YOU KNOW YOUR college football team is in trouble when you are deathly afraid of a trip to Rutgers. But that is where Michigan stands. The Wolverines are 2--3 as they head to Piscataway, N.J., this weekend, though it's hard to imagine the offense making it past Cleveland.
To understand how the nation's winningest program could slip so far, look at its most recent attempt to improve. Fourth-year coach Brady Hoke benched senior quarterback Devin Gardner (right) last Saturday for sophomore Shane Morris. The Wolverines, who had beaten Minnesota in 22 of their last 23 meetings, lost 30--14. Morris passed for just 49 yards before Gardner replaced him in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines gained only 171 total yards.
Hoke should have known from practice that Morris wasn't ready, and he and coordinator Doug Nussmeier failed to tweak the offense in any meaningful way. They just tapped a new QB and wished for the best. This was typical of what has plagued Michigan over the past seven seasons. The program keeps reaching for something different instead of improving what is already there.
After the 2007 season the school hired Rich Rodriguez essentially for his innovative offensive mind. He viewed the program, which had played in three of the five previous Rose Bowls, as a teardown. His offense worked, but not much else did, and he was fired.
Desperate for somebody steeped in maize and blue, Michigan grabbed Hoke, an assistant at Ann Arbor for eight seasons before going 47--50 in eight years at Ball State and San Diego State. Barring a turnaround, he will soon be a good man with no job. Hoke, 55, has recruited very well and is admired internally for how he has run the program, but he has failed at the most underrated aspect of college coaching: developing talent.
Fans obsess over four- and five-star recruits, but if a coach doesn't help high school prodigies turn into college performers, those accolades mean nothing. The Wolverines' average recruiting-class ranking since 2011, according to Rivals.com, is 16. Gardner and Morris both ranked among the top eight QBs in the nation as high school seniors, but neither has improved. Michigan's two-deep offensive line includes one five-star and four four-star recruits, and Derrick Green was considered the No. 1 running back two years ago. But in the Wolverines' three losses this year, Green averaged less than three yards per carry.
Michigan has also gotten away from what made it successful off the field. Athletic director Dave Brandon, who would sell naming rights to his bedroom pillows if he could, has tried alternate uniforms, piped-in music and fireworks (which the school's regents shot down). Once the country's most fundamentally sound program, the Wolverines have traded substance for hype in hopes of "extending the brand."
Meanwhile, over at Michigan State, coach Mark Dantonio finds lower-rated talent and develops it into an annual Big Ten contender. The offense is rarely flashy, but it is effective, and the defense is relentless. Everything you could once say about Michigan, you can now say about Michigan State.
If the Wolverines go searching for a new coach, there will be an urge to make a splashy hire, especially if Brandon is doing the hiring. But the last two coaches won the press conference. The school needs somebody who can win games. That starts with recruiting, but it doesn't end there. College football may be a big business, but the coaches who succeed are the ones who can teach.
Michigan's record, the first time in its 125 years that it has had that many losses before October.
Average ranking of the Wolverines' last four recruiting classes.
JEFF HAYNES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED