Breaking Down The Big Ten, Part Five: The Michigan Wolverines

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Breaking Down The Big Ten, Part Five: The Michigan Wolverines

This is the make or break year for coach Rich Rodriguez.

His first season saw Michigan go 3-9. This was certainly not what fans wanted, but given the seismic shift from former Coach Lloyd Carr's style, it couldn't have been too surprising.

However, last season's 5-7 was a considerable letdown. Not that Wolverine fans were demanding the Rose Bowl, but bowl eligibility had to be expected.

Moreover, the way they went 5-7 was somewhat disheartening.

Michigan began the season going 4-0 including a come-from-behind, closing seconds victory over rival Notre Dame.

After the Irish victory, Michigan rose to No. 22 in the rankings and expectations were high.

Nevertheless, the Wolverines wouldn't win another game against FBS competition in 2009. They proceeded to lose to Michigan State and Iowa, then they routed FCS Delaware State before losing all five of their remaining games.

This included a 13-38 loss to hapless 3-9 Illinois, a win that would have secured them a bowl berth.

Going into the 2010, six wins and bowl eligibility might not be enough to save Rodriguez's job. I don't know what the minimum expectation is, but I'd expect it to be six wins and a win at Ohio Stateor seven, and maybe even eight wins.

The good news is the Wolverines finally have developed some continuity in terms of returning players, particularly on offense. They should have the players to win some games.

The bad news is the schedule is as vicious as almost any in the conference.

 

Offense

The Wolverines return just about every important piece of their fourth-ranked Big Ten offense.

They did lose a few players. Most notably, offensive linemen David Moosman and Mark Ortmann, receiver Greg Mathews, and their top two rushers, Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown.

Mathews is not a terribly notable loss, as then-redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree had become Michigan's go-to guy by the end of the season. Moreover, behind Roundtree are juniors Martavious Odoms, Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum.

None of them had garrish stats—Roundtree had both the most receptions and yards with 32 catches for 434 yards—but Rodriguez's offense doesn't call for a huge amount of passing.

In fact, it could be argued that the most important facet of the game for a Rich Rodriguez-coached receiver is downfield blocking.

In his 2005 Sugar Bowl year at West Virginia, the Mountaineers top receiver was Brandon Myles with 34 catches for 536 yards.

Rodriguez wants to run and run a lot, and in this respect, his offense has not done what Michigan fans would have liked.

On the aforementioned West Virginia team, his running back, Steve Slaton, had almost 1,200 yards while his quarterback, Pat White, had over 950.

Meanwhile, under Rodriguez the Wolverines have yet to have a 1,000-yard rusher.

Their top rusher last year, Brandon Minor, had 502 yards. He was also the top rusher in 2008 when he had 533 yards. He was dinged up for much of 2009, but the Wolverines have not been moving the ball the way Rich Rod needs to.

Moving into 2010, there does not appear to be a clear-cut No. 1 at running back. Furthermore, if the spring game is any indication, it will be a running back by committee.

The candidates are junior Michael Shaw, sophomore Michael Cox, redshirt freshman Fitz Toussaint, and true freshman Stephen Hopkins.

Vincent Smith, who played as a true freshman last year, looked to be the guy heading into 2010, but he tore his ACL in the Ohio State game, and his status is doubtful.

As for the guys up front, the o-line was decimated by injuries last year. Over the course of last season, they started nine different players, five of whom are on the 2010 roster. In effect, there is plenty of returning experience.

As of the spring game, the projected line, from left to right, looks as follows: Sophomore Taylor Lewan, senior Stephan Schilling, junior David Molk, sophomore Patrick Omameh, and junior Marc Huyge.

Whoever starts should be effective provided they remain healthy and can develop some continuity.

However, the big question for Michigan fans is who will start at quarterback: Returning starter Tate Forcier or Pat White-clone Denard Robinson, both of whom are sophomores.

It might also be worth mentioning uber-recruit and early-enrollee Devin Gardner. It seems unlikely Rodriguez would put his team in the hands of true freshman again, but one never knows.

Obviously, in terms of experience, Forcier has the upper hand. However, the internet has been ablaze with talk of Robinson supplanting Forcier.

At the very least, in the spring game, Robinson played with the first team and outplayed Forcier.

In the end, they are both very different quarterbacks, with Robinson more of a prototypical Rodriguez signal-caller (again, see Pat White), but Forcier being the better passer and having more of an upside.

The question is, does that upside serve Rodriguez? As previously noted, his offense is a run-first offense, and his quarterback is required to serve that purpose.

Rich Rod ideally wants a great athlete and scrambler at quarterback who is an adequate passer. He wants somebody that can make things happen with his feet when the play breaks down. That is, or could be, Denard Robinson.

On the other hand, Forcier, while an able scrambler, is not exceptional. His greatest asset is his uncanny ability to keep his eyes downfield and make plays with his arm when the play breaks down.

In the end, somebody will be named the starter. I don't see the platoon system going on for too long, as that almost never works.

Overall, I expect the offense to be more productive this year, but they were productive last year. The key difference will be they will be much more responsible with the football.

Last year's team had the worst turnover margin in conference play at minus-1.62. With freshman quarterbacks and a constantly dinged-up offensive line, that was to be expected.

That will change this season.

Along with Wisconsin, expect Michigan to have one of the two most productive offenses in the conference.

 

Defense

As the Wolverines' defense heads into 2010, they are a story of good and bad.

The good: They return eight starters from last year's defense.

The bad: Last year's defense was fairly awful. They were eighth-ranked overall in Big Ten scoring defense and ranked last in conference play, where they gave up a glaring  33.2 points per game.

The good: They were very young last year. They started three sophomores and, at times, two freshmen. Those players had plenty of room to improve.

The bad: The only two truly good players on last year's defense—end and NFL first-round draft pick Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren—are both gone.

I used to think Rich Rod was incapable of putting together a good defense, but then I was summarily corrected.

The fact is, in his last year at West Virginia, his Mountaineers had a top-20 defense. The previous year they were a top-30 unit.

Yes, it was the Big East, but defense is defense.

So what is the problem now?

I think, as with so many elements of this Carr-to-Rodriguez transition, the current system is so different than the former system.

This is not Bo or Lloyd's Wolverines. It requires decidedly different players and has decidedly different expectations of those players.

In short, it is probably reasonable to expect a good deal of improvement from these young players.

However, with Warren, and especially Graham, gone, and given how much improvement is necessary, I doubt this will be a truly good defense. It can certainly be adequate, but I doubt it will be top-five-in-the-conference good.

On the other hand, if the offense is as productive as it should be, the defense won't have to be great.

 

Schedule

Rich Rodriguez couldn't have been on a burning hot seat in a worse year, as the Wolverines' schedule is brutal.

They start the year with a home game against UConn.

Many fans that aren't knowledgeable about football outside of the Big Ten are probably writing that game off, as the Huskies only became an FBS team in 2000. Furthermore, they only joined a BCS conference—the Big East—in 2004.

However, this year they are one of the favorites to win the conference, and the Wolverines should expect a very competitive Huskies squad.

Michigan follows that up travelling to rival Notre Dame for a game on which the entire nation will focus.

This is followed by games against FCS Massachusetts, and Bowling Green, who is a member of the Mid-American Conference.

The Wolverines start the conference slate fairly easily. They travel to Indiana before home games against in-state rival Michigan State and Iowa.

After this they get a bye week before travelling to Penn State, coming back home to play Illinois, at Purdue, Wisconsin at home, and then the big finish in Columbus against Ohio State.

I would go so far as to say that every game on the Wolverine slate is winnable for this team. On the other hand, I would only classify two of the games as sure things: Massachusetts and Bowling Green.

I do think Michigan should beat Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois to the point that I would call them wins. Nonetheless, I wouldn't call them sure things by any stretch.

That gives the Wolverines five wins. How they do in their other games will determine Rich Rodriguez's job status in 2011.

 

Intangibles

Tate Forcier came into last season listed at 188 pounds. Keep in mind that listed weight and height are often exaggerations. Furthermore, players lose weight as the season progresses.

Therefore, his size made him something of a twig just waiting to get broken. Needless to say, that is exactly what happened.

Anybody that watched his play last year not only noticed his steady regression as the hits piled up, but also the way his health affected his throwing.

This season Forcier will be coming in 10 pounds heavier. If he does get the starting quarterback job, the extra tonnage should help out his durability a good deal.

On the other hand, in Rich Rodriguez's offense, the quarterback has to take a heavy pounding. Another 10-15 pounds might help him even more.

Something else to consider is Rich Rodriguez's offense: The very nature of his offense is fast, high intensity, and high scoring.

If his offense is clicking then it isn't on the field that long. In other words, time of possession is not a statistic that Rich Rodriguez pays much attention to.

Last season, in conference, Michigan ranked dead last in time of possession with 26:25. Michigan State was second-to-last with a full two minutes more possession time per game.

Again, for Rich Rod, this is not a bad thing, but it places a huge amount of pressure on his defense; a defense which, as I said, might be adequate, but probably won't be good.

Another intangible is the red zone and turnovers.

Michigan was last in Big Ten turnover margin at minus-1.62. Moreover, they were last in red zone scoring at 66.7 percent. Complicating that, they turned the ball over seven times in the red zone.

As is in line with the Phil Steele model, I would be extremely surprised if these numbers don't drastically turn around in 2010. This is primarily due to the more experienced, cohesive offensive unit.

Then there is the quarterback controversy and the possibility of quarterback platooning.

Putting aside the entirely immeasurable element of self-confidence and how a young quarterback's confidence can get affected by getting pulled, there is the element of timing.

To begin with, there is the snap. A center gets used to working specifically with a certain quarterback. He knows exactly how tall that quarterback is, where he will put his hands, and exactly where to put the ball when he snaps it.

When you start juggling quarterbacks, it interferes with the quarterback/center mojo.

Moreover, the rest of the offense not only takes its cues from their quarterback, but they develop a bond with their leader. The o-line knows when the quarterback is apt to scramble out of the pocket. The receivers know when the quarterback is liable to look for him to break off his route.

Yes, there are specifically planned blocking schemes and receiving routes, but things break down and everybody has to react. It helps a good deal when everybody that is reacting is fully acquainted with each other and on the exact same page.

Lastly, there are the special teams.

All-Big Ten punter Zoltan the great is gone, as is placekicker Jason Olesnavage.

Zoltan was a big help to a defense that needed the help. He will be missed.

Furthermore, in close games, nobody is more valuable than a good and experienced placekicker.

 

Worst Case Scenario

The Wolverines come into the season still uncertain at quarterback. They platoon Forcier and Robinson, which just makes both the quarterbacks and the offense uncomfortable.

This leads to turnovers.

The defense is no better than last year and Michigan stumbles out of the gate losing to both UConn and Notre Dame.

They win their other two out-of-conference games as well as their game against Indiana.

However, they lose their next three to MSU, Iowa, and Penn State.

They beat Illinois and Purdue, but finish the season with losses to both Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Final record 5-7. The Rich Rodriguez experiment crashes to a painful end.

 

Best Case Scenario

A starting quarterback is settled on early in the season and the offense comes out of the gate clicking at the level that Rich Rod's West Virginia offenses did.

The defense is not good, but they do what they have to do and hold opposing offenses when it counts.

Michigan squeaks by UConn, beats Notre Dame in a shootout, and destroys Massachusetts, Bowling Green, and Indiana.

They beat Michigan State, Purdue, and Illinois, and beat either Iowa or Wisconsin at home while losing the other game.

They beat Penn State on the road, but lose a close one to OSU for the sixth time in a row. However, there are moments when they look very good to the point of dominance.

Their final record of 10-2 secures them a berth in the Capital One Bowl and has fans very excited about 2011.

 

My Prediction

UConn's ascendancy couldn't have come at a worse time for Michigan.

I think the Huskies will not only beat the Wolverines, but they will win the Big East. This might draw the ire of the Michigan faithful, many of whom do not realize that UConn is a legitimately good team.

Michigan can take solace in beating Notre Dame as well as Massachusetts and Bowling Green. This will leave them at 3-1 as they start conference play.

They will beat Indiana in a shootout. Then they will beat Michigan State, before falling to Iowa's tough defense.

I also think they will lose in Happy Valley, though they will surprise a lot of people by how tough and close a game they play.

They will go on to win their next two over Illinois, Purdue, and they will beat a very good Wisconsin team in yet another shootout.

They will head into Columbus at 8-3, quite possibly looking to ruin a National Championship bid for OSU. They won't do it, but they will have a solid showing.

Final record: 8-4. Michigan will go to the Outback Bowl against a mid-tier SEC team that I think they will beat handily.

I think this incarnation of the Wolverines will be similar to the 2004 Buckeyes or the 2008 Hawkeyes; teams that are as good as any in the league by the end of the season, but have to go through some bumps in the road to get there.

I also think they will fall victim to a tough schedule.

Finally, with an 8-4 season I think Rich Rodriguez will definitely be back in 2011.

It is not for me to say whether or not that is a good thing.

 

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part One: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Two: The Illinois Fighting Illini

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Three: The Indiana Hoosiers

Breaking Down the Big Ten Part Four: The Purdue Boilermakers

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