Saturday, September 17, 2011

So why DID Michigan play Eastern today?

Frankly, there isn’t THAT much to say about Saturday’s 31-3 victory over Eastern Michigan, in what was laughingly dubbed “The Battle of Washtenaw County.” It’s NOT like there’s this huge Mason-Dixon-like divide splitting Washtenaw Avenue or anyone renaming it “Smoke-Free Road” (that’s a play on NC’s Tobacco Road in case that shot over your heads … which I suspect it did).
The game that could have been a trap turned out NOT to be as difficult as the sputtering Michigan offense and defensive line was permitting it to be. After surrendering the first points of the game, a 21-yard field goal, the Michigan coaching staff continued to demonstrate its ability to adjust on the fly and eventually, Eastern stopped its assault around the interior of the Wolverine defense (with sweeps to the left, and sweeps to the right because EMU simply abandoned any semblance of a passing game early).
Meanwhile, the offense, which continues to be Denard Robinson’s legs (26 carries for 198 yards, 1 touchdown), wore down the Eagle defense but did not impress anyone, other than the gullible Big Ten Network announcers, save one – former U-M star Jon Jansen, who noted quickly the lack of drive off the ball by the Michigan offensive line. Unfortunately, it is still a unit installed for a different offensive scheme. The good news is with more practice and coaching, led by Al Borges, it should improve as the season progresses.
(By the way, if you are going to be a play-by-play announcer, say for the BTN, and you want to discuss former Michigan quarterbacks, please learn to CORRECTLY pronounce the name “Henne” as “HEN-nee,” NOT “hay-NEE.” Drives me crazy).
The positives turned out to be the play of the secondary, led by Thomas Gordon, with a nifty one-handed interception that halted EMU’s final assault on the U-M end zone in the first half. After that play, the Eagles were never serious contenders in the contest.
And … lo and behold, Michigan tried … and successfully succeeded in a field goal attempt from … 21 yards out. Hey, better than nothing, right? Each kicking journey begins with the first step.
However, this is STILL a team NOT close to being placed in the top 25 in any national poll (although Auburn’s loss opens the door for Michigan to enter). There are too many holes that must be filled – woeful kickoff return coverage (still surrendering field position with short kickoffs and long opposition returns), absence of a consistent running game from players NOT named Robinson (diminutive Vincent Smith seems to have won the halfback battle but cannot run between the tackles with any consistency) and the passing game still looks … “rusty” (for the lack of a better, non-offensive term). It was good to discover that throwing to the tight end produces touchdowns.
However, Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway were kept off the stat sheet and it wasn’t because they were blanketed by the EMU secondary all game long. Robinson simply kept missing open targets.
But Michigan’s aerial efforts were herculean compared to EMU’s passing game, which basically was non-existent (only 3 of 6 attempts for 29 yards). Head Coach Ron English, former U-M defensive coordinator, should consider going to a single-wing or wishbone formation if he is going to disdain the pass to that extent.
But a win is a win and Brady Hoke is the third Michigan coach to start his career at 3-0 – the others? Fielding H. Yost (54-1-1 from 1901-1905) and Bennie Oosterbann (coaching the 1948 champions). Unfortunately, it’s hard to confirm this because complete season-by-season records aren’t included in the Michigan football media guide – not by opponents, just by final season record. Just saying…
Next week should be a “déjà vu all over again” moment for Hoke as his former employer, San Diego State, comes calling to The Big House. It was going to be Hoke’s shining moment in front of his former team (U-M) with his emerging Aztecs. Now, he must prepare for a squad he knows well and a team that’ll have something to prove to their ex-coach.
But exactly WHY did Michigan, of the mighty Big 10 Conference, play Saturday against Eastern Michigan, on the low end of the Mid-American Conference.
The first answer is money … and the second answer is … money. I’ll explain.
With the recent shuffling of conference memberships (not just this month in the Big 12/Southeastern Conference, but last year with all sorts of schools realigning and completely discombobulating all of college football), holes began to sprout in lots of schedules. Suddenly, the Big 10 became 12 schools deep; the Pac-12 went to 14; the Big East got bigger (hello, TCU) and now the SEC will come as see … what’s happening with Texas A&M (plus a to-be-named school to bring schedule balance).
Hence, there are more school committed to conference action than ever before and depending on how that situation is resolved according to each conference, there are fewer and fewer marquee non-conference matchups.
When Florida State joined the ACC, it could not sustain its two major rivals (Florida and Miami, Fla.); it chose to drop the contest against … Florida – one of the nastier rivalries in college football. The ‘Noles played Oklahoma Saturday night but it isn’t the same as bragging rights in Florida.
Colorado exited the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and on its way out, slammed the door on any of its former rivalries after a long relationship with lots of schools. For that matter, the border war between Nebraska and Oklahoma often decided Big 8 (and national) titles; but it’s a thing of the past nowadays.
Hell, it took lots of screaming from Ann Arbor and Columbus to maintain the Michigan-Ohio State affair on an annual basis since the two schools are placed in separate conference divisions. It took an even louder level of volume to play future UM-OSU games in late November; it just wouldn’t have the same meaning if encountered in early October.
But tradition is the vestal virgin often sacrificed at the altar to appease the money gods. In order to fill holes, schools must look elsewhere than other MAJOR conferences (they begin the Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big East). Of the 48 non-conference Big 10 opponents for 2011, only nine hail from that four collectives. Out of the 12 schools that comprise the MAC, eight of them have found their way to Big 10 schedules (some more than once; Eastern travels to Penn State next week, for example).
Instead the conferences seen as “worthy” opponents include the Sun Belt, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Conference-USA, Western Athletic, Southern, Mid-Eastern Atlantic and Ohio Valley (there are two independents – Notre Dame and Army). Some of these conferences are not part of the BCS; they are remnants of the old Division 1-AA, now known as the Football Championship Subdivision.
Alliance doesn’t necessarily mean inferior as every U-M fans knows by two words: Appalachian State. But … there IS a basic talent difference (as demonstrated Saturday in The Big House) and no Big 10 teams really has ANY business playing the likes of South Carolina State or South Dakota State or Tennessee Tech.
So why is it allowed on BOTH ends? Money – that’s what I want … (did you know that was Motown’s ORIGINAL hit song by Barrett Strong?). It’s so simple, it’s almost criminal.
Let’s say you’re Youngstown State, of the Missouri Valley Conference, and you always need an infusion of dollars into your athletic program. Your stadium is the largest in the MVC and holds a whopping … 20,630 people (I can show you almost 50 high school stadiums in Texas larger than that!).
So hosting non-conference games does nothing for your bank account. BUT … going on the road to a Big 10 school – with LOTS of huge stadiums guaranteed to be sold out (Big House, Horseshoe, Happy Valley, Spartan Stadium, Nebraska), your percentage of the gate receipts will FAR outweigh anything happening in Youngstown. The amount of the check will soothe any lingering wounds occurring on the field.
It’s why Michigan gets to have five straight games at home to open the season – smaller schools love the Big House experience, especially all 110,000 fans paying to see Michigan play … whomever.
Notre Dame is Notre Dame, but Eastern Michigan is just another opponent. And the original ND contract back in 1974 was unique in that the two schools decided each one would retain 100 percent of its home gate. Then-athletic director Don Canham couldn’t sign the paper fast enough. Aside from being an incredibly astute businessman, he could do math in his head. Notre Dame Stadium seated 55,000; Michigan Stadium seated 105,000 – you do the math.
It’s ALL about the Benjamins, baby!
Final thought: After ripping the Big Ten Network broadcast and announcers, I was to give kudos to how it handled the “start” of the telecast. They went live to the field, seven minutes prior to the start, and showed (from ground level), the entrance of the Michigan Marching Band, playing “M Fanfare” and going into “The Victors” – a sight every “Go Blue” fan knows by heart. As I sat there, I got shivers down my spine and tears to my eyes.
It’s part of the unique pageantry of college football not shown enough.

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