By: Jamie Samuelsen
It was just two years ago that Rich Rodriguez’s future hung in the balance. He had finished up his third season at Michigan. The Wolverines were heading to a bowl game for the first time in his tenure despite finishing just 7-5 during the regular season. Athletic Director Dave Brandon said that no decision on Rodriguez’s fate would be decided until after the Gator Bowl. And the pro-Rich Rod camp was defending their man by pointing out that the program was heading in the right direction and actually was trending up.
And here we are two short years later debating whether or not an 8-4 season and a probable trip to the Capital One Bowl is a failure? My how times have changed.
Like any question, this one all depends on your perspective. To be fair, most Michigan fans looked at the notion of ‘progress’ under Rodriguez as hogwash (or something worse) and he was dismissed following a 52-14 loss to Mississippi State. Brady Hoke was hired a short time later and promptly declared that anything short of a Big Ten title would be a failure. Most people chuckled at that notion and lauded Hoke for a herculean effort when he led Michigan to an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl win in his first season. But Hoke doubled-down on his initial statement and called his coaching job in 2011 a ‘failure’ because they failed to win that Big Ten title.
I certainly don’t know Hoke well enough to know if he truly believes that. And I know that most Michigan fans were thrilled with a return to the BCS after three years of Rodriguez, Steven Threet, Scott Shafer, Greg Robinson and a 67-65 three overtime ‘win’ against Illinois. Compared to the previous era of Michigan football, 2012 was a rousing success. Compared to the normal lofty expectations of Michigan nation, 2012 was a mild disappointment. And compared to Hoke’s annual expectations, it was a bitter failure.
So which one was it? Can I answer all of the above?
Let’s eliminate the two extremes. It clearly was not a rousing success. The Wolverines were embarrassed by Alabama and lost to two of their bitter rivals (Ohio State and Notre Dame). They started the season ranked in the top ten of many polls and ended it out of the rankings altogether. Their signature win of the season is a 12-10 nail-biter over 6-6 Michigan State that did end a four-year losing streak but did nothing to reassert Michigan as the premiere in-state program. The Wolverines missed out on a golden opportunity to win a decidedly weak Big Ten Conference. And every single time they faced a tough opponent away from Michigan Stadium, their electric offense appeared to lose power. When you go from 11-2 to 8-4, even when you take into account the departures on offense (David Molk, Junior Hemingway), it can’t be considered a success.
But it’s also not a failure by any stretch of the imagination either. Michigan was in the rankings for much of the season. They were in contention the Big Ten Championship Game until the Friday after Thanksgiving. They did end the streak against Michigan State and beat other bowl eligible teams like Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue and Air Force. (Sorry, that last sentence is a pretty weak read. But give me a second. I’m trying to state my case.) They were only blown off the field in one game (a far cry from the Rodriguez years). And they will be playing in one of the Big Ten’s marquee bowl games on January 1 (granted, they are helped by the fact that Ohio State and Penn State are both on probation).
Based on the expectations and the preseason hype, it was a disappointment. Based on where the program was two years ago and the difficult nature of the schedule. It wasn’t a huge surprise.
In a lot of ways, the 2012 season is like an NFL Draft. You really won’t be able to evaluate it in the short term. If Michigan improves in 2013 and muscles up the running game and the offensive line, then we’ll view this year as another transition year from Rodriguez to Hoke as the new coach works to fully implement his players and his system. If Michigan struggles with the same issues and the same opponents in 2013, then we’ll start to scratch our heads a little bit about where this thing is heading. But based on the recruiting classes that Hoke has already brought in and based on the ones he’s scheduled to add in the coming years, the future appears to be very bright.
Michigan football is not back in terms of where most fans think it should be. They lost to Ohio State (and really got outslugged in the second half). They were torched in front of a national television audience by Alabama. And they needed some breaks and some clutch plays to dispatch of Northwestern and Michigan State in their own stadium. But three years ago, an 8-4 season would have seemed like panacea to Michigan fans. And of course, ten years ago, 8-4 would have been reason to start a national coaching search. It’s been a weird half-decade in Ann Arbor, but things do appear to be rounding back to normal. They’re not there yet. And maybe 2011 falsely raised expectations about how quickly Hoke could turn things around. But a 19-6 record in two years coming off a 15-22 record the previous three years is a pretty auspicious beginning.
8-4 isn’t a success or a failure. But the way the program is trending, that record will be widely viewed as a failure very, very soon.