Can you start a season by mentioning the final game on the schedule? When it’s Michigan the answer is yes. The Wolverines will never overlook an opponent, but not a week will go by when they won’t think about their Nov. 17 date with Ohio State. Michigan has lost five of its last six to the Buckeyes, with the last Michigan win coming in 2003. Of course, to set that up as a key game — like last season — they need to win the first 11.
Once again motivation will not be an issue for the Wolverines. They still have to get the nasty taste out of their mouths from finishing last year with two losses (at Ohio State, to USC in the Rose Bowl) after beginning the season with 11 straight wins.
It’s the last chance for the core of the offense — quarterback Chad Henne, tailback Mike Hart and left tackle Jake Long. This trio is driven, competitive and poised, and when they talk, their teammates listen. Coach Lloyd Carr could not ask for a stronger leadership core, and he will depend on them heavily throughout the run.
This team has the talent to win at least as many games as last season. The only issue is whether the defense, which is lacking in experience, can grow up fast.
Now in his fourth full year as the starter, Henne should be more comfortable in the pocket after studying tapes of former Wolverine and Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady. Henne is the stabilizing force of an offense that helped Michigan win its first 11 games last season. His numbers were down a bit, with career lows in yards (2,508) and touchdowns (22), but his completion percentage was up (61.9), and he threw only eight interceptions. Those are numbers Carr can live with.
Henne receives more than his share of the attention, but the key to the offense will be the running game. And it all starts with Hart, a Heisman contender who rushed for 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. The backfield won’t be as deep this year due to Kevin Grady’s torn ACL, but Hart is good enough to carry the load if he remains healthy.
It seems each season the Wolverines lose a big-time receiver, and each season the position remains a strength. With Steve Breaston (58 catches as a senior) gone, the door is open for Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington to take on even larger roles. Arrington’s off-field problems in the offseason could be a factor. Still, the Wolverines like their depth at this position. Greg Mathews’ confidence has been boosted with a top-notch showing in the spring.
Long, an All-America left tackle, is back to protect Henne’s blind side and provide some leadership to a line that will be in its second season working with zone blocking schemes.
Coordinator Ron English has more than a few worries on defense, because he has more than a few holes to fill. But the line is not one of his concerns, despite the loss of All-America tackle Alan Branch. Look for tackle Terrance Taylor to emerge as a star this fall.
Linebacker Shawn Crable had a breakout season last year on the strong side but was surrounded by big-time talent. He’s going to have to make an impact as a leader now that David Harris and Prescott Burgess are gone. Austin Panter, only the second junior college signee of the Carr era, could start in the middle.
The secondary replace All-America cornerback Leon Hall, but veteran Morgan Trent is ready to step up and assume the role as Michigan’s next great lock-down corner.
A kicker is not always appreciated until he’s gone and the Wolverines will miss Garrett Rivas. Bryan Wright and K.C. Lopata will now get their chance to step in. Punter Zoltan Mesko possesses the experience and the power to have a banner junior season; he had eight punts of 50 yards or more last year. Breaston will be missed as a return specialist.
From the outset, the veteran offense must carry this team. There’s no time for jitters or major adjustments for this experienced group, especially with Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State coming to Ann Arbor in September.
The defense, which took a big hit with several key starters gone, will be forced to mature quickly. English is known as an excellent teacher; his skills will be put to the test this fall.
The schedule, which features eight home games, isn’t overly taxing. The Wolverines’ season will likely come down to mid-November, when they battle Wisconsin in Madison before hosting Ohio State.