A couple of non-conference wins that almost felt like losses. Questions abounding about the offense, while a revamped defense continues to improve. The question becomes, can a team take a big jump from the start of the season to the end?
Competition aside, you'd have to take a couple of narrow victories against supposedly overmatched foes, compared to a pair of lopsided losses against bigger-name opponents. Plus, if Michigan started out this conference season scoring 29, 12, 12, 21 and 15 points in its first five games, all the ledge jumpers would be screaming out "I told you sooooooooo" on the way down.
Well, Tom Brady once rode the latter to a Big Ten championship when he was a redshirt junior quarterback at Michigan. That doesn't mean Devin Gardner will do the same, but some unlikely developments can play out over the course of a season.
Brady, of course, faced the unenviable task of providing an encore for Michigan's perfect 12-0 season in 1997. Gone were Chris Howard, Michigan's leading rusher from the year before, and Brian Griese, whose steady hand guided the Wolverines to the national championship.
On defense, stalwarts such as Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson and Glen Steele were gone, and safety Marcus Ray began the season on suspension. U-M looked anything but championship like in its opener, settling for (and missing) field goals in a 36-20 loss at Notre Dame.
The Wolverines then got flat run over by Syracuse and Donovan McNabb in the second game of the year, at Michigan Stadium. The result was much more lopsided than the final 38-28 score, McNabb guiding the Orangemen to a 24-0 lead and leaving the Wolverines in the dust.
Brady fired an interception on Michigan's first series, and super rookie Drew Henson came on to complete just 7 of 20 passes in that one. At 0-2, all comparisons to 1997 had turned to ashes.
Michigan pulled itself together to handle Michigan State at home in the Big Ten opener, 29-17, then began a series of strange, offense-challenged victories. The Wolverines held on at Iowa (12-9) and Northwestern ((12-6), labored past Indiana at home (21-10) and beat Minnesota at the Metrodome, despite a total inability to run the football.
The Wolverines were winning uglier than a green-garbed celebrant armed with a case of booze, a full gas can, matches and some expendable furniture. But they were winning.
In the end, they won enough to put up a championship banner. They weren't good enough to beat the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium, but they fought past SEC foe Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl, 45-31.
Now, there are all sorts of differences between 1998 and 2013. Let's stipulate to that right up front. The 2013 crew isn't working off the remaining talent from a team that didn't lose the year before. It doesn't have Steve Hutchinson, Jeff Backus and Jon Jansen in the offensive line.
And furthermore, in 2013 there's an extra step - a huge one - involved in grabbing a conference trophy. In 1998, the Wolverines didn't even need to beat Ohio State once to call themselves Big Ten champions.
This year, they might have to do so twice to hoist a trophy.
But there are some parallels, loose as they might be. Both teams featured a redshirt junior quarterback in a first full season of starting. Both endured some uninspiring early games, calling into question their ability to hold up over the long haul.
Both needed to post some ugly victories in order to keep moving forward. Without a doubt, from beginning to end, the 1998 crew got better. They got Ray back into the lineup, just like Michigan will get linebacker Jake Ryan back into the lineup after he's cleared to play.
Brady shook off the 0-2 start to finish strong, guiding Michigan to 21 points in the final 5:49 in a 45-31 win over the No. 11 Razorbacks. He finished the season connecting on 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,636 yards and 15 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.
Michigan may have to dial back the offense a bit to win games the way it might need to in the short term. Here's a guess that U-M's offense could be simplified over the next few weeks, giving Gardner fewer options on individual plays, with a focus on doing less and doing it better.
A 17-13 win beats a 31-30 loss any day of the week, and this group of Wolverines might find themselves in that situation in the days to come. With lingering issues on the offensive line and in the turnover department, they have to find a way to keep winning, and improve along the way.
The younger performers simply have to get better. That includes anyone from freshmen to fourth-year juniors, if the latter haven't started a host of games previously. There is room to move and grow within a season. The outcome is never cast in stone in September, although there can - and have - been some sobering warning signs.
The chance for growth remains, U-M head coach Brady Hoke insists.
"A lot of that is when you have youth on your team," Hoke said. "We are young, which is not an excuse, because there are no excuses. We've just got to keep moving those guys in the right direction."
They also need to keep getting direction, and they are, Hoke added.
"The guys who are the veterans have to keep doing a good job of being veterans and examples," he said. "That's the thing I've liked the most. The seniors have really been doing a good job."
That can give this team a chance. Many watching Wisconsin and Ohio State battle Saturday night didn't think the Wolverines belong on the same field as those two teams at this point. Which is fine, because they're not appearing one the field with either at this point.
The fixes have to begin taking hold now. October is all about survival, November all about finishing. For a flawed team in a flawed league, it's not too late.
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