July 25, 2010

First glance 2010: Michigan

There is no questioning that the Michigan football team is one of the powerhouses in the Big Ten. It has one of the more storied histories in all of college football and plays in one the largest stadiums in the country.

But the last few seasons the Wolverines haven't been on par with where the program is expected to be.

Last season in head coach Rich Rodriguez's second season, the Wolverines got off to a quick 4-0 start and it looked as if they could have been a wildcard in the Big Ten race.

However, after winning its first conference game, Michigan finished the season with a 1-7 clip and came up short in all remaining Big Ten games. The Wolverines finished with a 5-7 record, but their 7-1 record in the Big Ten put them tied for last in the conference with Indiana.

Now, it is a make or break season for Rodriguez, who is now entering his third year as the head coach of the program. Michigan has just experienced their first back-to-back losing seasons since the early 1960s.

Many feel the benchmark for improvement for the Wolverines this season is getting to a bowl game or Rodriguez could be on the hot seat.

Michigan does have some weapons this season and are in the third year of the conversion to the spread offense, but time will tell if that will translate into more success in a Big Ten Conference that is only improving.

Michigan has options at quarterback

Some would argue that the quarterback-by-committee philosophy does nothing but hinder an offense, but Michigan went that route last season with Tate Forcier being relieved at times by Denard Robinson.

It was certainly an improvement from Rodriguez's first season at Michigan when he had Steve Threet and Nick Sheridan rotating at quarterback, and that was evident in the numbers.

Michigan found success under their offensive-minded head coach, scoring 29.5 points per game, which was good enough for third best in the Big Ten behind only Michigan State and Wisconsin.

However, inexperience in both Forcier and Robinson was obvious. Costly turnovers and mental errors by their signal callers helped hinder Michigan from getting in the win column down the stretch of the season.

While many expect Forcier to remain as the starter in 2010, he will have completion from Robinson and freshman Devin Gardner, who has great size, speed, and has shown strength in his arm.

It is unclear what Michigan's quarterback situation will look like, but a rotation of some sorts isn't out of the realm of possibility, especially given all quarterbacks on the roster have different strengths and weaknesses.

Michigan switches 3-3-5

While Michigan made strides on offense under Rodriguez in his second year last season, the Wolverines had some issues on the defensive side of the ball, to say the least.

Michigan allowed roughly 172 yards per game on the ground last season, second worst in the Big Ten behind only Purdue, and gave up a total of 393 yards per game. The result? Their opponents put up 27.5 points per game up on them, an average that was weighed down by opponents Delaware State and Western Michigan.

Though Michigan finally has their defensive coordinator in Greg Robinson sticking around for a second year after switching that staff position in each of the previous three seasons, Michigan is undergoing a significant defensive switch in 2010.

They will play the 3-3-5 defense.

Last year Michigan used safety Stevie Brown as somewhat of a linebacker hybrid, but the Wolverines have permanently installed a defense that has three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs.

While this scheme allows Michigan to use its quickness and athleticism as their best strength on defense, the defensive line will have to continue to impose its will on opposing offensive lines, which could be tough without standout defensive end Brandon Graham, now in the NFL.

However, Michigan's coaching staff is confident in the switch and believes it could be the answer to some of its defensive questions heading into this season.

Mesko lives big shoes to be filled

Kickers and punters don't usually draw much star power, but their significance on a team is unquestionable. Just ask Rodriguez.

Michigan will say goodbye to standout punter Zoltan Mesko, who averaged 44.5 yards per punt last year and could be considered the best punter to ever play for the Wolverines.

This season Michigan will give those duties to freshman punter Will Hagerup, who was specifically recruited out of Wisconsin to come in and replace Mesko. Michigan also has to find a replacement at field goal kicker after losing Jason Olesnavage.

For a team that's likely to be involved in some close games this season, those two losses could end up being a pretty big blow.

Final analysis

It is hard to believe the Wolverines won't take that next step under Rodriguez. Michigan got off to a quick 4-0 start last year, looking as if that step was already happening, but losing seven of their final eight games didn't help Michigan's cause.

Michigan has a non-conference schedule again that could pose some issues with opponents like Connecticut and Notre Dame, but it is in the Big Ten where the improvement must be shown.

The chips are all on the table for Rodriguez, who is seemingly coaching to keep his job this year. With team going 8-16 in his first two seasons and the program under NCAA probation for the first time ever, Rodriguez needs to ease the Wolverine fans' pain with some wins.

The common prediction for the Wolverines seems to be four wins in the Big Ten and potential trip to a bowl game. They improved by two wins last year, doing that again should be enough for Michigan to reach that bowl game. And that is a fair prediction for what could happen.

Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.

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