The state of Michigan football is crystallized by the perception that Brady Hoke is on the hot seat entering his fourth season as coach of the Wolverines.
Athletic director Dave Brandon has denied such an idea for months, and his weariness with the topic is why his face looked like his car wouldn't start on a cold winter morning when asked about Hoke's status at the Big Ten media days in July.
"Brady Hoke is the Michigan football coach, and he's going to be here for a long time," Brandon said. "He's doing a great job of putting the pieces in place. ... We're going to keep building. We're going to keep recruiting the way Brady has been recruiting. I think he's got a great staff around him. The future looks great for Michigan football."
The recent past, however, is why Hoke's long-term status is questioned as the Wolverines enter their season opener on Saturday at home against Appalachian State in a rematch of the Mountaineers' monumental 2007 upset.Hoke has a 15-11 record the past two years after his 11-2 inaugural season of 2011 was capped by a Sugar Bowl win that seemingly eradicated the three-year blight of his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez.
Although not as bad as RichRod's 15-22 record, the downturn in Hoke's tenure has cranked up speculation about his future, especially in light of last year's 7-6 season, which ended with yet another defeat to Ohio State and a tepid loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
If losing to OSU for the 11th time in 13 years wasn't bad enough, the Wolverines also fell to Michigan State for the fifth time in six years and watched the rival Spartans win the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl.
Now with his team unranked, Hoke brushes aside any suggestion that he needs a big season to solidify his future in Ann Arbor.
"It's not personal, believe me. Nothing is personal," Hoke said at the Big Ten media days. "It's about Michigan. It's about the program, and it's about the kids in the program. I don't speculate about those things. I don't worry about those things. I just worry about the 115 kids."
Those players at Michigan are determined to squelch the speculation surrounding their coach.
"Everybody is going to say whatever they want to say," fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner said. "My job is to make sure he's not on the hot seat, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to make sure we win football games."
In order to do so, the Wolverines must improve their consistency overall and production on offense, where they ranked No. 86 in the nation last season (totaling less than 200 yards in three games) with horrendous line play.
Hoke responded at season's end by firing his friend Al Borges as offensive coordinator in January. He was replaced by Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama when Michigan gave him a reported three-year, $2.57 million contract.
Nussmeier inherits an offense that was 102nd nationally in rushing, with an average of 125.7 yards per game. The Wolverines ran for minus-69 yards in consecutive losses to Michigan State and Nebraska. They allowed the nation's most tackles for loss (114), including 36 sacks.
Michigan's defense wasn't exactly stellar, either. The Wolverines allowed 26.8 points per game (ranking eighth in the Big Ten). They allowed Ohio State to score 42 and gain 526 yards in a one-point loss.
That game harkened back to the 2006 regular-season finale when Michigan came to Columbus, Ohio, undefeated and ranked No. 2. The Wolverines lost 42-39 to top-ranked OSU, and they've gone 50-40 since that day, with at least four losses in six of the past seven seasons.
"It hasn't been the way we've wanted," Gardner said. "There have been a lot of ups and downs. I'm excited to enter this year with a fresh start, get a chance to make our first impression against Appalachian State, and move forward."
Time will tell if Hoke moves forward with the Wolverines, or moves on.
"We're not satisfied with anything," Hoke said, "but I've never worried about what other people think, in anything I've done."
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