Die Trying

A 2021 Michigan Preview, of sorts

Photo: James Coller

Welcome back! As you can see, content 'round here has remained largely unchanged since the Penn State loss last year. What can I say? Real life, man. This isn't my main gig, nor has it ever been. It's a side hustle in the truest sense of the phrase. That coupled with having done this for the last 14 years...12 of which have featured a regular season ending with a loss to Ohio State...so, yeah, it's damn hard to find the will to put my fingers on a keyboard to try and make sense of what's all happening here.

But, I'm still a fan first and foremost. I'm glad my little site quickly evolved to a level where I can apply for a media credential and get it approved and I can have awesome photographers shooting for me on the sidelines. For that reason alone, I come back every year.

Previewing Michigan Football is more about managing one's own expectations than it is anything else. How will a bunch of 18-23 year olds fare against a bunch of other 18-23 year olds? Your guess is as good as mine. I can tell you what I want to see. But again, expectations.


You don't have to look far to read or hear Michigan fans bemoaning the start of the 2021 college football season. For some, this season will all but surely be just a continuation of the Colid-19 shortened 2020 season which saw Michigan finish a paltry 2-4 – lowlighted by an embarrassing loss to Michigan State and a triple OT win against Rutgers. Surely, you can hardly blame them. 

Look, I get it...it was rough year. I, like many of you, have done everything I can do try and forget it ever happened. The only real highlight was winning the opener at Minnesota 49-24. Other than that, and not losing to Ohio State, is all I care to take from what really felt like a season of college football that really shouldn't have happened.

But here we are. 2021. Covid-19 is still a thing, but as of writing this, only 63% of Americans 18 and older are fully vaccinated...far shy of the 90% most experts agree we need to be at in order to achieve herd immunity. And despite the recent surge of the delta variant, especially in the south, CFB will soldier on with packed stadiums.

I'm not here to go into why we should or shouldn't be doing this. Frankly, I'm completely happy to see stadiums full of fans. It's the way college football is meant to be played. Fans, bands, cheerleaders, media, commentators actually at the games...I absolutely love all of it. When I walk up to the press door at the Big House this Saturday, I'll be smiling, because college football is back and I get to be a part of it again. If people don't want the vaccine, that's their decision and there's not much anyone can do or say to make them understand that the vaccine is the only way we're going to out of this. Thankfully, Michigan Stadium is an outdoor venue, so any spread of Covid-19 will be minimized as much as possible.

But here we go anyway. 

Now I'll fully admit that this preseason for me hasn't been like preseasons in the past. Normally, I can look past any shortcomings Michigan may have, put on my rose-colored glasses and get ready for what will surely by a 12-0 season. But this year is tough. And it's not because we have a tough schedule, a new QB, new linemen, a bunch of new faces on defense or some new assistant coaches...that's all part of big boy football and you just need to roll with it.

Clearly, Harbaugh and Michigan have shown that the talent is there, I mean...
Something was broken last year, and we all saw it. We felt it. You could feel it when the team would run out of the tunnel and just sort of stand there once they got to the sideline. There was no energy. No juice. Now granted, they were running into an empty stadium, but still, you could just sense that the motivation was gone. We all heard rumors about players not getting along, coaches not getting along...and those seem valid considering the results we saw on the field. And the coaching moves since last year also seem to validate the overall impression most of us had that the program was more broken than we initially thought.

All of these issues, despite the coaching moves Harbaugh made, have followed Michigan Football throughout the offseason and will only disappear if and when the results on the field improve. Winning can cure anything, and for a team like Michigan, winning is everything.

So how do they get there? Well, it's a week by week game by game thing. And from what we heard from Aiden Hutchinson and Josh Ross at Big Ten media days back in July, the culture is not only improving, but could be in the best shape it's been in in years. Ronnie Bell, a team captain says of Harbaugh... 
"He's the head of the sword; he's the boss man. I feel like he's always strived for and tried to get this energy. Since I've been here, I feel like this has been the overall goal from the standpoint of how he wanted things to flow, team chemistry, team morale and how we love and care for one another."
The emphasis Harbaugh has put on energy this offseason was felt in his own demeanor at media days. Media days are full of coach-speak and canned resposnses, but for Harbaugh, it was the first time I got the sense that he actually wanted to be there. He just seemed...different. And after a dismal 2020, I'll take different. Different is good.
“To have it, to win the championship, to beat Ohio (State),” Harbaugh said. “(To win) our rivalry with Michigan State. Everybody.

“That’s what we’re trying to do. And we’re going to do it — or die trying.”
But you can't just snap your fingers and make it all better. It takes a lot of work. And when you're a program that gets judged based on your success vs Ohio State every year, the work it takes to catch and pass a program like theirs is almost impossible. But the rallying cry around Schembechler Hall all offseason has been "What have you done to beat Ohio State today?" It may seem trivial, but that's the sort of stuff you need to get your program in the right mindset to start winning on that level again. Time will tell, though.

If we learned anything from the summer Olympics is that half of sports is the mental game. You have to get your mind right before you even step on the field. With the offseason coaching moves, improved emphasis on team culture, communication and player energy, it seems that Michigan is on a far better path than they were at least a year ago and probably beyond. So that, is at least something.

X's and O's are important, but there's a whole lot to be said for team chemistry and proper mindsets. Saturday at noon, we'll get to finally see just how far Jim Harbaugh and his program have evolved.

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