2010 Michigan Wolverines Football Preview
2009 Results: 5-7, No Bowl
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez (3rd year, 8-16 @ UM, 68-42 Overall)
Home Venue: Michigan Stadium (109,901), Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Rich Rodriguez experiment at Michigan continued to flounder in 2009 as the Wolverines missed a bowl game for the 2nd consecutive year, the first time that happened since the ‘60s! For the first half of the year, it looked like Rodriguez had turned things around in Ann Arbor as Michigan beat Notre Dame and jumped out to a 5-2 start. Unfortunately, they lost their final five contests by an average of 17 points per game and the Wolverines were eliminated from the postseason by archrival Ohio State. As this was the 6th consecutive loss to the hated Buckeyes and the eighth in the last nine years, Michigan fans are at their wit’s end.
With an 8-16 record in two years, Rodriguez is under extreme pressure to deliver a winning season. On top of that, he oversaw the first major violations in Michigan football history due to a practice time scandal last season and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the majority of Wolverine fans expect either an eight win campaign or a new head coach by December. While the Maize and Blue are much more experienced than either of the previous two seasons, it is truly a put up or shut up season for Rodriguez. Can Michigan rally around their head coach and start to play like, well………Michigan, for the first time since Lloyd Carr retired and save Rodriguez’s job in Ann Arbor?
The Wolverine offense made huge strides forward last fall as their scoring jumped by more than nine points per game from Rodriguez’s first year! The team really improved across the board as the running game and passing game both gained an average of 40 more yards per game and the end result was the Big Ten’s 3rd highest scoring offense. Since many key contributors were underclassmen, the expectations are high for another strong campaign for the Michigan offense.
Perhaps the biggest improvement last season was the play at quarterback. Sophomore Tate Forcier (2,050 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INT in ‘09) started every game as a true freshman and showed some moxie in the early going before fading down the stretch. However, he’s locked in a tight battle with uber-athletic classmate Denard Robinson (351 rush yards 5 TDs) for the starting role. Robinson was largely a change of pace runner as a true frosh but he’s progressed as a passer and could even be considered the favorite to start if the comments of Michigan’s players from Big Ten Media Days turn out to be accurate. Either way, both players are going to be much more experienced and the extra year in the system could result in even better production.
The receivers were also a very young group last season. Sophomore Roy Roundtree (32 catches, 434 yards, 3 TDs) was the team’s leading pass catcher as a freshman and he is clearly the top target on the squad after a great spring showing. However, the Wolverines need someone else to step up next to him because juniors Martavious Odoms (22 catches, 272 yards, 1 TD) and Junior Hemingway (18 catches, 268 yards, 2 TDs) still haven’t been major producers. One other player to keep an eye on is junior tight end Kevin Koger (16 catches, 220 yards, 2 TDs), who could be the breakout star of the passing attack. Expect all four receivers to have a much stronger 2010 season and Michigan’s passing game should be one of the better units in the Big Ten.
Where there is some concern is finding balance in the running game. Diminutive sophomore Vincent Smith (276 yards, 1 TD) is expected to be the starter, but the Wolverines will sorely miss two oft-injured but highly talented departures: Brandon Minor (502 yards, 8 TDs) and Carlos Brown (480 yards, 4 TDs). They were the top two runners on the team last fall and Michigan will be hard-pressed to replace them. Expect Robinson to play a much bigger role in the running game this season to offset the impact of a diminished group of tailbacks.
The final piece to the Wolverine puzzle is their offensive line. After playing absolutely terrible in 2008 while shuffling the lineup seemingly every week, they rebounded last season. It is no coincidence that the offense’s return to respectability came at the same time that the O-Line finally got their act together. Three starters are back but no one will be more important to the team’s success than junior center David Molk, who missed the last eight games of the ’09 season due to a knee injury. If he is healthy, Michigan should have one of the Big Ten’s better O-Lines.
Overall, everything is in place for Michigan to repeat their strong performance of 2009. The receivers are more experienced, the O-Line should live up to expectations and two talented young quarterbacks are fighting to lead the team. While I don’t think that their tailbacks are as talented as they were last fall, I expect the Wolverines to remain in the top half of the Big Ten in scoring this year.
The reason that Michigan missed out on a bowl game last year was their defense, which finished 8th in the conference in scoring defense at 27.5 points per game allowed. Even worse, they were 10 th in the run-happy Big Ten on the ground. Combine that with an 8th place finish against the pass and a negative 12 turnover margin, it really is surprising that the Wolverines didn’t allow more points than they did! With an extremely young group of players and a switch to the 3-3-5 defensive set, will Rodriguez engineer a defensive turnaround with his job on the line?
The first impression is not a positive one. Despite the problems with this defense in the past two years, one thing that opponents had to plan for was the indomitable presence of defensive end Brandon Graham, who racked up over 20 sacks during the last two years. Unfortunately, Graham graduated and was a 1st round pick in the NFL draft after a 2nd Team All-American campaign. Part of the reason that Michigan switched to a three man front in the spring was to overcome the loss of their best defensive player. The starting ends this season will be juniors Mike Martin (51 tackles, 2 sacks) and Ryan Van Bergen (40 tackles, 5 sacks). Both are definitely talented players and they should hold up well against the run. But, the key to the new front will be the performance of sophomore Will Campbell, who is a massive player. The Wolverines have a lot of talent returning to form a great front three but there is no question that they will miss Graham’s playmaking skills. But even without him, the D-Line will be the strength of Michigan’s defense this fall.
The linebackers are a much bigger concern. Seniors Obi Ezeh (69 tackles) and Jonas Mouton (66 tackles, 2 INT) will be 3rd year starters this fall but both players have consistently shown the exceptional ability to overrun plays and miss tackles. If Michigan had any depth, neither player would have started last season. The best player among the linebackers will be converted sophomore defensive end Craig Roh (37 tackles, 2 sacks), who should provide a great pass rush at the outside ‘backer position. Roh is a prime candidate for a breakout season with his power and speed.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines had more problems in 2009 with their defensive backs than they did at any other position. Sophomore safety Jordan Kovacs (75 tackles, 1 INT) earned a starting job as a walk-on and he ended up finishing 2nd on the team in tackles! Meanwhile, senior corner Troy Woolfork (46 tackles) is the only other returning starter but he had some serious issues in coverage. However, junior Mike Williams (56 tackles) will play a hybrid role that is half linebacker, half defensive back and he transitioned to the secondary as part of the defensive scheme change. It seems like the plan for his position is to more effectively mask their coverage but I wonder how smart it will be to take size off the field with a three man front. With two underclassmen rounding out the backfield, Michigan will be inexperienced whilerunning a new defense and that is a big cause for concern.
In the end, you have to wonder how effective a 3-3-5 defense will perform against some of the Big Ten’s powerful running games. Yes, the hybrid position manned by Williams will see him cheating up a fair amount, but is putting a smaller group on the field really the best idea against Wisconsin, Ohio State or Iowa, especially when Mouton and Ezeh have had a lot of trouble running to the football in the last two years? Furthermore, Michigan’s secondary will feature three underclassmen in the starting lineup along with a number of other youngsters contributing and that’s not a good sign for success against the pass. With reduced pressure on the quarterback thanks to the loss of Graham, I’m afraid that the Wolverines are going to have another tough season through the air. While the defensive line is going to be a solid unit, the rest of the defense doesn’t impress me and I think that a deep group of Big Ten quarterbacks will continue to exploit Michigan’s young secondary. That means another rough defensive campaign is on tap this fall for the Wolverines.
Rodriguez’s put up or shut up season features a tough non-conference schedule. The season begins with Big East contender Connecticut coming to the Big House for the new stadium dedication, a game that could set the tone for both teams’ seasons. Then they have to travel to South Bend to face rival Notre Dame the very next week! These two teams make this one of the Big Ten’s toughest non-conference schedules.
But the Big Ten slate is also going to be difficult. The Wolverines have to play all of the top contenders in the conference, avoiding only Minnesota and Northwestern. While they host Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and rival Michigan State, they have to travel to Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Ohio State! The Wolverines have a very daunting lineup that is certainly more difficult than the one that handed them a 5-7 outcome last year.
The heat is on in Ann Arbor: Michigan absolutely has to have a rebound season for Rich Rodriguez to hold onto his job. With a new athletic director whose first duties after being hired was to oversee the NCAA investigation into Rodriguez’s offseason practice violations, the margin for error is razor thin. However, the Wolverine offense should continue to be one of the more productive units in the league, even with a diminished rushing attack.
But the defense is going to be a big concern. While the front line is going to be a solid unit, I’m not confident that the 3-3-5 scheme is a wise choice in the ground and pound Big Ten. Furthermore, the Michigan linebackers are not a very strong group against the run and that is going to seriously undermine their ground defense. The good news is that Roh should create a dangerous pass rush off of the edge and the Wolverines should continue to get after the quarterback with good effectiveness. However, their defensive backs are among the worst in the conference and teams are going to take advantage through the air.
Now, their underwhelming defense alone isn’t a good reason to expect the Wolverines to repeat last season’s failed showing. But combine their weak defense with a much tougher schedule and you’re looking at a very bleak outlook. Michigan has to face two tough non-conference opponents in UConn and Notre Dame and they’re probably looking at a 1-1 split (at best) in those two games. On top of that, they have to play all of the Big Ten’s toughest opponents this season since their league schedule draw rotates Minnesota and Northwestern off the slate. With a questionable running game and a weak defense, the Maize and Blue will be hard-pressed to improve upon last season’s result.
I expect Michigan to jump out to a solid start against weaker competition in the first half this fall. Just like last season, they could boast a 4-2 record at the halfway mark. However, I do not see them defeating Iowa or Wisconsin on home turf and away games at Penn State and Ohio State are likely out of their reach as well. That means that Michigan has to pull off a 3-1 Big Ten record against Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana. Unfortunately, I think that a road trip to Purdue will result in another loss and Rodriguez’s 3rd loss to in-state rival Michigan State will be too much to overcome and they will miss a bowl game again. The Michigan Wolverines are my choice to finish tied for seventh in the Big Ten Conference in 2010.
What about Rich Rodriguez’s future? When the 7th consecutive loss to Ohio State in Columbus eliminates the Wolverines from the postseason, I fully expect him to be fired as the head coach at Michigan. I have said from the day he was hired that it was a mistake: Rodriguez was an outsider that came in to shake up a program that was not in need of any serious change after 40 consecutive winning seasons. Instead, he inherited a team that wasn’t suited to run his chosen schemes on either side of the football and his obstinate adherence to an offense that he clearly didn’t have the personnel to run has resulted in two losing season that should never have happened with the talent level he inherited. Yes, Michigan was going to have some issues in 2008 and 2009 with a youthful team but a lot of other coaches would have guided this team to the postseason. Furthermore, Rodriguez’s lack of defensive expertise has been exposed in the last two seasons as his defensive hires have widely been panned and the results have been predictably weak. Finally, he has never understood the depth and importance of the Ohio State rivalry, disingenuously claiming that his staff has only lost two straight games as if every Wolverine fan had forgotten the four losses that preceded his tenure under former coach Lloyd Carr. This fall will be the closing chapter in a failed experiment at Michigan and the school will turn to former quarterback Jim Harbaugh to turn the program around in 2011. The good news: Harbaugh is a real ‘Michigan Man’ and will have the Wolverines turned around fairly quickly.
PREDICTED RESULT: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
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