Zemek On The Sugar - 11 Wins Can Hide A Lot

Posted Jan 3, 2012

People can hide in plain sight. Virginia Tech and Michigan hid behind 11 wins this past season, and their Sugar Bowl proved the point in full measure.

Everyone has an angle in life… the angle of the referee who felt Danny Coale made a legal catch at the end of the 2012 Sugar Bowl; the angle of the replay reviewer who saw that the ball moved while in Coale's grasp; the angle of the field goal kickers who figured prominently in this game; and the angle used by Michigan's Junior Hemingway to make two stellar, game-changing touchdown catches.

My angle on the Sugar Bowl could focus on any of those events, but my colleagues here at CFN will pick apart Virginia Tech-Michigan on that more granular level. I'm interested in the big picture: After watching a game which was close not because both teams were equally excellent, but because neither one was consistent enough to pull away, it's hard to deny the claim that Virginia Tech and Michigan would continue to play very close contests in a hypothetical best-of-seven series. The Hokies and Wolverines delivered spectacular playmaking on some occasions and rugged defensive line play for most of the night in New Orleans, but for the most part, they revealed themselves as decidedly incomplete ballclubs.

Yes, Coale (Tech) and Hemingway (Michigan) stole the show as pass catchers on Tuesday night in the Big Easy, but their teammates didn't really answer the call. The two offensive lines struggled to pry open holes on the ground, and both quarterbacks – Logan Thomas with his uncertainty in the pocket; Denard Robinson with his penchant for throwing jump balls – showed that they're far from becoming polished products (in Robinson's case, the reality is more alarming because he's a junior; Thomas is just a freshman who will light up the ACC before he's done in Blacksburg).

Then, there's the small matter of all the mistakes committed by these teams in the Superdome: The roughing the punter penalty by Virginia Tech; the ugly-as-sin fake field goal by Michigan which turned into a Football Follies blooper reel; the 3rd and 2 false start by Virginia Tech on the Hokies' final drive in regulation; Michigan's dropped passes on third downs; David Wilson's 20-yard loss for Tech; and several other snaps which demonstrated a relatively low football IQ or a lack of poise in the heat of competition (or both). So much of this game caused the human brain to spin sideways because teams often succeeded in spite of themselves. Denard Robinson's touchdown passes were wish-and-hope throws, not the daggers delivered by a pocket passer who confidently shreds a defense in a manner akin to Brady, Brees, or Montana. Some of Virginia Tech's best plays were improvisational scrambles by Thomas, not the X-and-O creations of subpar playcaller Mike O'Cain. The Hokies and Wolverines shied away from prosperity; the Hokies couldn't finish drives, while the Wolverines – once they gained a 17-6 lead – immediately started to shrivel before bucking up in the final minutes.

The point of this extended critique is not to say that Virginia Tech and Michigan were unworthy of the BCS… that argument was made in early December after the 35 bowl matchups were announced. The most important big-picture reality provided by the 2012 Sugar Bowl is that Virginia Tech and Michigan were not elite teams in the larger landscape of the sport. This, despite 11 wins apiece; this, despite brand-name identities and annual expectations of excellence.

Make no mistake, Michigan achieved at a level not thought possible by most pundits (including this one) before the start of the season. Brady Hoke was a home-run hire on day one, and his quality as a coach – already stratospheric – is only going to get better in the coming years, as he locks horns with Urban Meyer on the field and the recruiting trail. Michigan fans should be ecstatic with the present and future tense of their program; a Sugar Bowl championship is more than any UM diehard could have realistically imagined back on Labor Day weekend. However, that (like the BCS conversation surrounding the Sugar Bowl…) is best left for another day. The bigger truth to pound home is that Michigan – for all its overachieving, true-believing, unceasing game-thieving – is still a hollow 11-win team. The Wolverines made it through 13 games without playing Big Ten champion Wisconsin or any other top 10 team. In a down year for the Big Ten – with Ohio State in shambles and Nebraska in worse shape than it was in its last Big 12 go-rounds – Michigan took advantage, but that's precisely the point: The Wolverines' 13-game body of work didn't tell us all that much about the Maize and Blue.

The same is true for Virginia Tech. The Hokies' only two top-15 opponents – No. 15 Clemson and No. 13 (soon to be higher when the bowls end) Michigan – won three games in three tries against Frank Beamer and Company. Virginia Tech did try to schedule Auburn – let that be noted for the record – but it's still worth saying that the Hokies' 11-3 record in 2011 represents a lot of empty calories. One could similarly say that South Carolina's 11-2 mark – with a decisive loss to Arkansas in the Gamecocks' only matchup against a top-10 team – is similarly thin gruel. Houston went 13-1 but scored only two particularly impressive wins (against Tulsa and Penn State). Let's be willing to call a spade a spade: Virginia Tech and Michigan did not get tested on a regular basis in 2011… not by the best. Fittingly, the two schools played a game which affirmed their flaws and deepened the mysterious nature of their identities.

Long story short, a college football season – being so achingly brief – is supposed to pack a lot of meaning into 12 games (13 if a conference championship game is part of the mix). The fact that Virginia Tech and Michigan were so rarely challenged before the Sugar Bowl – which then exposed so many of their flaws – shows why college football needs to incorporate mandated, standardized scheduling into its regular seasons. This is why the Big Ten-Pac-12 agreement is such a good thing for college sports as a whole. Let's hope that as a result of scheduling reform across college football, the Virginia Techs and Michigans of the world won't hide behind 11 largely deceptive wins in the future.