was a nice story last year, but they are still not talented enough to win big. Northwestern has been snake-bitten by injuries and transfers, so they will spoil someone else’s season but not rise above the middle of the pack themselves. Illinois will be terrible for the millionth straight year and get Tim Beckman fired. Purdue will continue to not exist.
The Playoff Selections Will Be Controversial, So Alex Goes with Chalk
Nationally, college football is stumbling into the playoff era. So every team will be gunning for one of the final four slots that comprise the new College Football Playoff. It’s never easy to prognosticate who will rise and fall in a pool of 125 teams, but I’ll take a stab at the inaugural playoff lineup. (This means I will just copy and paste the top 4 teams from the pre-season polls.)
Florida State should get to the Playoff to defend it National Championship. Guided by reigning Heisman Trophy winner (and probable rapist) Jameis Winston, the Seminoles are absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball. Their march to the title was incredibly easy-looking in 2013 until the title game itself. The talent gap between FSU and the rest of the ACC hasn’t shrunk, so they should be back.
Alabama has been the most successful program in the country since 2008, which is another pattern that probably won’t change this fall. They’ve brought in talented recruiting classes for years, and it’s paid off. While the rest of the SEC is also stacked athletically, the Crimson Tide are clearly in a league of their own and that has led them to 3 championships since 2009. It took one of the most amazing plays I have ever seen live to bounce them from the title hunt a year ago. Lightning like that probably doesn’t strike twice, so the Crimson Tide will make the Playoff.
Where Alabama has been consistently great and gotten three championships as proof, the Oregon Ducks have been similarly winning over that period but have not landed the biggest trophy. Yet. Led by the arm and legs of Marcus Mariota, who is my pre-season Heisman pick, the Ducks should be good enough to win the stacked Pac-12 and vie for that elusive title. If not them, then either Stanford or UCLA will come out of the Pac-12. That conference is fucking ridiculous this year.
The last slot is hardest to pin down. Ohio State or Michigan State should be Big Ten champs with 10+ wins. The apparent injury to Braxton Miller changes that outlook some, so let’s say it’s Sparty. Is that team better than a probable Big 12 champ like Oklahoma or Baylor with the same number of wins? What about a non-conference champ? Or even a Cinderella program like the Boise States of yore? Hard to say. I’ll go with the most storied program at full health right now and say it’s Oklahoma.
If even half of these are right I will be greatly pleased with myself. Can’t wait to watch and find out where I’m wrong, though.