For Michigan fans, the good news is that the infamous, brutal, and humiliating 2008 season is over. More good news: Rich Rodriguez's teams have a history of bouncing back in his second season at the helm.
The bad news is that more patience is going to be required before the Wolverines are again a top 10 or even a top 25 team.
At West Virginia, his team went from 3-8 his first year to 9-4, but I wouldn't realistically expect Michigan to do much better than 7-5 this year, especially with a freshman QB at the helm without a single college game under his belt.
However, at least the new QB will be one whose talents fit well with RichRod's spread offense, and the offense should click better than it did last year, when three-and-out was the Wolverine offensive mantra.
In 2009, five games stand out as tests for a young team that will be looking to bounce back from the worst record and the most points allowed in 129 years of Michigan football. This year Michigan only has to face four opponents on the road, but that's little consolation—they were 2-5 at HOME last year.
The season breaks down like this.
1. September features three nonconference games vs. Western Michigan, Notre Dame, and Eastern Michigan, followed by a homecoming contest against Indiana.
2. The Wolverines then face a tough October that includes road contests against Big Ten foes Michigan State and Iowa, a home game against Div. I-AA foe Delaware State, then Penn State at home and Illinois on the road.
3. The season ends with three tough games in November—at home vs. Purdue, at Wisconsin, and back home against the Buckeyes.
Sept. 5 vs. Western Michigan
The first key test comes in the first game of the year, where Michigan has stumbled badly in recent years, even at home against lesser foes. Since they will be breaking in a new freshman QB, it will be even more of a measure of how good they are. The defensive line will need rebuilding, and it will be interesting to see how the new defensive coordinator compares with last year's porous D.
Don't overlook the Broncos, who are coming off a 9-4 season and would love to knock off their big intrastate cousins in the Big House.
Sept. 12 vs. Notre Dame
This game usually provides an early litmus test for both teams. Coming early in the season, it can often make or break one team or the other for at least half the year. Both teams are coming off declining fortunes and looking to get back near the top of the heap. Last year's disastrous loss to the Irish was due in large part to Michigan miscues and fumbled kicks in the game's first five minutes.
How they play and who wins could go a long way toward making this a successful season for UM.
Oct. 3 at Michigan State
Their first road game comes against their bitter in-state rival Spartans, who looked like Michigan's big brothers in last year's defeat in Ann Arbor. The national media often overlooks this game, but MSU really hates Michigan and would love to start hanging W's on the Wolverines' scalps. First road game marks a big test for their frosh QB and their entire team, which will still be very young.
Oct. 24 vs. Penn State
Michigan had Penn State's number for nine straight years until the Nittany Lions finally beat Michigan last year. Then again, who didn't beat Michigan last year? Joe Pa's Nittany Lions should contend for the Big Ten crown again this year, so this will be a big test to see how the maturing Wolverines handle a top opponent.
Nov. 21 vs. Ohio State
I hesitate to even include this among the tests Michigan will face in 2009. Unless they really surprise me, I don't think they have a realistic chance to beat OSU, but the real test will be in how close they can keep the score and how hard they play against a hated rival that has come to dominate them in recent years, and who demolished them 42-7 last year.