It is safe to say the Rick Rodriguez experience in Ann Arbor was a failure. Michigan is usually one of the elite programs in the country, but tallied just 15 wins over three seasons. However, in Rodriguez's defense the team did improve each year, and last season finished above .500 with seven victories. That win total earned Michigan a spot in the Gator Bowl, but the Wolverines were embarrassed by Mississippi State, 52-14. The loss was the final straw and shortly after Rodriguez was terminated.
The program elected to go with Hoke as head coach, and while he is a much better fit it will be interesting to see how the team performs Saturday as Michigan had to endure another major facelift in playing style.
The Broncos don't have to adjust to a new head coach this season, as Bill Cubit will be running the show at WMU for the seventh campaign. Last year though, wasn't the best for coach Cubit has his squad severely underachieved at times and were much better than their 6-6 ledger indicates. In fact, if it wasn't for a three-game winning streak down the stretch it would have been the third losing campaign in the last four years for WMU. That was not the case however, and coach Cubit is excited for the new year, but this will be the first of what appears to be a daunting road slate in 2011 for the Broncos.
In 2009 the Wolverines opened their season against Western Michigan, and in convincing fashion defeated the Broncos, 31-7. The win gave Michigan a 5-0 edge over Western Michigan in the all-time series.
Although the Broncos finished a mere .500 on the year there was plenty to take away from the 2010 season. One of the bright spots was the play of quarterback Alex Cader, who was sensational, throwing for 3,334 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Cader is primed to have another big year and should open the 2011 campaign with a strong showing. It will be easy for Cader to have success this year since Western Michigan possesses one of the best receiving groups in the Mid- American Conference.
Jordan White returns for WMU, giving coach Cubit one of the most dangerous QB/WR tandems in the league. White led the team last year in catches, yards and touchdowns and is ready to have another outstanding season. However, he is not the lone toy for Carder, as opponents will have to watch out for Robert Arnheim as well.
Over the past couple of seasons the ground game for WMU has fallen short of expectations, but there is reason for real optimism in 2011. The reason for the excitement is because of Tevin Drake, who averaged an astonishing 10.1 yards per attempts on 40 carries. While that is not going to happen this year, Drake is an exciting athlete that may give the Broncos a consistent ground attack. He will get every opportunity to do so, starting this week in the Big House.
Having the bulk of the starters back up front gives coach Cubit plenty of options. There is a lot of experience up front, but the player that is needed most will be Paul Hazel, who racked up eight sacks a year ago.
Mitch Zajac led the team in tackles last season and will be back at middle linebacker. However, the most experience is in the secondary. Last year WMU had some trouble stopping the pass, as opponents tallied 221 yards per matchup through the air. There are three returning starters and even more players that gained valuable experience a year ago, so that number should improve. Lewis Toler, who picked off five passes last season will be the leader of this bunch as a sophomore. The secondary will be taken to task on Saturday against Denard Robinson and Michigan.
As for Robinson, he is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, but will he be able to take on the new responsibilities of leading coach Hoke's offense?
Robinson gave defensive coordinators fits and became the first QB in NCAA history to rush and pass (2,570 yards, 18 TDs) for more than 1,500 yards in a season. However, with coach Hoke moving from a spread offense to a pro-style scheme, it will be interesting to see how Robinson adjusts to the switch.
The transition should be made easier with the return of most of the receiving corps from a year ago. Roy Roundtree was Robinson's safety net in 2010, and do not be surprised if these two juniors hook up early and often on Saturday.
Robinson did it all in the spread offense, and his 1,702 rushing yards were by far and away the best numbers on the team. With the new scheme comes more opportunities for others on the ground. The question coming into camp however was who will get the ball the most.
For Saturday the starter will be tailback Michael Shaw, who scored nine touchdowns a year ago. Look for Fitzgerald Toussaint to see some action as well. The junior only had eight carries a year ago, but did average nearly 11 yards per carry (10.9).
The Michigan faithful love tough defense, but that side of the ball never lived up to expectations under Rodriguez.
Last season's numbers certainly contributed to Rodriguez's firing, as the Wolverines were horrendous, allowing over 450 yards per game and 35.2 ppg.
Michigan will not get its defensive swagger back immediately, but the addition of defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will surely help. Mattison is the fourth defensive coordinator in the last five seasons for Michigan, but he may just have the perfect formula to turn things around.
It also helps to have the returning talent he has at his disposal. Kenny Demens and Cam Gordon give the Wolverines experience at the linebacker position, while Mike Jones will make his presence known as well throughout the year.
Pressuring the quarterback was a big issue for Michigan last year, but the team's sack leader from 2010, Ryan Van Bergen will move to tackle, giving the Wolverines pressure up the middle.
The most intriguing part of this defense will be the secondary. Last year Michigan surrendered over 260 yards per game through the air, but the unit was decimated by injuries. Coach Hoke is fortunate to have corners Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd back. Both missed significant time last year, but are healthy and ready for the opener, along with safety Jordan Kovacs, who was second on the team in tackles (116).
Michigan is 27-1 against Mid-American teams all-time, but this is a different Michigan squad, and Western Michigan is not your average MAC team. The Broncos are dangerous offensively, especially through the air, and that was a weakness for the maze and blue last year. However, coach Hoke has the wild card in the deck, and that is Robinson.
Look for the athletic junior to work his magic in front of a feverish 100,000 rabid Michigan fans looking for a fresh start.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Michigan 45, Western Michigan 21