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Published: Tuesday, 8/26/2014

COMMENTARY: Wolverines have a lot of doubters

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

ANN ARBOR — The Michigan Wolverines landed under “others receiving votes” in the AP’s preseason top 25 poll. If you wade through all of those “others” by point totals, UM is tied for No. 37.

There has not been one postseason playoff prediction by anyone wearing neutral colors — that eliminates Desmond Howard — that has the Wolverines bracketed in college football’s final four.

When Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller was ruled out for the season and people went searching for those Big Ten teams that might take the most advantage of his absence, there was mention of Michigan State, Wisconsin, and a couple others. Did anybody even consider Michigan?

They play in the Big House, and it is indeed big, and it is usually full. But the Wolverines were 7-6 last season, a dismal 3-5 in conference play, and that doesn’t cut it for 109,901 fans. So the UM athletic department has been airing so many TV and print ads for season and single-game tickets in the Detroit and Toledo markets, among others, that you’d think they were hawking a new sandwich at Arby’s.

Yes, UM has the most wins in college football, 910 and counting. But only 41 of them have come in the past six campaigns, and if you exclude the 2011 season, Brady Hoke’s first as coach, when the Wolverines went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl, they are just 30-33 since Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season.

Elite? Hardly. Neither is the Big Ten in many eyes and maybe one has something to do with the other.

Regardless, there is an obvious lack of respect for Michigan football in 2014 as we approach the opening weekend of the season.

Michigan players seem anything but discouraged.

“Honestly, all it does is motivate us,” said junior linebacker James Ross III. “It keeps us on edge knowing we have something to prove. A lot of people don’t believe in us, but we believe in us.”

Jarrod Wilson, a junior safety, added that he and his teammates “don’t really pay any attention to rankings or ESPN or anything. If anything, it makes us more hungry. We’re just trying to build a great team. If we do that, the wins will come and people will start to believe.”

If so, the seat under Hoke may cool off some.

He starts his fourth season as UM’s head coach having won 11, 8, and 7 games. He started with that Sugar Bowl win and, most recently, lost to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. That is regressing.

To some, recruiting has regressed. To some, the offense has regressed, although if the line comes through there would seem to be some weapons this time surrounding quarterback Devin Gardner, who has some skills.

Five of the first seven games are in the Big House, and the schedule is manageable enough to have six wins by then. The Wolverines get to play both of the Big Ten’s newcomers, Rutgers and Maryland. The tough stretch, of course, is toward the end when Michigan State and Ohio State pop up. When the Wolverines got well into their slate a year ago, they skidded to a 1-5 finish.

Do nine wins this time around save Hoke’s job? Is 8-4 and another chicken-parts bowl good enough?

The guess here is yes, because we’re not sure his seat is that hot to begin with.

Hoke is joined at the hip with athletic director Dave Brandon, not exactly the most popular guy to ever run UM sports. If one fails, the other fails to some degree. Hoke may have more leash than we think.

Then consider this. On a roster of more than 100 players, there are exactly four fifth-year seniors and six true seniors. That’s one-tenth of the roster.

All but the fifth-year seniors are Hoke’s recruits, but the team is still awfully young.

It is not the only issue, for sure, but it’s an issue.

Since last season, Hoke replaced his close friend, Al Borges, as offensive coordinator and UM invested heavily in ex-Alabama coordinator Doug Nussmeier. There was a large shuffle of the defensive coaching deck under veteran coordinator Greg Mattison.

That defense should carry things in the early going with linebacker Jake Ryan moving inside where he should have more chances to make more plays. The guys around him, Ross, Ben Gedeon, Desmond Morgan, and Royce Jenkins-Stone, are talented.

“We’re two-deep everywhere with great players,” Ross said. “You can’t have an elite defense without an elite linebacking corps.”

It’s the first stepping stone, perhaps, to Michigan regaining its historic form as an elite program.

Mattison, for one, thinks Hoke will get it done.

“The job [Hoke] does and the job he’s done since the day he got here has been unbelievable,” Mattison said recently. “We’ll find out. All I’ll say is just watch, watch and see.”

Indeed, we shall see what we shall see.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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