Why do they call a football a pigskin when it's made of cow leather? Who knows? At any rate, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring with a few Big Ten predictions for the 2014 season, which begins Friday...
In short, I suspect the Michigan State Spartans might struggle a bit more than my co-blogger foresees, and the MEEEECHIGAN Skunk Bears will be a little better than he predicts.
Here are my prognostications for the regular season: Michigan State will finish 9-3, and U-M will finish 7-5. And I might as well get this out of the way now, with more analysis next week: I am going out on a limb and expecting the Spartans to shock powerhouse Oregon on Sept. 6 with a road victory. But this being Division I college football, the Spartans will also lose to a couple teams they should beat.
MICHIGAN STATE - What concerns me about the Spartans is not so much that their defense will fall off dramatically after losing six starters (it might take a small step back); it is that their good fortune with regard to injuries won’t continue. Let’s face it, in order to go undefeated or finish with only one loss, a team needs a certain amount of luck to supplement its talent and good coaching. It also needs to stay healthy, and the 2013 Spartans were remarkably free of serious injuries to their starters. I don’t think they’ll be so blessed this year, but I hope I am wrong.
The insufferable M-GO-BLOWHARDS who follow the corn-n-blue team with the tire tracks on the helmets think that MSU is headed for 6-6, in large part because of the losses on defense. What they don't realize is that most of the new starters are just as talented as those they replace, and already have plenty of real-game experience.
Secondly, MSU's offense struggled early in 2013 until quarterback Connor Cook gained experience and confidence and running back Jeremy Langford finally realized that he deserves to be "the man" in the backfield. This team is loaded with talented wide receivers, and as with the defense, the new starters on the offensive line are talented and have real-game experience. The MSU offense will be explosive and ought to make up for defensive shortcomings, especially early in the season.
But another factor is the "king of the hill" phenomenon. As any champion will tell you, whether it's a Super Bowl champ, winner of the NCAA basketball title or a tennis champion like Roger Federer, it's damned tough once you make it to the top. Everyone is gunning to knock you off, and you can expect to run into a buzzsaw with nearly every team you play. MSU faces dangerous road games at Maryland and at Penn State. Even the game in Bloomington, Indiana is a potential banana peel, as Indiana has one of the best offenses in the land (they scored 28 at MSU last fall) and is bound to be improved defensively. Nebraska and Ohio State at home won't be cakewalks, either.
Let us not forget that even good teams can be beaten by mediocre teams if the good team doesn't get fired up, play well and avoid mistakes. A tilt that really stands out in my mind is the Nov. 11, 2000 game in which 7-2 Purdue, led by superstar QB Drew Brees, came to East Lansing on a roll and promptly got stomped, 30-10 by an average Spartans squad. The Spartans, 5-5 after the victory, intercepted Brees three times. And then there was the Spartans' 1997 shellacking of Penn State. The Nittany Lions came to East Lansing ranked No. 1, and the mediocre Spartans pummeled them, 49-14. (MSU would finish 7-5 that season.)
Don't think it could happen to this year's Spartans? Think again. Just last year, the Oregon Ducks juggernaut got stomped at Arizona, 42-16. Arizona finished the season 8-5 overall (not bad, but not great). History is replete with teams that disappointed one year after they exceeded expectations (just ask the MSU hoops team).
At any rate, there are some interesting storylines to examine with this Spartans team, and I look forward to delving into them in the coming weeks. Tomorrow's tilt vs. Jacksonville State might not be as easy as many MSU fans expect, but I expect the Spartans to win by at least three touchdowns. Now, on to A2...
MICHIGAN - Michigan’s defense is actually not bad. Their secondary is mediocre but doesn't tackle well; the linebackers and defensive line are solid, and they are reasonably stout against the run. On offense, they have solid playmakers like QB Devin Gardner and tight end Devin Funchess. But their major league achilles’ heel, if they have one, is the offensive line. Not only was the line bad in 2013, but arguably the two best lineman are gone: tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield were taken in the 2014 NFL draft. And even if Michigan's O-line improves, its running backs leave a lot to be desired. Gardner is probably the biggest running threat they have.
Still, Michigan’s schedule is not that difficult. The games they are most likely to lose are at Michigan State and at Ohio State. At Notre Dame will be close, but the Stinkin' Elves booted some key players from the team for academic fraud, and they are not as good as the hype would have it. Methinks MEEEECHIGAN will again escape South Bend with a narrow victory. But numerous mediocre teams threaten to trip up the Skunk Bears, including Maryland, Penn State, Utah and Minnesota. The night game at Rutgers and a trip to Evanston, Illinois to face the always dangerous Northwestern Wildcats could also spell trouble. Northwestern, especially, must be very angry at the Wolverines for winning a tainted victory in which the U-M field goal kicking team lined up in a wild scramble as regulation time was expiring, and the placekicker, Brendan Gibbons, was on the roster even though he was under investigation for raping a U-M co-ed.
Talent level nothwithstanding, Michigan's problems go beyond a lack of playmakers and a pathetic offensive line. The elephant in the living room is that Brady Hoke appears to be in way over his head. He seems powerless to bring about improvement when certain parts of his team are malfunctioning, such as the O-line in 2013. I don't see this changing. Nor do I think the addition of former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is going to make that much difference. (Remember the hype and audacioous predictions/expectations with Nussmeier's predecessor, Al Borgess, and strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis?) I've been around long enough to look at hype about all things MEEEECHIGAN with a jaundiced eye.
Michigan will beat Appalachian State, but I doubt they will clear the gaudy 34 1/2-point spread. I'd say the corn-n-blue wins by about 20-25 points.
More football in a few days, but this weekend I've got some political and national security issues on my mind. Have a GREAT Labor Day weekend, everyone, and ENJOY those bread-n-circuses!