The natives are already getting restless in Ann Arbor after a horrid 2008 season, but management and Rich Rodriguez can't stress enough the importance of patience.
For many reasonable fans, the only thing keeping them from writing a formal request for Rodriguez's head is the fact that Rich was able to make an enormous turn around in West Virginia following a season that produced a very familiar stench.
After posting a 3-8 record in his first season with West Virginia, Rich's system started to roll in 2002, finishing second in the Big East and making an oh-so important bowl appearance. While the rebuilding process looks like it could take a little longer in Michigan, a strong start in their non-conference schedule is essential if Rich wants to keep the forming crowd guiding him towards the guillotine at bay.
Michigan fans don't need to be reminded that these non-conference games need to be taken very seriously. After two straight seasons of extremely disappointing non-conference performances, nothing less than a winning record from this fraction of their schedule will be acceptable from Rodriguez’s Wolverines.
Let's take a closer look at Michigan's first three non-conference games for 2009 and see how Rodriguez may be able to pacify fans with a few early wins, on the field and more importantly, in the standings.
Week 1: Western Michigan
The season opener versus the Broncos should set the tone on just how much progress is occurring in the new system.
On the defensive side of the ball, Western Michigan is only returning one starter and is a nice way to ease in whomever Rodriguez taps on the shoulder to start at quarterback. An especially weak secondary should give either Tate Forcier or Nick Sheridan more than enough time to make the quick and improvisation-type reads necessary in this up-beat offense.
The Michigan secondary, on the other hand, should be handily tested against a passing offense that ranked 11th in the FBS last year and is returning eight starters.
Tim Hiller threw for 3,725 yards for the Broncos in 2008 and posted 36 TD's in the process, which isn’t great news considering Michigan’s pass defense was their biggest defensive weakness last year. This season’s young secondary will have to show quicker maturation and be able to show an immediate impact in order to keep Michigan afloat.
If they allow Hiller to pick them apart and the Michigan offense struggles out of the gate, it could spell out an opening day disaster.
Michigan 28, Western Michigan 21 - Both the passing and running game will have decent performances against the anemic defense that Western Michigan is slated to put on the field. This should build the much-needed confidence this squad needs to keep the faithful content…for at least one weekend. Their defense could look a little shaky early but expect them to lock it up despite giving up a few deep scores.
Week 2: Notre Dame
This year’s version of what is always their most anticipated non-conference game pits two storied franchises trying to scratch and claw their way back into the spotlight. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, their fall last season was so epic that they find themselves a few rungs below the Irish on the ladder back to the top.
The Wolverines secondary will once again be pushed to their limits by an offense that has the potential of a lit powder keg.
Jimmy Clausen, accompanied with big-play receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, should expose any holes that Western Michigan failed to unveil in Week One. But with the inefficiencies that the Irish have in the running game, the Wolverines may be able to compensate by dropping back more players into coverage or getting creative with blitz packages. This may be enough to slow down and frustrate this often-overrated passing game.
Although Notre Dame’s defense ranked in the top 50 in rushing, passing, scoring, and total defense in 2008, they are only getting back five starters and their front line appears to be their Achilles heel. This provides a great opportunity for Brandon Minor to put up big numbers and prove that he can be a reliable back.
The Irish’s secondary showed decent depth through last year though and should be more efficient at shutting down the Wolverine receivers. The decision-making process of the chosen quarterback should be put through a daunting test.
Expect Irish defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta to blitz early and often to make up for this lack of experienced talent up front. The constantly flushed pocket should test the elected QB to successfully throw on the run, an extremely huge asset in the Rodriguez offense.
If the quarterback can come out of this game with minor statistical blemishes, offensive progression should be evident for yet another week.
Notre Dame 17, Michigan 14 – No one really expects the Wolverines to win this game, but never count the Blue and Maize out when these two teams meet. The defense will need to keep this game close if Michigan has any hope of being victorious. If they let Clausen light up the scoreboard, there is no way Michigan can keep up. Even if their offense fails to impress against a somewhat “green” Irish defense, a loss in a close game will be a huge moral victory for Rodriguez and his team, which could provide an extra boost when it comes time to play the big guns of the Big Ten.
Week 3: Eastern Michigan
Another “cupcake” team marches into the Big House in Week Three and if all goes to plan, the offense will be feeling extremely comfortable and a good whopping should be in order.
Eastern Michigan’s woes on defense reached an inner ring of hell in 2008, ranking 103rd in Rushing Defense and 109th in Scoring Defense. While they do bring back eight starters and have installed the defensive noggin of Ron English as head coach, it may take more than three games for the Eagles defense to start seeing any drastic improvements.
The Michigan offense gets to once again face a questionable defense and their defense once again could have their hands full with the Eastern Michigan offense. The Eagles offense returns seven starters from an offense that averaged 269.3 passing yards/game, which landed them in the FBS Top 20. The silver lining for the Wolverines defense is English plans on running a pro-style offense, which may not be in these players' repertoire.
Michigan 36, Eastern Michigan 7 – A confident offense and a tested, matured defense should take control of this game providing Michigan with even more steam as they head into conference play. A 2-1 record with the potential of continuing the winning trend against a weak Indiana team isn’t a terrible or improbable way for Rodriguez to start his second season under the Michigan Football microscope.
An October 17 matchup versus Delaware State rounds out the Wolverine’s non-conference schedule and should be a welcome opponent after having games in Michigan State and Iowa the two weeks before. A 3-1 record outside of the conference and a winning overall record after seven games could be just what Rodriquez needs to create pre-mature bowl bid whisperings in Ann Arbor’s whipping winds.