It was, technically, the first passing play of the 135th iteration of Michigan football -- Team 135, should you wish to utilize the preferred nomenclature, Dude -- even if it didn't count for anything. It was the opening series of Michigan's spring scimmage last Saturday, and it was Devin Gardner taking a snap and dropping back into his own end zone and rolling to the right on a bootleg and throwing a pass downfield and into the arms of a waiting defender.
Maybe it's unfair to read anything into this. Maybe it was just a quarterback forcing a throw, guided by the awareness that this was nothing more than a glorified drill. Maybe, in real life, in an actual situation, Gardner might have tucked the ball and run with it, and maybe if this were an actual situation, it would have been the sort of play where Devin Gardner makes something out of nothing. Maybe things aren't as dire as they seemed on this single sequence. But the problem is just that. The problem is that Michigan can no longer be certain what's real and what isn't.
Here's a hard and round number for you: 10 years. That's how long its been since Michigan has won a Big Ten championship. To locate a gap that pronounced in Michigan's storied and (schadenfreude alert) oppressively self-congratulatory history, you have to hearken back to the pre-Schembechler era, to the gap between Fritz Crisler and Bo, when men named Bennie Oosterbaan and Bump Elliott were in charge. From 1951 through 1969, the Wolverines won only a single Big Ten championship; from 1969 through 2004, in the heart of the Bo/Gary Moeller/Lloyd Carr era, they won 21.
It happens, you know. Programs wax and wane, and Michigan being Michigan, it could turn at any time, but Michigan being Michigan, it also feels so much more anomalous when it does happen. No program traffics on the assuredness of its own history quite like Michigan does. To understand this, all you have to do is watch Devin Gardner, scrambling around in the No. 98 jersey once worn by a pre-war Heisman Trophy winner. Yet it goes back even further than Tom Harmon. It goes back to Fielding Yost and his whirling point-a-minute teams of the early 20th century, back to a fight song that does not exhort its team to victory but presumes to celebrate the victory itself. " 'The Victors,'" wrote author and Michigan graduate John U. Bacon, "established the most important element of Michigan's identity -- confidence -- which served as the North Star for all that followed."
And so, with that in mind, here is Fielding Yost, in 1941: "But do let me reiterate … the Spirit of Michigan. It is based upon … a conviction that nowhere is there a better university, in any way, than this Michigan of ours."
And here is Brady Hoke, a few days ago: "We learned some hard lessons. All of us have. The only thing we can do is go forward. ... We're a long way from being any good."
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So what is Michigan without that aura of Michigan-ness? What is Michigan when the Wolverines' two biggest rivals are now the two most dominant programs in the conference? What is Michigan when Ohio State is the more innovative program, and what is Michigan when Michigan State is the more physical program? What is Michigan when the Michigan Man they specifically hired to reintroduce that historical mojo -- the guy who reminded everyone of a young Bo when he arrived -- appears to be floundering to establish his own identity?
This is Brady Hoke's fourth season now in relief of Rich Rodriguez (who was so famously not a Michigan Man that he blew the question about it in his introductory press conference), and so the Rich Rod years, and the Rich Rod system, and the ill will Rich Rod engendered among the school's fussy alumni base (according to Bacon's dishy book Three and Out), can no longer be blamed for much of anything.
The Wolverines started 5-0 last season, but it was a hollow and inconsistent 5-0 (a win over Notre Dame, followed by near-losses to Akron and Connecticut), and just as had happened during the Rich Rod era, the Wolverines collapsed in the second half, losing six of their final eight games. This offseason, Hoke hired offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama, in an attempt to mimic the ruthless power offense of the Crimson Tide. He declared the quarterback job an open competition between Gardner and Shane Morris, mostly (it would seem) as a motivational ploy to attempt to goad Gardner into more consistent play. He has spent much of the spring doting on his team's youth, which is a fact -- the Wolverines have 38 sophomores and 39 freshmen, according to Hoke -- but may also be a way for Hoke to diminish expectations.
Nussmeier's offense is simpler than his predecessor Al Borges' was. And it's possible that Michigan can still play power football, and can still win in straightforward, Schembechler-esque fashion, at least within the parameters of the Big Ten. There will always be talent in Ann Arbor, and that talent will amount to a guaranteed five or six wins: This year, the breakout star may be Devin Funchess, who is so athletic that he's actually been switched from tight end to wide receiver, which is sort of like a shot-putter transitioning to hurdles.
But Nussmeier made it work at Alabama because he had an indomitable offensive line and a quarterback who rarely, if ever, made mistakes. And Michigan has neither of those things at the moment: Last year, the Wolverines were 86th in the county in total offense, and they were 11th in the conference (and 102nd in the country) in rushing offense. Gardner can be very good, and Gardner can be not so good, and how much freedom he will have to create and improvise within Nussmeier's offense -- and whether Nussmeier will ride the tempo revolution in college football, and whether Nussmeier is able to develop the offensive line into something other than the nebulous flailing mass it was for much of last season -- remains an uncertainty.
But then, this spring, no one in Ann Arbor seems very certain about anything. This is still a program that wraps itself in the technicolor cloak of its own history -- just a few days ago, they unveiled a statue of Schembechler outside the building that bears his name -- but it's the neurotic recent history of Michigan football that the Wolverines will face up to on the first weekend of the season, on Aug. 30, before a home crowd that no longer carries much conviction. That day, for the first time since 2007, Michigan will open the season against Appalachian State.