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Thursday, July 21, 2011
Why Brady Hoke needs to win in Year 1

By Adam Rittenberg

The first six months of the Brady Hoke era have been overwhelmingly positive.

Hoke's message has resonated with current players, former players, Michigan alumni and fans and, perhaps most dramatically, prospective recruits. The locker room doesn't appear to have splintered, while a supposedly splintered fan base seems to be rallying behind Hoke and the new staff. While some Michigan fans likely would have welcomed any change after the past three seasons, Hoke deserves credit for creating much of the mojo.

Hoke's most significant accomplishment so far is a 2012 recruiting class that already features 20 commits and is rated among the nation's best.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke
The Wolverines and their alumni have rallied around new coach Brady Hoke.
"I couldn't be more pleased what we've seen thus far," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon recently told ESPN.com. "Our 2012 class is going to be special. Clearly, the optimism and the excitement is something we all feel."

It should be pointed out, though, that the first six months of the Hoke era have featured zero games that count.

If things go badly on the field in September, the good vibes surrounding Hoke will begin to fade. Hoke and his staff face some significant challenges with the current roster, particularly as they implement new systems on both sides of the ball.

Brandon senses Michigan fans are excited about coaching staff "committed to change and is going to build a program the Michigan way." But he also acknowledges the hurdles Hoke faces.

"We're a program that needs to be turned around," Brandon said. "Brady doesn't have all the right players in the right places to do the things he's going to want to do to be successful. That's one of the reasons why the recruiting trail is such an important aspect of what we're doing."

The next question, the one Brandon constantly faces, is, how long will it take to get Michigan back to elite status?

"Everybody always wants to know wins and losses and 'How are they gonna be?'" Brandon said. "I've been around this game long enough to know that's a dangerous trap. So much depends on injuries. We're implementing a new system, so how fast can our players adapt to a completely new system on both sides of the ball? How big of a step-change improvement will you see among some of those young players who really struggled last year?

"There's just too many unknowns to quantify how we're going to be on the field this year."

Brandon will be patient with Hoke. He hired Hoke, after all. And Michigan doesn't want to start shuffling through coaches every few seasons.

But there's a need to show significant progress in Year 1. Here's why: the schedule in Year 2. It's brutal.

The Wolverines open with a neutral-site game against Alabama and make trips to Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. Although they avoid crossover games against both Wisconsin and Penn State, they host recent nemesis Michigan State as well as Iowa, Northwestern and Illinois.

If Michigan doesn't make a big jump this fall, it could have a tough time doing so in 2012. The Wolverines could be a better team, a more well-adjusted team, and not have the record to show for it.

Two middling seasons would mean two more years of Michigan lingering outside the upper crust. Questions about whether or not Hoke can restore Michigan among the Big Ten's elite likely would surface.

So while it seems unfair to expect Michigan to win a Legends division title this season, Hoke needs a strong start. The league race is wide open, archrival Ohio State could be backsliding and the schedule isn't overly daunting.

Michigan has an opportunity in 2011, and a big statement from Hoke would go a long way toward maintaining the mojo before a daunting slate in Year 2.