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August 30, 2010
Rodriguez knows there are no guarantees
"A lot of coaches say they ignore it," he says. "You can either get upset, laugh at it. I don't think much of it."
How many wins does Rodriguez need to ensure his return for a fourth season? No one is saying. But it's safe to assume a losing record would spell doom for Rodriguez, and a 6-6 record also may be fatal. But is a 7-5 or 8-4 record good enough, especially if it includes a win over Michigan State or Ohio State -- teams Rodriguez has yet to beat in his two seasons in Ann Arbor? A 9-3 record or better almost certainly would mean Rodriguez returns.
But, again, who knows?
Actually, one person who doesn't buy into the "Rodriguez is on the hot seat" talk is his boss.
"Forget all of this hot-seat nonsense," says Michigan athletic director David Brandon, in his first year on the job. "All I want to see is a team that's on the move and improving. And that's what Rich needs to see and that's what our fans need to see, and that is what we are looking for this season."
Will the Wolverines improve? The prognostications for Michigan vary, but most feel the Wolverines are a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team with a legitimate chance for a bowl bid. After showing signs of life last season with two true freshman quarterbacks, the offense looks as if it will be fine. There is ample skill-position talent and finally quality depth along the line.
The quarterback battle has received most of the preseason attention. Tate Forcier is the returning starter, but fellow sophomore Denard Robinson is pressing him for the starting job. Forcier's offseason work habits drew criticism from some teammates, and Robinson -- though somewhat raw as a passer -- is a better athlete and faster than Forcier, key elements in the spread-option offense that Rodriguez prefers.
Still, while there is a battle at quarterback, the offense is going to be fine. But the defense is a different story. In a word, the unit has been atrocious under Rodriguez and remains a work in progress.
The unit's best player last season was senior end Brandon Graham. In an unexpected development, junior cornerback Donovan Warren -- who was being counted on to lead the secondary this fall -- turned pro a year early (and wasn't drafted). Then, last week, senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk, one of the most experienced players on defense, suffered a dislocated ankle and will miss the season, leaving behind a bunch of untested youngsters in the secondary.
The defense has some promise, but doubters remain -- and the Wolverines figure to go only as far as the defense takes them.
"We have to play better defensively," Rodriguez says. "I would suspect we would just because we are going to have players in that talent pool that will be able to play. Our numbers are down as far as the number of guys we think are ready to play. I think we'll have more guys ready to play, so if we get some guys banged up it shouldn't be as tough for us."
Michigan's defensive struggles the past two seasons have been epic. Some ugly details:
The defense ranked ninth in the Big Ten in each of the past two seasons, yielding 366.9 yards per game in 2008 and 393.3 in 2009.
Last season, Michigan allowed at least 35 points in four games in a row for the first time ever.
Stopping the run has been problematic. Michigan was sixth in the Big Ten in 2008 (136.9 ypg) and fell to 10th in '09 (171.9 ypg).
To help stop the bleeding, Rodriguez has tweaked his defense, installing a 3-3-5 alignment he used at West Virginia. It won't be Michigan's base scheme, but it will be used often.
"It isn't exactly what we did at West Virginia and we aren't doing exactly what we did last year," Rodriguez says. "It is a little bit of a mix of what [coordinator] Greg Robinson has done in the past and what we did last year in trying to fit the personnel that we have.
"It sounds like we added more, but in reality we made things simpler. That was one of my goals. We wanted to get simpler defensively so we could play more people."
Fortifying the defense isn't the only key to success in 2010. Michigan also must reduce turnovers. The Wolverines gave away the ball 30 times in 2008 (10th in the Big Ten) and 28 in 2009 (eighth).
"We made progress last year, but the problem was we had so many dang turnovers toward the end of the year," Rodriguez says. "We had too many turnovers and negative-yardage plays. Hopefully we'll get better."
With the offensive culture being gutted, a transition period was expected under Rodriguez. But few could have envisioned such a bottoming out, and a lack of talent has been an issue. Michigan has had just five players drafted in the past two years, the lowest two-year total since 1985-86.
"The truth is Lloyd [Carr] didn't recruit well nor did his staff the last several years they were there," says Bill Dufek, a Michigan All-America offensive tackle in 1976 who is a successful State Farm Insurance agent in Ann Arbor. "They got complacent. Lloyd didn't make house visits, and it showed. I don't know what he was doing, but the proof is in the players that were left here."
Rodriguez is making strides to improve the talent level. His 2010 recruiting class ranked No. 20, while his 2009 haul was No. 8 and his 2008 class was No. 10.
"I came in a little blind in what we had at certain positions," Rodriguez says. "We've had a couple of years to see what we got, see what we have to recruit and where we need to build. Two years is a lot more than one year, but it's not like five years.
"We'll see. I think the fans will like our team and I think they will have fun watching us."
No doubt, Brandon will be watching. He's a Michigan man and former Domino's pizza exec who is possessed with making Michigan, well, Michigan again. Brandon, who played for Bo Schembechler in the early 1970s, didn't hire Rodriguez. That was Bill Martin, the man Brandon replaced. So, Brandon has no reason to be overly loyal to a coach who is 8-16 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten.
While that record is ugly enough, a looming NCAA probation may be even worse. Michigan loved to puff its chest and boast that its football program never had been on probation. That distinction now has been erased on Rodriguez's watch, perhaps the most egregious mark against him.
The NCAA has accused Michigan of five major rules violations related to practices and workouts. The school admitted to guilt in four of the violations, but challenges the allegation that Rodriguez failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance. The school enacted its own punishments, which include two years of probation, reduced practice hours and a cut in its quality control staff.
"I am very disappointed, as all Michigan fans are, to be in a position where we are investigated and found guilty of violations," Brandon says. "That's disappointing and not something that we want to be about. But it happened, and we have been open and honest about admitting where we made mistakes."
Still, the NCAA hasn't had its say. To that end, Michigan met with the NCAA earlier this month in Seattle to respond to the charges. Michigan probably will have to wait six to eight weeks to hear the NCAA's verdict.
In the meantime, Rodriguez forges ahead.
"Our expectations and goals every year are to compete for a Big Ten championship," he says. "The first year may have been tougher because there was such a transition -- not just transition in schemes but transition in that you had guys playing for the first time in their careers.
"Last year, defensively, we didn't play as well and we had too many turnovers on offense, so we really didn't give ourselves a chance. If we can play better and have a little luck -- because there always is luck involved -- we could be in the mix. Our players and coaches expect that."