Michigan Football: Is Coach Rod the answer

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Michigan Football: Is Coach Rod the answer
from Detroit News / Angelique Chengelis
http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080708/SPORTS0201/807080341/1004/SPORTS

Is Rodriguez the answer?

10 questions for the upcoming season
Angelique S. Chengelis / The Detroit News
The Fourth of July weekend has passed. What's the next holiday?

The several-week-long holiday known as College Football Season Is Coming Soon has kicked into gear. Yeah, yeah, baseball is being played, the Olympics are just around the corner, NASCAR is hitting its stride, golf is preparing for the British Open and tennis takes a Grand Slam break until the U.S. Open, but what keeps you going is the anticipation of college football.

College football preview magazines will get you through the dog days of summer ... OK, so they're written in February, but at least they give you issues to ponder. Other than that, it's snippets of information like start times for early season games and recruiting updates.

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So while we're talking college football, here are 10 questions about Michigan to mull over as August camp nears:

1. Is Michigan ready for the Rich Rodriguez era?

Well, ready or not, it's here. The decades-long baton passing from Bo Schembechler to Gary Moeller to Lloyd Carr is over, and there's a new guy in town, just as Schembechler was in 1969. Transitions take time, but Rodriguez is not a patient man -- he has said on more than one occasion he likes winning too much. And it appears that things, like the newfangled approach to conditioning, are on the fast track at Michigan.

2. Is Mike Barwis the real deal?

Barwis is the new strength and conditioning coach and is, as Rodriguez has joked, attached at the hip with Rodriguez. Rodriguez is all about the Xs and Os of his spread offense, but Barwis is the brawn and speed behind it. His enthusiasm about fitness is contagious, and the players, while they have jokingly complained about the amount of running (well, maybe they weren't joking), seem to have bought in to the system. Already they look leaner, and the goal is that by the fourth quarter, the Wolverines look as fresh as they did when they first ran onto the field.

3. What in the world will Michigan do at quarterback?

That's the biggie. The last decade and a half, the quarterbacks have been mostly a known commodity. There have been preseason controversies, but you pretty much had a feel for the direction of the position. Now, with Rodriguez's departure from Michigan's tradition pro-style offense to his spread, the dynamic has changed. Is anyone equipped to make that offense hum? Steven Threet is the odds-on favorite to win the starting job, but Nick Sheridan, a walk-on, is right there, and freshman Justin Feagin will get a shot.

4. Are there any difference-makers at running back?

With Mike Hart no longer in the Michigan backfield, the assumption is Brandon Minor will take the reins. Now that Kevin Grady is embroiled in legal issues following his arrest last week for driving under the influence, and his status with the team remains unknown, Carlos Brown should find himself in the spotlight more. Brown is the wild card in this offense. Rodriguez didn't mask his disappointment when Brown suffered an injury and missed spring practice. He likes Brown's versatility at tailback, receiver and quarterback. Meanwhile, freshman Sam McGuffie might have something to prove this fall.

5. What about the opener with Utah?

The Utes should not be taken lightly. No, that is not some vague reference to last year's opener against Appalachian State, but clearly, Rodriguez needs to keep this team focused for his debut. Utah will run the spread offense, and if quarterback Brian Johnson remains healthy (his right shoulder has been an issue and required surgery last February), he's expected to work wonders. The Utes' defense is limping a bit, having lost five starters, but the secondary -- Utah led the nation in pass efficiency defense last year -- is its strength.

6. Do miracles happen in Columbus?

Since Rodriguez is the first "new" coach at Michigan since Schembechler, many have drawn comparisons between the two men and their transitions to Ann Arbor. Michigan fans would love to see Rodriguez have a similar result to Schembechler in his first coaching experience against archrival Ohio State. In 1969, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 and riding a 22-game winning streak, when the Wolverines pulled the unforgettable upset at Michigan Stadium. Rodriguez has a slightly different task, considering the game is at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 22. The Buckeyes also have Heisman Trophy candidate tailback Beanie Wells and punishing linebacker James Laurinaitis. The countdown has begun.

7. What's a reasonable expectation for this season?

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit already has weighed in and believes the Wolverines will go 6-6. Has he checked out the Big Ten lately? Based on that alone, Michigan might sneak in another victory or two. It might take Michigan several games to find its offensive groove, so believing that the Wolverines' defense will be enough to keep them in games and assuming the team's overall conditioning will make them a factor through the fourth quarter, perhaps 7-5 or 8-4 predictions are in order. Then again, some of us (who, me?) thought Michigan would lose only one game last year.

8. Which games have been circled as must-wins?

Ask the Wolverines and the coaches, and of course they will say all of them. Starting off with a victory against Utah has to be the focus. There's no doubt the players are looking forward to playing at Notre Dame. You can bet they've heard the quote from Charlie Weis a few times -- the one in which he says, speaking to fans, "To hell with Michigan." Other highlights of the schedule are at Penn State, against Michigan State at Michigan Stadium, and, of course, against Ohio State in Columbus. One game Michigan definitely should not overlook -- at home against Illinois on Oct. 4.

9. The offense is young and inexperienced, so what's the strength of the team?

Defense, defense, defense, and there's nothing wrong with that. Four starters return to the defensive line, the two starting corners are back, but safety and linebacker have taken a few hits. Still, the defense will be relied upon to keep the Wolverines in games, particularly early in the season.

10. Aren't there more questions?

Of course. Can Michigan avoid the injury bug? (Remember the impact of the injuries to Chad Henne and Hart last season?) Which freshmen will make immediate impacts? (Any listed as offensive linemen, receiver Darryl Stonum and McGuffie, to name a few.) How's that road uniform going to look? (Who cares?) The bottom line is there are a lot of questions yet to be answered, but it sure is fun knowing we're going to get some answers soon. Now enjoy those College Football Season Is Coming Soon fireworks and don't indulge in too many hot dogs and baked beans.
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