Monday, August 8, 2011

Projecting the 2011 season

Since fall camp has opened, I figured now is as good a time as ever to investigate Michigan's upcoming schedule and throw my hat into the prognosticating ring. Much like last year, I'll break down what appear to be wins, losses, and toss-ups.

There has been a lot of talk about how the 2011 season is favorable for Michigan, which I would fully endorse were this the Michigan team of 5 years ago. Unfortunately, that team no longer exists and, not to hold this team's former sins against them, but I'll believe they can beat Nebraska in the Big House when it happens. Per usual, slot me on the pessimistic side of things. So without further ado, Michigan's 2011 schedule and my projected outcome:

Opponent Projected outcome
vs. Western Michigan Win
vs. Notre Dame Loss
vs. Eastern Michigan Win
vs. San Diego State Win
vs. Minnesota Win
@ Northwestern Loss
@ MSU Loss
vs. Purdue Win
@ Iowa Toss-up
@ Illinois Toss-up
vs. Nebraska Loss
vs. Ohio State Loss

So excluding the two toss-up games against Iowa and Illinois, I have Michigan looking squarely at a 5-5 record. While most people are pegging Michigan for a eight- to nine-win season, I simply can't see any way, looking at their schedule, that they get there.

The Wins
Despite being far more pessimistic than most, the games I have slotted as Michigan's projected wins are games that they should easily walk though. Eastern and Western Michigan should provide little resistance. Western will put up more of a fight, but if Michigan shows significant struggles against the Broncos, it could be a much longer year than expected. San Diego State could present some problems. They're a veteran team led by senior quarterback Ryan Lindley, he of 3,800 yards passing last year. However, with the recent injuries to his two top wide receivers, Michigan should be able to beat SDSU without too much worry.

Minnesota and Purdue are the only two Big Ten games that I can see the Wolverines winning comfortable. Both teams have been in the Big Ten basement since forever and neither should present too much difficulty. Last year's snowfest against Purdue was hardly an indication of the two teams' respective talent levels, and I expect Michigan to steamroll over both of them.

Five wins? Michigan has them.

The Losses
While many of the games I pick as losses are projected as toss-ups elsewhere, games like Notre Dame, Northwestern, and MSU feel distinctly like losses to me. Of the three, Notre Dame is probably the closest Michigan will come to a win. For the last two years, the Irish have encountered the pinnacle of the Wolverines' breakout star in the respective seasons. Two years ago, Tate Forcier broke their hearts with a few seconds left on the clock, and last year, Denard did his Denard thing and ran all over them en route to Heisman consideration. This year, Michigan won't have that element of surprise, and another year under Brian Kelly's system makes me think the Irish won't suffer another loss.

The Wolverines head to east Lansing to play Michigan State this year. Last year, I assumed it would be a toss-up game, and a likely Michigan win, given that it was played in Ann Arbor. Instead, the Spartans trounced Denard and company in a not-so-close loss. A senior Kirk Cousins and Michigan's ongoing defensive woes (which will be significantly mitigated though not absent this year) means MSU will likely replicate their success.

Finally, Northwestern is a weird game. They're a team that no one thinks much of until you mention Dan Persa's name, at which point, they become a team not to be trifled with. I expect Persa to have a big game against the Wolverines through the air and on land. The game will probably be close, but I expect Persa to lead them to victory.

As for Nebraska and Ohio State, those are firm losses and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise. Both teams are stocked on both sides of the ball and will be vying for the Big Ten championship alongside Wisconsin. Despite Ohio State's lack of a quarterback and impending NCAA doom, these games are certain losses.

The Toss-Ups
Iowa and Illinois are toss ups because I don't really know what to expect from them. Iowa lost their starting QB and last year were hit by a large amount of NFL attrition. In spite of that attrition, they still walloped Michigan at home. If the Hawkeyes can find a competent replacement for Ricki Stanzi, they will likely have little trouble dispensing Michigan at home, but if they're unable to find someone to take command of the offense, Michigan could find themselves in a dogfight.

Illinois is also hard to project, they of the triple-overtime thriller last year. Nathan Scheelhaase is no longer a freshman, and is someone I'm expecting to make a serious leap forward this year. Then again, the Illinois defense lost several key members to the NFL and wasn't particularly impressive against Michigan last year regardless.

The Final Verdict
The 2011 schedule would've lined up nicely for a Carr-era team when the likes of Northwestern and Illinois were bodybags, and MSU was difficult only because they try too hard. But since the Rodriguez era, and Dantonio stealing Carr's program, this still looks like a murderers row for a team with a lackluster defense and a transitioning offense.

I don't expect Michigan to lose both of the toss-up games, and since we're venturing guesses here, I think Illinois will probably end up in the win column. But unless Michigan is able to pull out a win against Notre Dame or Northwestern, the team looks to be staring down a best-case scenario of 7-5. And while 8-5 is likely, I'd be less surprised to see the team finish 6-6.


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