Tate: Michigan's on the spot
As a collective Big Ten group, we tend to pull together against outsiders.
We're Midwesterners, after all, and reputations matter. Furthermore, some of these SEC folks are still in Civil War mode. They pour insults in our direction like political ads and, worse yet, back them up on the football field (six consecutive national titles).
So Michigan, the UI's long-time nemesis, is taking on an expanded reputational load in tackling Alabama on Saturday.
Based on the double-digit point spread, it looks like the Wolverines have bitten off more than they can chew. And coach Brady Hoke has everybody guessing about his star running back, Fitzgerald Toussaint. It almost sounds like Hoke is planning a game-time announcement geared to provide his team an emotional lift.
Toussaint, who joined evasive QB Denard Robinson in the 1,000-yard category last season, was suspended last month for a DUI arrest. Disregarding the depth chart that lists Toussaint on the first unit, Hoke said Tuesday: "We haven't made a decision as yet." Might it come soon? "We'll see."
For all the emphasis on the Robinson-led offense, it was Michigan's defense that turned 2011 into an 11-2 "Michigan season." They were porous defensively during the three-year era of Rich Rodriguez, giving up 35.2 points per game in 2010. They cut that in half last year (17.4). This unit faces the ultimate test Saturday, raising the question whether it is beneficial to play such a vital game so early. Some of us still are wondering whether the Wolverines, who lead Big Ten teams in the preseason polls, are really the best.
"I am comfortable with this game," Hoke said. "We like playing this tough opener as a philosophy, and me personally. If you want to be the best, you need to play the best."
OK, good response, whether you mean it or not. It fits perfectly with the Michigan bravado. But the truth is, there is an ongoing argument in the state whether the Wolverines have caught up with nearby Michigan State, much less the Crimson Scourge. The Spartans have outscored the Wolverines 123-72 in four consecutive triumphs. The feeling here is that the Spartans, while giving Michigan an edge at quarterback, are superior at more positions.
Consider: The Bednarik watch list for the nation's top defender projects Spartans William Gholston, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Johnny Adams, and no one from Michigan. The Butkus Award shows Allen and Bullough, and no one from Michigan. The Lombardi watch list shows five from Michigan State and two from Michigan, the Thorp Award two from Michigan State and none from Michigan. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.
Coach Mark Dantonio quickly will discover the accuracy of those projections. His Friday foe, Boise State, has opened with victories the last three years against Georgia, Virginia Tech and Oregon. The national media has pounded the drums to get Boise in a title game. The showdown at Spartan Stadium will ignite more talk — or end it abruptly.
"Everybody is chasing a dream," Dantonio said. "At this point, we're not worrying about the conference. We're proud of the Big Ten, but we're not representing the Big Ten as much as the Green and White. This is a tough assignment. I've watched these Boise teams, and it's not about gadgetry or formation, it's about aggression."
Big Ten tidbits
— Unlike other sports, which decide championships at the end, these Michigan and Michigan State openers are the beginning of what amounts to college football's playoff process. Each game counts.
— Michigan opened last season by thumping Western Michigan 34-10. Sounds easy, huh? Actually, the game broke open via two TD runs by linebacker Brandon Herron, the first on a 94-yard return of a tipped pass with the Broncos threatening and the score 7-7. Turnarounds like that impact a game and a season.
— Everybody is scrambling to make inroads on the Chicago recruiting marketplace. Next up are Iowa and Northern Illinois, squaring off in Soldier Field on Saturday. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz said he has been "prudent and cautious" in tackling the running backs after losing so many quality ball carriers in recent years.
— When you figure out Minnesota, let me know. Southern Cal, No. 1 in the AP preseason poll, barely edged the Gophers in last year's opener, 19-17. Then New Mexico State, the team that no conference wants, defeated Minnesota 28-21 in Game 2. New Mexico State is 20-67 over the last seven years. Advice for the Gophers against UNLV: Don't let the bright lights of Las Vegas blind you.
— Nebraska coach Bo Pelini: "We recruit nationally, and the Big Ten Network gives us tremendous exposure. Parents talk about it all the time. It is very positive."
— From the Super Bowl to an opener at Penn State, that's Bill O'Brien's unlikely journey. Said O'Brien: "We (New England) were a known quantity going against the New York Giants. This is an unknown deal (vs. Ohio) and a different set of circumstances." Ya think?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.