But, believe it or not, its not all doom and gloom. Turn on talk radio or go into a Wolverine message board and you may think Michigan is already 0-1. But we're here to tell you that despite how bad things were at the end of last year, there is still hope.
That's right. Hope. Its what separates us from Ohio State fans right now. Here are 5 good reasons to be excited about Michigan Football this season.
1. The Defense
What a lot of fans chose to focus on at Saturday night's open scrimmage was the struggles of the offensive line and the running game. And who could blame them...after last year, we're all a little weary of what might be a long season for those position groups. But what was less talked about and hasn't been given its due attention is how great the defense looked.
From top to bottom, the entire defense looked sharp, confident and experienced...mostly because they are all of those things. Led by seniors Jake Ryan, Raymon Taylor, Brennen Beyer, Frank Clark and Demond Morgan, Michigan's coaches have also been on a tear bringing in top talent for the defensive unit, and developing it nicely. Nowhere is that more noticeable than up front with guys like Henry Poggi, Ondre Pipkins, Willie Henry, Bryan Mone, Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst. There are more of course, Michigan's depth along the front 4 is incredible.
Not to be outdone, the linebackers might be as experienced as they've been since the Lloyd Carr era. Seniors Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan lead this group. Juniors James Ross and Joe Bolden will be very much in the mix.
In the defensive backfield, returning starters are having to compete for playing time against young guys coming up either from redshirts or even incoming freshmen. In year's past, this was a bad sign. Now, its the sign of incredible talent given an opportunity to push for a shot. Don't expect the upperclassmen like Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor to sit. The depth will offer DB coaches Roy Manning (cornerbacks) and Curt Mallory (safeties) plenty to work with in plenty of packages.
Safe to say, this is what Hoke had in mind when he brought in Greg Mattison to be the defensive coordinator 4 years ago.
2. The Devins
There's no mystery that the two biggest weapons this offense has are Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess. The senior/junior combo might just be the best QB/WR duo in the Big Ten. Anyone who thought Devin Funchess was still a tight end needed to look no further than the open scrimmage last weekend where #87 lined up as a wideout every time he stepped on the field. This man is a receiver...a 6'5", 230 pound receiver that is ready to eat cornerbacks alive.
For Gardner, this is it, his last shot. He is the leader of this offense and this team. We will get to see right away what sort of impact new offensive coordinator/QB coach Doug Nussmeier will have on the senior. Last year, Devin showed flashes of brilliance, but also many flashes of terror as he spent much of the season running for his life.
Expect less of Gardner tucking and running and more of Gardner throwing the ball into the 3rd row when a pocket breaks down. We saw it last Saturday night, and that tells me that there is an emphasis to get it through to Gardner that its okay to live to fight another down, and a punt is not always a bad option. Keeping Devin Gardner healthy is job one for this offensive line. If both Devin's can stay healthy, they can pick right up where Gardner and Gallon left off a year ago. No question, Funchess will be #98's favorite target.
3. The Playmakers
Aside from the obvious skill position players like the two Devins, and the 3-headed running back trio of Johnson/Smith/Green, Michigan has many weapons. There's been incredible competition at the receiver spot between guys like Freddy Canteen, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Moe Ways...and even walk-on redshirt-sophomore Bo Dever who's coming out party was last Saturday night as he was one of Shane Morris's favorite targets. Dever looks and plays much like the outgoing Drew Dileo, a smaller slot-type receiver with great hands and quickness.
Maybe the biggest playmaker on the field, when he's out there, is junior Dennis Norfleet. Primary utilized on special teams as a kickoff returner, Norfleet has shown flashes of great speed on reverse-type plays, and has come oh-so-close to breaking a kickoff return so many times the last two years. My hope is to see more of him on the offense as a slot receiver. He just has that look of a guy who can break any kind of play loose and take it all the way to the house.
Any list of playmakers on Team 135 must include Jabrill Peppers. He might be good enough to be his own reason to be excited about Michigan Football this year. But until he plays a down in a game, we will temper our excitement as much as we can. We haven't seen much of Peppers in a Michigan helmet, but what we have seen (at the scrimmage) has lived up to the already lofty expectations. He very well may be a starter at cornerback in week 1. We'll see. He may also be returning punts. We'll see. Either way, Peppers alone may be enough to give Michigan fans something to get excited about.
4. The Schedule
This offseason, especially the last week or so, has been very kind to Michigan's schedule, especially those daunting road games.
• Northwestern lost their best playmaker, maybe the B1G's best playmaker, in running back Venric Mark when he decided to transfer about a week ago.
• Notre Dame suspended 4 of their best players for suspicion of academic cheating. No word on how long the suspensions will last, but it's likely to draw out beyond week 2.
• Two days ago, Ohio State's senior All-B1G QB Braxton Miller reinjured his throwing shoulder in practice and will miss the entire 2014 season, forcing redshirt-freshman JT Barrett into action as the starting QB on an offense already rebuilding after losing 4 linemen and the B1G's best running back.
In all honesty, even a week ago, Michigan's 2014 schedule was not that daunting to begin with. The two road games at Michigan State and Ohio State were (and are still) cause for worry, but the home schedule is complete with all winnable games. Sweep the home schedule, win the road games that they should win (NU and Rutgers), and Michigan is sitting at 9 wins. I think now, they have every chance to win in South Bend, especially with the potential negative impact of the suspended players. From there, steal a win in East Lansing or Columbus (or both), and Michigan is headed to Indy...no question about it.
5. The Kicking Game
That's right, the kicking game. People may not really care, at least in the preseason, but having solid special teams is something not every team can boast. Close games are won in the kicking game. Aside from talented returners like Justice Hayes, Norfleet and Peppers, the guys doing the kicking are not only established, and seniors, but also proven to be clutch performers.
Matt Wile has been backup placekicker to Brendan Gibbons for the last couple years, but he has had many chances to prove himself going 5 for 8 in his career and booting a 52-yarder in the Outback Bowl a couple years ago. He also went 2 for 2 in the BWW Bowl filling in for Gibbons last year. As the go-to guy for longer field goal tries, the senior placekicker also moonlighted as the punter last season filling in for the suspended Will Hagerup. And of course he's been handling kickoffs for the last 3 years as well.
Speaking of Will Hagerup, he's back. The redshirt senior punter wowed everyone last Saturday when he booted a 70+ yard punt that sailed well over the head of Jabrill Peppers...showing that he's ready to resume his duties pinning opposing offenses deep in their own zones.