Posted 5:00pm -- 2/28/2016

The Status of the Program --
Things To Come -- Part III

The Dangerous Venture Of Forecasting

Part One of GBMWolverine’s State of the Program Series detailed the 2015 football season. Part Two discussed where the program currently stands and focused on the recruits and position groups. The final entry, Part Three, will elaborate on long-term prognostication of the Michigan football program. Long-term will be given an operational definition of three to five years.

Before starting the task, a short discussion about future forecasting may be appropriate and helpful. Forecasting, by its very nature, is purely predictive and relies on variables, both known and sometimes even unknown for accuracy. Unknown variables (the effect) can be lessened and better dealt with if identified before the venture begins, but that is a tough task, and even good thinker/planner types may be at the mercy of chaos that pops out of the unknown. Energy forecasters are pleased if their predictions are within ten percent from year to year. Percentages do not equate to football forecasting, so one place to start is to identify and analyze the variables affecting football success. But, Nostradamus would need more than one quatrain to pull off a good prediction of UM’s football future, there remain unknowns and potential pitfalls. Most programs are in such positions, the exceptions perhaps being Alabama and Ohio State.

One way to approach this task is to sort out the certainties and uncertainties. While the certainties may or may not be program strengths, as trite as it sounds, certainties are easier to deal with in program planning compared to uncertainties. This is why sports teams desire continuity in as many domains as possible. Continuity does not guarantee success, but programs that are constantly in flux rarely achieve at a high level.

The Michigan program will continue to make a climb up the tough slope to the plateau of excellence if one variable remains constant: the status of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, that in itself is the biggest, most visible, and most important variable in predicting program success five years out. Harbaugh is one of the few coaches that assuming he possesses the resources commonly thought to be linked to program achievement (coaching staff, institutional support, finances, recruiting mechanism, and the football talent gathered) can almost provide a money-back guarantee of winning.

Coach Harbaugh is said to be volatile and one who has a limited lifespan at any singular location. Now that description was applicable at San Francisco, with the help of the 49er front office, but perhaps not so much in the landscape of Ann Arbor. Within his childhood environs, Harbaugh is more likely to be seen as Caesar Augustus, more than the rumored to be quite mad Nero or the later Emperors. By all accounts, Coach and his family are very pleased with the first year of homecoming. He is more revered by the supporting community than the vast majority of coaches, giving him house money in the court of local opinion.. It is Harbaugh’s alma mater, Michigan, where he is working, the same place his father coached; the same place his legendary coach made home, even after retirement.

It will be up to Coach Harbaugh as to his intent to provide stability and longevity by staying around, and baring some unforeseen extraneous condition, say perhaps a major blow-up, program probation, or dislike from the very few on campus who truly have any say in moving a coach out of town, he has far more free reign, wiggle room, and a longer leash than most Division 1 program heads.

If Harbaugh remains a certainty, then the quality of assistant coaches should also remain a program asset, and therefore be a near certainty. Clearly, good coaches will enter and leave the program, this has already happened and will continue, assuming Michigan keeps landing high-level assistants and continues to win. Harbaugh’s overlying knowledge of the coaching landscape, his prestige, and his connections will pay dividends in luring coaches to Ann Arbor. Sometimes, whether or not a coach takes a position is about more than numbers on the contract.

For the future to unfold in the manner envisioned by Michigan followers, the talent must first be recruited and then developed to a level where improvement of individuals and position groups is the norm, not the exception. The make-up of the linebacker and offensive line groups is far off any definition of excellence. That is the certainty the staff most wishes to go away. Good linebackers are like a destroyer shield: there must be versatility, agility, smarts, and toughness. The offensive line group must be expanded in number and quality in the future, but first improved for the present; that also is a certainty. The other position groups are starting to fall into place.

Michigan will need to land multiple impact players to ascend into contention for a playoff spot, or conference championship. This is an uncertainty, but at least Michigan has pulled in two highly predictive impact players in Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary. There are other candidates not yet on campus that should shock no one if they climb the heights and dominate.

Harbaugh’s foundations provide certainty of purpose, but future program success depends on certainty of translating foundational concepts into reality. Clearly, Harbaugh wants premium quarterback talent and play. He has achieved the talent level depth long missing within the program. The stable is still developing with John O’Korn the only veteran with true game experience. But as the spring and fall practice seasons tick away, each of the talented youngsters should further develop enough skills to contribute if needed. Only really bad luck with injury, or perhaps Harbaugh leaving, should prevent prominent production out of this group.

Harbaugh wants a pounding ground game that is physical and game controlling. This is a foundation that at the present time has not been met. Forecasting here is not a very useful vehicle since no running back is dominant, the offensive line had at best an average year, and fullback is unsettled. There are no certainties on the line and only a few backs can come close to dominating without a solid offensive line. Whoever is the Head Coach two or three years down the line, Michigan has planted an old flag on the field: one that indicates old school, tight end and fullback oriented football. Michigan cannot just pull this flag up if Harbaugh leaves the reservation; the genre is set at least for the foreseeable future, although the flexibility level is rigid as steel, but more like a tough, but bendable, aluminum.

Harbaugh’s offensive line coach and recruits will have much to say about the ultimate success of the program. One certainty of the running game is that in many previous situations, including under the wing of Jim Harbaugh, Coach Drevno has succeeded in making the foundational vision a reality. The predictability of the running game success is still in short-term ambiguity; the desire to make this goal a reality is set.

Harbaugh’ s recruiting style may be in question by some; however, it is becoming obvious that he wants a certain type of athlete. The athlete should be versatile, having had success playing on both sides of the ball, or at least playing multiple positions if not a two-way high school player. Harbaugh seems to have collected recruits who are success oriented, willing to pay the price for success, and able to overcome some hardship. He wants tough kids that have no problem playing tough. If fast, that is a bonus, although the past 2016 class likely was an uptick in team speed, it was no where near the speed level spread teams are collecting.

Harbaugh has gathered a very nice collection of offensive weapons at tight end, slot, and wide receiver. The talent is there for physical mismatches, another intended Harbaugh recruiting outcome, and it is not bogus to predict this can only help the running game. If the rising talent at the skilled positions equates potential into performance, Michigan’s offense could be a two-headed monster, and a two-headed monster is not defined as having an offense that has a 50-50 mix of running and passing. Instead, a two-headed monster is defined as an enterprise that can easily score by relying on the run, the pass, or mixing it up; whatever is needed or simply wanted within an offense.

Program management is always under scrutiny. But the uptick over the last eight years has to be obvious. There will be second-guessing, but the second guessers are not running the program and it is clear who is. The certainty is Harbaugh’s program and game management skills can be observed and are clearly well above average, at a minimum.

Defining success for the Michigan football program may not have universal agreement. Reality and context need to be applied, at least as thin stratums separating the realms of wishfulness and preventing the process of forecasting from overcooking sane expectations. Those who say the program is a failure if Ohio State is not defeated need to understand the brutal reality that the nuts are in a stretch similar to the great Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams, where losses were few and scheme and talent formed a wrenching monopoly, stopped only by Wilkinson’s retirement. If the younger high talent level of the last few years replaces the mass exodus to the NF early on, Ohio State may face few opponents in the immediate future who can prevail. In Columbus, the competition is considered Alabama, and that ends the list. Michigan State has done a superior job of identifying and developing talent, and has been rewarded the last two years with high level recruiting classes. By the very nature of what Michigan is attempting to build, Michigan over the longer term of time has a fair probability of hanging with, and perhaps passing, Michigan State. But the truth is that Ohio State and Michigan State were top five programs the better part of the last two years. Expect Michigan to play Ohio State very tough and close as the future unfolds, but forecasting victory over the two major foes is not supported by current conditions.

And so, on to spring practice and the bounty of work football players must put into the program before Hawaii exits the tunnel for the field. It is a time of conjecture, waiting, and patience for dedicated fans. But there are archives of past games readily available to view as July heat and football withdrawal merge. For the fans, it is about waiting. For the players, in this and most programs, it is all about serious work.

Written by GBMWolverine Message Board Staff — Doc4Blu

Go Blue — Wear Maize!