In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
04 Sep 2007
by Russell Levine
Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32.
This is how bad life has been for Michigan fans since Saturday's college football calamity:
Brian Cook, who authors the excellent mgoblog, resorted to (in order) removing all the content on his site in favor of a "technical difficulties" image; rebranding the site in pink and posting a series of kitten photos; and leading the site with emo music and a picture of a crying girl.
Personally, I'm still in a fog. I've already had dreams that Michigan made the winning kick. I knew I was in bad shape when Notre Dame suffered its worst-ever season-opening loss and I drew not one ounce of pleasure from it. I will be discussing both of these items with my therapist as soon as I can find the strength to get out of bed.
Things got worse on Sunday when I tried to extend an olive branch to a Notre Dame-fan relative of mine (by marriage, of course) and he immediately responded with trash talk. And I knew he was right.
My family still hasn't called to check on me. Presumably they think I'm alive, but just in too much pain to come to the phone. They're probably right, too. Either that or they've disowned me because of my association with Michigan.
So this is where Michigan finds itself, precisely one week into a season that began with high hopes: the laughingstock of college football and the entire sports world. While Appalachian State deservedly gets the Good Morning America treatment, Michigan is trying to pick up the pieces and fend off claims that the sport has passed it by. Head coach Lloyd Carr and athletic director Bill Martin are hearing calls for their jobs.
Over the summer, I wrote an article for a Michigan preview magazine about how the perception that Carr was on the hot seat was completely inaccurate. Losing five of six to Ohio State and five of six bowl games couldn't offset the fact that the school president and AD loved him, and that he'd been successful by any measure while running a clean, and very profitable, program.
Suddenly, both Martin and Carr are a lot less comfortable. Martin is under fire not only for his loyalty to Carr, but for scheduling the game in the first place. After all, what was possibly to be gained for the Wolverines? If they routed ASU as expected, so what? A close game would bring probing questions, and as one Michigan blogger wrote before Saturday's contest, "Lose, and the world ends." It's as if Martin, who had an open date on the schedule to fill, didn't want to admit that Michigan was going the same cupcake route as most major programs. So he went out and found what he could tout as the best cupcake out there. Only, ASU wasn't a cupcake at all. It was a fast, talented, confident team that believed it could pull the upset.
As for Carr, he still isn't going to get fired. A program so staid in its approach simply isn't going to push the panic button. But Carr, who was a safe bet to retire after the season no matter what, is now all but certainly coaching his final year in Ann Arbor. He won't be forced out publicly, but the result will be the same. The bigger legacy of this defeat will be seen when it comes time for Michigan to pick a successor. It has always been assumed that the next coach in Ann Arbor would be a "Michigan Man," either a current assistant or someone with deep ties to the program.
The first half of that equation went out the window Saturday. Defensive coordinator Ron English was being hailed as a possible successor during Michigan's 11-0 start in 2006. The last three games, all losses, have seen the Wolverines give up 108 points. A completely incompetent (there is no other word for it) approach to defending Appalachian State's spread offense sealed English's fate. Michigan looked like it had never seen a spread attack before, despite that fact that several teams in its own conference run varieties of the same offense.
What's worse, Michigan's struggles defending the spread, and athletic quarterbacks in general, date back a decade or more. Donovan McNabb and Syracuse first sounded the alarm in 1998, running over, around, under and through the defending AP national champions in an ugly home loss.
The problem is not one of athletic ability. If there's one misconception that will gain strength from Saturday's result, it's that southern teams and southern players are somehow faster than those from the north. Michigan has all the athletes it needs. It recruits talent from places like Texas, California, Louisiana and, yes, Florida. The problem is one of approach. Most top teams in college football operate offensive and defensive schemes that maximize speed. Michigan opts to rely on strength and execution. That will surely change under the next coach.
An upset this significant deserves to be viewed in historical terms. Perception will rank it among the biggest in college football history, and some might choose to rank it with the great shockers in all of sports. Reality is different. This was not the Miracle on Ice, nor was it Virginia losing to Chaminade. In terms of pure talent, it's not even Temple beating Virginia Tech in 1998.
As the two-time defending champions of Division I-AA (I refuse to use the NCAA's ridiculous subdivision names), Appalachian State could very likely compete in several of the "mid-major" conferences. I have no doubt they would win the Sun Belt, and they might well contend in the WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and the MAC.
In all the coverage of ASU's stunning win, and the subsequent analysis of just how good the Mountaineers really are, I haven't seen anyone mention what I feel is the best parallel: Marshall. The Thundering Herd was the dominant team in I-AA in the 1990s, winning two championships and finishing second twice during the decade. Marshall moved up to Division I-A in 1997, joining the MAC after winning the 1996 I-AA title.
Once Marshall was in I-A, it not only competed, it dominated. The Herd won the MAC title its first four years in the league and five of its first six. So to suggest then that Appalachian State is no better than the 121st best team in America (there are 120 Division I-A programs) is laughable. More likely, ASU is better than at least 50 teams presently in I-A and perhaps even more.
But no matter what the reality, perception will always rank this result as an all-time stunner. Any time something happens for the first time in history -- no I-AA team had ever beaten an AP-ranked I-A squad since the divisions were formally separated in 1978 -- it's bound to be a notable achievement. Throw in the fact that Michigan was ranked fifth, albeit in the wild-guess preseason poll, and that it was Michigan, the winningest program in the history of college football, and it's easy to see why such a fuss is being made over the Mountaineers.
I'm not trying to minimize the impact of this game for Michigan. It was simply inexcusable for the Wolverines to get pushed around on their home field by a team with 20-plus fewer scholarships and a fraction of their budget. Michigan is a punchline right now, and it deserves to be. No matter what the Wolverines eventually accomplish this season, even if they were to win out and go on to win the Rose Bowl (admittedly, an unlikely scenario), the legacy of this season will always be, "yeah, but they lost to Appalachian State."
Still, the next such upset will come sooner, rather than later. There is too much talent in I-AA and the proliferation of the spread offense is a great neutralizer of superior size and strength. That is, if teams like Appalachian State can continue to get games with top-ranked opponents. ASU currently has several games scheduled with top I-A programs the next few years and it will be interesting to see if all those contracts are eventually honored.
For Michigan, there is nothing left but to pick up the pieces. The next three weeks bring Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State to Ann Arbor, so we will find out quickly if Michigan can rebound or if this will become another 2005 -- a.k.a. "the year of infinite pain" -- for Michigan fans.
There was some push on the comment threads for ASU coach Jerry Moore to get the season's first JLS Trophy for failing to run time off the clock before kicking the go-ahead field goal. The gaffe left Michigan with enough time to attempt a field goal of its own. Even though we all know how that turned out, it was a mistake that could have easily been avoided.
Still, I can't in good conscience criticize Moore on the day of such a landmark upset.
Instead, I'll award the season's first JLS Trophy to Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, for his stubborn decision to punt to Cal's DeSean Jackson in their Saturday night showdown in Berkeley. Jackson took the Volunteers' first punt of the game back 77 yards for a touchdown that gave Cal a 21-14 lead. It was the sixth touchdown return of Jackson's career, and also the last punt he saw Saturday night. There's nothing quite like admitting a mistake right after you make it.
The key element of the BlogPoll is that it is supposed to avoid the evils of "poll momentum," whereby teams' movement is limited by their preseason positions. I'm looking at my preseason ballot as pure guesswork, so things have change a lot from a week ago. As I gather more evidence in the coming weeks, I will continue to alter my ballot accordingly.
Games I watched: Buffalo-Rutgers, Appalachian State-Michigan, Georgia Tech-Notre Dame, Tennessee-California, Florida State-Clemson, parts of others too numerous to mention.
93 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2007, 10:44pm by stan stendera