At the Big House in Ann Arbor, success doesn’t just mean having a winning record at the end of the season. The Big Ten Title is something that is expected every year and anything short of that would be a failure. True success, however, is measured as being a contender in the annual BCS Championship bowl. With a proud history and an even prouder tradition, Michigan football players are expected to be of national champion caliber every year.
As the 2004-05 year came to an end, Michigan fans and college football fans nation wide were surprised to see two freshmen lead the Michigan team to not only a second consecutive Big Ten Title, but to a second consecutive Rose Bowl appearance. Of course, it would be unfair to star players like Braylon Edwards to say it was the freshmen that lead them there as he singlehandedly robbed MSU’s victory that October. Michigan also had All-American defensive backs Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor to help out as well. However, it was the defense that came up short when it came to playing the Rose Bowl. In fact, they came up short when they were needed most, especially against Ohio State.
With the departure of Braylon Edwards and the two All-American defenders, Michigan has big shoes to fill this upcoming year. The offensive team this is year hailed to be one of the best in the nation as Chad Henne leads the pack as quarterback in his sophomore year. Having proven that he can throw and lead his team to victories, Henne can only get better. But, the big question that looms over his head is: How much of Braylon Edwards was a factor in making Henne a superstar is freshman year. This year he’s got something to prove as he’s throwing to two outstanding receivers: Jason Avant (Sr.) and Steve Breaston (Jr.). Jason Avant has been a consistent and reliable go-to guy for Michigan the past two years, especially during third downs. With his physical build and his strong presence, he hardly drops the ball even when he gets hit hard. He may not be as much of a finesse player as Edwards was, but he’s a very reliable receiver. Expect Henne to go to Avant during the tight situations. The other receiver, Steve Breaston, who also returns kicks and punts, is probably one of the biggest play makers Michigan has. The very fast and nimble Breaston is a nightmare to all Special Teams couches out there as he set a new record for all-purpose yards during last year’s Rose Bowl. Coming back this season healthy, he should be the edge Michigan needs to propel them to the National Championship. He’s also a very versatile player as he came out of high school as a quarterback and made the switch to receiver at Michigan. Expect to see him be the focus of trick plays and be doubled teamed when he’s playing the slot position.
In the back to even out the field are three very talented running backs. The first, Michael Hart, showed teammates as well as America that he can play just as hard as the former All-American Running Back Chris Perry. Making his debut a few games into the season, he broke out and rushed for 200 plus yards in eight consecutive games. His records were very similar to Oklahoma’s Peterson, the only reason he didn’t get recognized was because he didn’t start from day one. What’s even more surprising is that he’s only 5’9″. To back him up is another talented running back, though less proven as Hart, Max Martin. Expect to see him getting more touches. Whereas Hart is more of the power runner, Martin is more of the speed. To balance these two out, Michigan has their third stringer, Freshman Kevin Grady, who was ranked as the state of Michigan’s number one running back. Having enrolled at the University right before the Rose Bowl, Hart has taken him under his wing and started training him at the practices before the bowl game. As one of the most anticipated incoming freshmen, expect Coach Lloyd Carr to give Grady some play time so that he can get used to the game at the college level as fast as he can. With these three running backs, expect to see two or even all three of them in the back field from time to time. Their presence will also keep the defense honest as they have to deal with not only the pass threat but with the ground threat as well.
All said and done, the offense looks like National Champion caliber. The real problem lies in the defense. If anything has been the downfall of Michigan seasons the past few years it’s been their defense, which is ironic because defense is something the Michigan tradition really prides itself on. There are a few veteran players that are returning that Lloyd Carr hopes will step up as leaders such as LaMarr Woodly, Pierre Woods, and Leon Hall. Leon Hall will be stepping into the shoes of Marlin Jackson as he becomes the number one cornerback. He proved himself to be an exceptional DB last year when he made spectacular plays as well as interceptions. Coaches on the football team have said that Hall has the potential to become one of the best cornerbacks Michigan has to offer. If you know anything about the coaches at Michigan, they usually don’t make comments like that. They’re just hoping this year will be the year Hall really breaks out and steps up as a leader. The Michigan defense as a whole is really untested yet so there are many critics out their who think that Michigan will end up in a shoot out when it comes to winning games. Hopefully this will give the defense more motivation to go out there and prove these skeptics wrong.
Last year, Michigan had the hardest time finishing their tackles, especially against scrambling quarterbacks as Vince Young single handedly brought Texas back to win at the Rose Bowl. Michigan Defenders have said that the reason they gave up such big plays was not the package that was called but instead they were being very sloppy in the fundamentals of playing as a defender. As released to the public from the training camp, Michigan defensive coordinators have stated that they’ve reviewed the tapes and the players have focused on playing their positions correctly and finishing their tackles. Whether this is going to effective or not, only the football season will tell.
All in all, things are looking good for Michigan. If their defense can step up and really quiet the skeptics, Michigan has a legitimate chance at making a third appearance at the Rose Bowl, this time for the National Champion title. However, if the critics are right and Michigan has to outscore to win, there’s an awfully good chance they won’t make it, not only because defense wins championships, but because of their schedule. The Big Ten just gets tougher and tougher and without a good defense, there’s no way that any team can overcome teams that have both high powered offenses and defenses. Look at Iowa to be a huge block in Michigan’s way as they have almost all their defensive players returning, not to mention their outstanding linebackers. As always, Ohio State will be in Michigan’s way as well as both teams face each other as traditional requires them to at the end of the season. Ohio State has probably the most game-breaking player in all of college football in Teddy Ginn Jr. who plays both receiver and cornerback as well as kick return, OSU’s answer to Steve Breaston. Their quarterback is also a scrambling quarterback as that’s been a huge problem for the Wolverines. However, this year The Game is played at the Big House so hopefully home field advantage will tip the scales in Michigan’s favor.
If Michigan’s defense can step up to the challenge and the team can keep the tempo the whole season, they definitely have a legitimate chance at making an appearance and possibly winning at the Rose Bowl. They may not be the favorite for either scenario, but don’t count them out yet. College football is all about the unexpected.