COLUMBIA — Michigan’s strength of schedule is ranked 34th by Jeff Sagarin’s computer program, two spots ahead of South Carolina’s. While 34th is fairly high, you might think the Wolverines would be higher, considering they played Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State – the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the Associated Press poll.
Michigan lost all three games, but coach Brady Hoke believes his team gained something from the experience of playing Alabama in Cowboys Stadium to open the season, then traveling to Notre Dame in Week 4 and to Ohio State in the regular-season finale.
Hoke was tasked with rebuilding when he arrived in Ann Arbor last season. The Wolverines had just gone 3-9, 5-7 and 7-6 under Rich Rodriguez. After leading Michigan to an 11-2 record last season, Hoke went 8-4 in Year 2. The Wolverines, tested by big games and changed by a midseason injury to their quarterback, will play South Carolina in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl.
Hoke is aware that, in college football, there often aren’t many tangible benefits to scheduling a team like Alabama on top of the Wolverines’ traditional non-conference matchup with Notre Dame. Teams aren’t rewarded for such gauntlets when an undefeated season of any quality will usually land a major conference team in the national championship game.
“I don’t think you are,” Hoke agreed. “But I think for us and the future of the program, it’s a real positive. It’s kind of a big stage. I think that all helps. I think there’s always a benefit. When you play good football teams, whether you win or lose, I think you learn how you have to play.”
Hoke singled out doing a better job of limiting turnovers and running the ball – two things Michigan didn’t do well in those three big games. The Wolverines lost three turnovers against Alabama, six against Notre Dame and four against Ohio State. They ran for 69 yards against Alabama, 161 against Notre Dame and 108 against Ohio State.
Alabama and Notre Dame boast elite defensive players, and while Michigan isn’t playing with slouches, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, deserves a significant amount of credit for them being ranked No. 11 nationally in yards allowed per game, six spots up from last season. Under Rodriguez, Michigan ranked No. 67, 82 and 110.
Mattison is the most important hire Hoke made when he came from San Diego State. Mattison was Michigan’s defensive coordinator from 1995-96 and held a co-coordinator role with Florida from 2005-07, helping the Gators win a national title. He spent 2008-10 coordinating the Baltimore Ravens’ defense. Hoke, who was Michigan’s defensive ends coach from 1995-96, lured his friend away from the Ravens, and the move has paid off handsomely.
Hoke, who has a defensive background, also faced a significant overhaul with Michigan’s offense. He brought his San Diego State coordinator, Al Borges, with him. Borges was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2004-07. He and Hoke want to use a pro-style scheme – a major change from Rodriguez’s run-first spread-option attack.
But senior quarterback Denard Robinson was recruited to play in Rodriguez’s offense. So, too, was junior Devin Gardner, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2010, according to Rivals.com. With Robinson entrenched as the starter, Gardner switched to wide receiver for this season and the Wolverines ran a mix of spread and pro-style. But then Robinson hurt his throwing elbow in the Oct. 27 loss to Nebraska.
With Robinson out for the next two games, Borges moved Gardner back to quarterback and shifted even more to a pro-style offense than he already had. Robinson played in the final two games, but as he was apparently still recovering, he did not throw a pass and saw action as a running back and slot receiver. Robinson caught just two passes in those games, but ran 23 times for 220 yards, drawing on what has always been his biggest strength as a quarterback.
Gardner had thrown just 33 passes in his career, and none this season, before replacing Robinson for the final four games. In those games, he completed 57 of 90 passes for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions (one in each game). Michigan went 3-1, with wins at Minnesota and over Northwestern and Iowa at home.
With Robinson winding down his career, the bowl game against USC’s No. 12 total defense could be a chance for Gardner to take what Hoke said is the next step in his development as a quarterback: “His continued growth playing in big football games and environments not in Michigan Stadium.”