While Big Ten expansion talk continues to dominate the media focus, the conference needs to look in the mirror first.
On paper the Big Ten, especially last year, looks sufficient enough, but certain teams are needed to succeed in order to reenter the conference into respectful conversations. The most important of those teams being the University of Michigan.
As much as many have enjoyed their epic collapse, myself included, the Big Ten and many of the conference's participants are helped when the Wolverines are on top of their game. With their only competitive rivalry being against a weak independent Notre Dame team of late, the Big Ten has lost their late season aura.
Ohio State needs Michigan competitive to help that rivalry remain prestigious. Even if the time comes to add a conference championship, the game could have even more impact in keeping the Big Ten in the news for actual sporting events. Plus at the end of the season that extra bonus of facing a tough opponent outweighs the risks of an upset to a lowly team.
In addition to the Buckeyes, most other schools hate Michigan in the Big Ten and beyond. Unfortunately it becomes difficult to scorn a team deemed irrelevant. Even Michigan State suffers when Michigan struggles. What once was a prized win, especially in poor seasons, becomes a nice win, but littered by extra excuses from the Wolverines.
With the official announcement of self-inflicted probation, less practice time, less assistant help and perhaps more if the NCAA chooses, it's only the beginning of a list of issues UM must overcome.
Three years into Rich Rodriguez's tenure he still lacks confidence in choosing a QB.
Michigan has been last in turnover margin in the Big Ten the past two years.
The defense gave up 393.3 yards and 27.5 points per game last season. And that was with first round NFL draft pick Brandon Graham on the roster.
So what can be done to make Michigan relevant again? Obviously, the key is to win, but how do they get to that point?
First, stick with a quarterback. It doesn't matter if it's Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson, or Devin Gardner, but allow one to develop and actually play. Nothing says desperation and poor coaching than a two-QB system in college. Rarely will it work and often times shows coaches not willing to adjust to the player who gives them the best chance to succeed.
Next, teach the fundamentals. It's been long enough to worry about implementing the spread offense. The players know it now or they never will. Get back to the basics of football with sure tackling, ball handling, and smart decision making. A QB with mediocre talent can overcome a lot by just taking care of the ball, not making impossible throws, and choosing the correct time to run or pitch.
Along the lines of fundamentals, win special teams battles. With Zoltan Mesko gone, Michigan cannot afford a drop off in their punting game. They must also maintain their return game, one of their few brights spots last year. If these areas are forgotten, it could mean more pressure on an offense and defense that already has a lot.
Speaking of pressure, an offense that can only maintain 26:25 in the time of possession category adds a lot of weight to the defense's shoulders. While the defense gave up plenty of big plays, failing to get too much pressure on a QB or stopping the run, it wasn't the only reason they were on the field all game. If the offense cannot maintain possession, it's only a matter of time before a defense breaks, especially against the run.
This leads us to what the game is really all about, points on the board. Michigan's red zone offense was abysmal last season with a 66.7 percent conversion rate, seven failures of which were fumbles or interceptions. If you get close and still can't convert for even three points, you won't win many games.
If the team can come up with confidence plays that they can consistently run in the red zone, it can only help. Even if it means a rare power running package or special spread option, make it your go to play. Once teams are forced to adjust, than you make your coaching moves and expand from there.
Rich Rod may only have one year to get it right and with another failing year the Wolverines may be set back another three years. A return to a traditional style offense would reverse the recruiting of the past few years and dig a deeper hole. If expansion occurs with Michigan at the bottom of the pit, who knows what impact that could have on everyone involved.