I will admit, my optimism about the outlook of Michigan's 2010 season was increasing more and more every day after Michigan beat Notre Dame. While I was definitely impressed by what Michigan did against UConn, it wasn't until the Wolverines went on the road and won a hard-fought game against Notre Dame that I started to become more and more optimistic about the rest of the 2010 season.
While I wasn't ready to get drunk on the Kool-Aid just yet because of how 2009 played out, I was hopeful that this year would be different. After all, Denard Robinson is a much different quarterback than Tate Forcier, and although the defense looked shaky at times, the hope was that, collectively, they would be serviceable enough for Michigan to win much more than five games.
Well, all of that hope and optimism came crashing down on Saturday for a few reasons.
First things first, Michigan was taken to the brink by UMass, an FCS team. Is UMass a million times better than, say, Delaware State? Sure, but there is no excuse whatsoever for giving up 37 points to UMass and nearly losing to the Minutemen.
The most glaring problem with Michigan that was exposed on Saturday involves the defense. Michigan gave up 217 rushing yards and 222 passing yards and looked completely lost whenever UMass' offense stepped onto the field. Perhaps the most concerning part about the defense's issues was that UMass' game plan was rather simple. They pounded the ball on the ground and their passing game wasn't very complex. In fact, the same bootleg play inflicted the most damage on the defense. UMass ran it over and over and over and Michigan simply didn't have an answer for it.
The other glaring issue with Michigan is the entire special teams unit. Before the season, it seemed like the punting game would be solid, but the kicking game would be a concern. Well, both are big issues right now. The punting game is a bit less concerning because Will Hagerup can clearly boom the ball during warm ups, but unfortunately that hasn't translated to actual games yet. As for the kicking game, well, it's downright awful. When Rich Rodriguez is asking for students to try out if they can kick, you know it's bad, and right now Michigan simply doesn't have a kicker that can be trusted to make field goals.
The other issue with special teams is the punt return game. Every single year of the Rodriguez era there have been big issues with punt returns, as nobody can seemingly even catch punts. By year three you would think a simple fundamental problem like that would be ironed out, but this year Jeremy Gallon is the returner and he has muffed two punts already. Luckily both were recovered by Michigan, but sooner or later this simple mistake is going to come back to haunt Michigan.
None of these problems are anything new or are necessarily unexpected, but they have come to the forefront thanks to the UMass game. After victories against UConn and Notre Dame, many fans, myself included, believed that Michigan could get by with these issues thanks to its explosive offense. Against teams like FCS UMass they barely can. When Big Ten play starts, however, I am feeling more and more concerned about another collapse being imminent with these issues already flaring up so much.
Michigan's disappointing performance on Saturday wasn't the only thing giving me a cause for concern going forward. The way UConn and Notre Dame played in their games is also concerning, because neither victory looks all that impressive anymore. UConn, for example, was beat by Temple, 30-16. Now, Temple isn't a terrible team by any means, but UConn shouldn't be losing to a MAC team by multiple touchdowns.
We all know what happened to Notre Dame on Saturday. While the Fighting Irish's loss to Michigan State wasn't unexpected or an upset like Temple beating UConn, their play raised a couple of red flags about Michigan's win in South Bend. On defense, Notre Dame just isn't very good, as MSU ran all over them. What Denard Robinson did in South Bend is still spectacular, but Notre Dame's defense isn't all that tough. Offensively, Dayne Crist was impressive against MSU, but that leads me to pose this question: If Crist hadn't missed almost the entire first half against Michigan, would the Wolverines have beat Notre Dame? I tend to think no. Injuries, of course, are just part of the game, but it does raise the argument that Michigan's win wasn't quite as impressive as once thought considering they didn't have to face Crist the entire game.
So, what does all of this mean for Michigan fans going forward? Well, personally my optimism has dropped greatly and the possibility of another collapse in Big Ten play seems much more likely than it did a week ago. If Michigan can't even stop a team like UMass, what is going to happen when they face Michigan State or Wisconsin or Ohio State? It was obvious even before the season that Michigan was going to have to rely on its offense to win games, but after watching the UMass game that is even more apparent and is a scary proposition for the Big Ten portion of the schedule.
While hope and excitement emanated from the first two weeks of the season, expectations have fallen back to where they were prior to the start of the 2010 campaign. Fresh off wins over UConn and Notre Dame, eight or nine victories seemed like a realistic possibility, but now six or seven wins appears to be more likely. Of course, this could be an overreaction to the extreme after one bad game by Michigan, but again, the Wolverines shouldn't be getting torched by an FCS team, especially one that runs such a simple game plan offensively.
Perhaps I'm just trying to protect myself from getting high hopes again out of fear of a repeat of 2009, but at this point I just hope Michigan gets to a bowl game. My confidence in Michigan's ability to win eight or nine games is essentially nonexistent at this point, so my main hope is that the Wolverines win at least six games and make a bowl. Anything after that would be gravy to me, as I'm just having a tough time finding reasons to be very optimistic about the rest of the 2010 season right now.