Never before has there been so much uncertainty in Ann Arbor.
Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez has been through more than his share of trouble in his first two seasons. For starters, he's got an 8-16 overall record that includes a 3-13 mark in the Big Ten conference. In his first campaign, he racked up more losses (nine) than any Michigan team had ever suffered in their 130-plus years of football.
He's tarnished the Michigan brand by bringing down rules violations for exceeding practice limits, the first major violations in the program's history.
He has missed bowl games in his first two years. Michigan does not miss bowl games. Period.
And overall, his teams have just been lousy. Year one they couldn't score. Year two they could score a little, but they couldn't stop anyone. If this is what the future of Michigan football is, then I have no problem living in the past.
It's why most people believe that Rodriguez is facing a make-or-break season in 2010. If he doesn't at least produce a respectable product, his time in the House That Yost Built will be short lived. Here's five ways Rich Rod can avoid an early exit from the Maize and Blue.
5. Beat Michigan State
Lloyd Carr had his issues with Ohio State, but he had absolutely none with the guys from East Lansing. Carr only lost three times in his 13 seasons as head coach to Michigan State, including a six-year stretch of dominance from 2002-2007. His only losses? The 'Clockgate' game in 2001, a 34-31 defeat in 1999 and a 28-25 loss in 1995, his first season.
Like Carr, Rodriguez struggled in his first bout with the Spartans. With no quarterback suited to run his spread option offense, Michigan stumbled for the first time in six years to MSU in a 35-21 game that wasn't as close as the score indicates. When Tate Forcier took over the QB job in 2009, the team fared much better, pushing MSU into overtime with a thrilling last second score. But Forcier threw the game away in overtime, tossing an interception in the end zone that allowed MSU's Larry Caper to seal the game on the next possession. The game is in Ann Arbor this year, and both Forcier and Denard Robinson have a year under their belts. There's no reason they can't regain the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
4. Don't get blown out
It's perfectly fine if you lose to a top team in the country. But it's a whole other thing to not be competitive past halftime.
Unfortunately, that's been the way things have been during most of Rodriguez's tenure. His first season featured three losses of more than 25 points, not to mention an embarrassing 13-10 defeat to MAC conference basement-dweller Toledo.
It looked like Michigan got it figured out in the first half of 2009, winning its first four games and suffering competitive losses to MSU and Iowa. But after waxing FCS Delaware State to improve to 5-2, Michigan collapsed. The Wolverines lost their last five games by a combined 84 points, a 16.8 differential per game. That included a second straight walloping at the hands of Penn State, and a 38-13 drubbing by unranked Illinois.
While the defense probably is going to give up similar scores this season, the offense should have the talent to keep up if the game turns into a shootout. Whoever is at quarterback will have to limit the turnovers to keep some of the pressure off the defense. The offense can't give the opposing team free shots at another score, or else things could turn ugly like they have the past two seasons.
3. Avoid more controversy
Rodriguez has had nothing but legal trouble since he arrived in Ann Arbor. He had an ugly departure from West Virginia, when he left the team before their bowl game to take the Michigan job--right after saying he'd be staying at West Virginia. That move cost him $4 million and a lot of angry letters from disgruntled West Virginians.
The controversy train has continued to Michigan, where Rodriguez brought down the first major NCAA investigation into Michigan football ever. While violating practice limits seems small compared to the Reggie Bush scandal at USC, it still dragged the program's good name through the mud, and left Michigan fans wondering whether not hiring a "Michigan guy" was the right move. Even if he performs on the field this season, another major misstep with the NCAA would doom his coaching career at Michigan.
2. Take Ohio State to the limit
At this point in the two program's courses, Ohio State is leaps and bounds ahead of Michigan. They've recruited better and have frankly just been a better-coached team. Jim Tressel has Michigan's number, and as long as he does, Buckeyes fans will be a happy bunch.
With this team and the game in Columbus this year, a win against the Buckeyes would be a monumental upset for the Wolverines. After six years it seems like Michigan is due for a win, but even the most optimistic Wolverine fan will tell you it probably won't be this year.
But Rodriguez can go a long way toward saving his job if he shows he's got Michigan on the path to taking down OSU. His first two efforts haven't shown that particularly well; in 2008 he got drubbed 42-7 and last year Ohio State prevailed 21-10 in Ann Arbor. If the Wolverines can keep it close--say six to 10 points--Rodriguez might just hang on for another season.
That is, of course, if he completes item No. 1 below.
1. Go to a bowl game
I don't care if it's the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl; Rodriguez needs to produce a bowl team this year. Michigan has missed a bowl game for the past two seasons and compiled more losses than most fans care to remember. Making a bowl game will go a long way toward helping fans forget the first two seasons.
Then again, that's easier said than done.
The schedule will not be the Wolverines' friend accomplishing that task. The first game against Connecticut is not exactly the cupcake game that Michigan usually employs for Week 1. The UConn game is much like the Utah game two years ago: it could make or break the season right off the bat. If the Wolverines get by UConn, they should score wins against Massachusetts, Bowling Green and possibly Indiana.
But the rest of the schedule is where it gets tricky. Notre Dame lost Jimmy Clausen to the NFL, but the game is in South Bend and new coach Brian Kelly is a football genius. Michigan nearly beat both MSU and Iowa on the road last year, and both games are at the Big House this year. They are winnable, but by no means a sure thing. Then Michigan will have to run the gaunlet of Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State in three of their last five games, with games against Purdue and Illinois mixed in between--two lowly teams that have beaten Michigan the past two years.
Michigan will have to scrap out seven wins somewhere in that schedule to produce a bowl team. A bowl game is possible, but Rodriguez will have his work cut out for him.
He better get started. As of 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, the clock will be ticking.