Sunday, September 17, 2006

Instant National Title Contenders

People really didn't know what to expect from the Wolverines this season. After a terribly disappointing 7-5 season last year, and the loss of their go-to receiver, Jason Avant, to graduation, the national media didn't really know where to place the Wolverines in the national rankings. Michigan answered their critics on Saturday, with a convincing 47-21 throttling of the then #2 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Wolverines must now be considered serious national title contenders. Their schedule is not easy, but the road win against Notre Dame was the second toughest game of their schedule, and they pulled out a win with ease.

Michigan has a relatively tough five game stretch coming up, at home against #27 Wisconsin, on the road in Minnesota, at home against rival Michigan State, on the road against #25 Penn State, and finally a home matchup against #16 Iowa. None of these opponents should be taken lightly, but this Michigan lineup looks more prepared than any in recent history. After yesterday's performance, one should expect the Wolverines to emerge through this five games stretch unscathed, with an unblemished 8-0 record.

After that string of games, Michigan can relax a little bit for three weeks against Northwestern, Ball State and Indiana. At that point, if all goes according to plan, Michigan will be 11-0, and conceivably ranked in the top three in the national rankings. (If it was up to me, Michigan would move ahead of #2 Notre Dame, #9 Florida State, #6 LSU, #7 Florida, #8 Texas and #10 Georgia when they release today's national rankings. That would put Michigan at #5) Conceivably, if Michigan and Ohio State both run the tables, we could witness the second #1 vs #2 matchup of the season. Unfortunately, that would likely require losses by Auburn, USC and West Virginia, which is a lot to ask for. Auburn has a very tough schedule ahead of them, and may slip up against Florida or Georgia. USC has 4 ranked opponents ahead on their schedule, and the losses of both Leinart and Bush really hurt their chances of maintaining an undefeated record, but West Virginia has a relatively easy schedule, and will likely remain undefeated. My prediction is that we will see the rankings as #1 Ohio State, #2 West Virginia, and #3 Michigan going into the Michigan/Ohio State matchup.

With yesterday's performance, Michigan became instant national title contenders. By holding Notre Dame to 4 yards rushing, they now have the #1 rush defense in the country, giving up just 20.7 rushing YPG, and are ranked 9th overall on defense. Throw in the 2nd ranked turnover margin, 5th ranked total sacks, 18th rushing offense, and 4th overall in time of possession, and this team is in pretty select company. Manningham is starting to look every bit as impressive as Braylon Edwards did two years ago, and I'd be surprised if Michael Hart doesn't receive at least a little consideration for the Heisman by the end of the season.

Coach Lloyd Carr is finally answering his critics. This team is well coached, and appears better prepared than they have in years. New defensive coordinator Ron English has opposing quarterbacks shaking in their boots. Heisman candidate Brady Quinn was hit more than ten times in yesterday's matchup, resulting in three interceptions.

I'm still waiting for Breaston to become the breakout player that he's capable of. He is the teams leading receiver with 12 receptions, and he continues to make breaking tackles look effortless, but he has a whole lot more potential. Breaston continues to drop a few passes per game. He made a couple amazing receptions in the Notre Dame matchup, but dropped two easily catchable balls, including one that would've resulted in a touchdown. Breaston's opportunities have been fairly limited in his prime roll - as kickoff/punt returner. Through the first three games, Breaston has returned 3 kickoffs for 60 yards (20.0 avg) and 8 punts for 85 yards (10.6 avg). Breaston is averaging 106 all purpose yards per game, which is good for 67th in the nation. Not bad at all, considering the fact that teams are intentionally doing everything they can to keep the ball out of Breaston's hands on kickoff/punt returns. (Michael Hart, by the way, is ranked 28th nationally with 133.0 All Purpose Yards per game) I consider Ted Ginn, Jr, perhaps the nation's most lethal offensive threat, to be the measuring stick for Breaston, which is perhaps a bit unfair as a comparison, but none-the-less, one that I make. Ginn, Jr is ranked 44th nationally with 119.0 All Purpose Yards per game, but has broken out with 6 touchdowns this season, while Breaston has so far failed to reach the end zone.

Overall, Wolverine fans have a heck of a lot to be excited about for the upcoming season. They won their first game on the road for the first time since 1999, and they managed to do it in decisive fashion.