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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 37: Michigan

No matter who's coaching the team or what the record, some U.M. traditions never change.

What’s the most surprising fact about the last two years of Michigan football? It’s not that the Wolverines, having allowed more than 250 points only four times in school history heading into 2008, have given up at least 330 points in each of the last two seasons. Nor that Michigan has lost nine and seven games, respectively, after posting 40 consecutive winning campaigns. To me, it’s that Michigan entered 2008 ranked No. 24 in the USA Today Poll — and now, two years later, with their recent hard work ready to come to fruition, the Wolverines are casually dismissed outright. Similar to the idea that Michigan was a Top 25 team on Rodriguez’s first day, those who doubt Michigan due to two years of struggles are misguided by the belief that yesterday has a heavy bearing on the here and now.

Big Ten

Ann Arbor, Mich.


Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 57

2009 record
(5-7, 1-7)

Last year’s

No. 77

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
  • Sept. 11
    at Notre Dame
  • Sept. 18
  • Sept. 25
    Bowling Green
  • Oct. 2
    at Indiana
  • Oct. 9
    Michigan St.
  • Oct. 16
  • Oct. 30
    at Penn St.
  • Nov. 6
  • Nov. 13
    at Purdue
  • Nov. 20
  • Nov. 27
    at Ohio St.

Last year’s prediction

The potential is there for a hot start: yes, defeating the Irish, even at home, will be a tall task, but Michigan has a great shot at being 3-1 on Oct. 1. In past seasons, such a schedule would have fans dreaming of a national championship, as the Wolverines get Penn State and Ohio State at home; but this is not a title-worthy team, and expectations should fall in line with a six- or seven-win season. So it seems I was a year ahead on my Michigan prediction: after predicting the team would hover around .500 last fall, I believe Michigan will win six games in 2009.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Another disappointment for Michigan and Rodriguez, now 8-16 through two seasons. It appeared through four games — though looks can be deceiving — that the Wolverines were primed for a bowl run: undefeated through September, Michigan needed merely a win over Delaware State and a single additional victory in conference play to return to post-season play after a one-year absence. Two months later, one year became two, as U.M. scuffled to a five-win finish — with only a single victory coming in the Big Ten. Yes, it seems almost impossible to believe. Injuries played a role, but the Wolverines were obviously still a work in progress, and might continue to be so in 2010. In its defense, Michigan was still not playing with a full deck: still short of the 85-scholarship allotment, U.M. lacked the depth to compete with the better teams in the Big Ten.

High point The 4-0 start, which featured emotional wins over Notre Dame and Indiana and vaulted the Wolverines into the Top 25. The home win against Notre Dame featured a winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds left; tired of all the drama, Michigan opted to score against Indiana with 2:29 remaining. Sadly, the I.U. victory would be Michigan’s last against an F.B.S. opponent on the season.

Low point Seven losses in eight games from October on. Some were close (Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue), others were not (Wisconsin, Penn State). Some were downright embarrassing, such as a 25-point loss at Illinois. Of course, for the sixth straight year and for the eighth time in nine years, Michigan lost to Ohio State.

Tidbit It has been 2,440 days since Michigan last beat Ohio State. That’s six years, eight months and six days. If a child was born on Nov. 23, 2003, the day after the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor, he or she would have learned how to walk, talk and tie his or her shoes; would be a few months shy of taking his or her first communion; would have graduated from kindergarten and entered the first grade; and would know nothing but Ohio State dominance in one of the great rivalries in college sports.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Seth, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Air Force preview earned him the opportunity to write a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? Michigan. He also opted to take advantage of the chance to write his preview in a foreign language, in Seth’s case German. Check out the bottom of the post for a translation. Take it away, Seth:

Trotz erhöhter Erwartungen stürzte Rodriguezs zweite Mannschaft wieder in die Big-10-Tiefe. Obwohl die Sieg/Niederlage-Alchemie noch langweilig bleibt, muss eine bessere Leistung nun wirklich sein — insbesondere hinten, in der Abwehrleistung. Nach fast drei Jahren, und mit sieben wiederkehrenden Teilnehmern, wird diese Angriffsleistung bei weitem die beste sein, die Rodriguez ins Big House bringt. Unbeantwortet bleiben allerdings viele Fragen, die mit der Rushing-Abwehr zu tun haben: gibt es fähige Linebackers? Und was ist mit den Cornerbacks? Hat Gordon den Lob verdient, und kann er ihn weiterverdienen? Rodriguez’ Stelle, sowie auch Michigans Zukunft, hängen von den Antworten ab. Die Liga-Spiele sehen zumeist sehr böse aus; daher sind gute Resultate gegen Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, und Michigan State wirklich erforderlich. Genauso wichtig wie die W/L Statistik werden die Yardage-Zahlen sein: kommt die Parität wieder? Wenn sie in Bloomington nicht vorhanden ist, kannst du das mit State College und Columbus vergessen. 8-4 (4-4)? Dann bleibt er, und er wird es verdient haben. Schlechtere Resultate mögen Veränderungen verursachen.

Former players in the N.F.L.

40 S Jamar Adams (Seattle), WR Adrian Arrington (New Orleans), WR Jason Avant (Philadelphia), OG David Baas (San Francisco), OT Jeff Backus (Detroit), QB Tom Brady (New England), DT Alan Branch (Arizona), WR Steve Breaston (Arizona), S Stevie Brown (Oakland), LB Prescott Burgess (Baltimore), LB Shawn Crable (New England), CB Doug Dutch (Washington), WR Braylon Edwards (New York Jets), K Jay Feely (Arizona), LB Larry Foote (Pittsburgh), C Jonathan Goodwin (New Orleans), DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia), DE James Hall (St. Louis), CB Leon Hall (Cincinnati), LB David Harris (New York Jets), RB Mike Hart (Indianapolis), QB Chad Henne (Miami), OG Steve Hutchinson (Minnesota), S Marlin Jackson (Philadelphia), DE Tim Jamison (Houston), LB Dhani Jones (Cincinnati), OT Jake Long (Miami), WR Mario Manningham (New York Giants), P Zoltan Mesko (New England), RB Brandon Minor (Chicago), C David Moosman (Arizona), OG Rueben Riley (New York Giants),OG Adam Stenavich (Houston), DE Terrance Taylor (Detroit), CB Morgan Trent (Cincinnati), S Donovan Warren (New York Jets), DT Gabe Watson (Arizona), LB LaMarr Woodley (Pittsburgh), LB Pierre Woods (New England), CB Charles Woodson (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with Michigan ties, with notable work
1. Nelson Algren. “The Man With the Golden Arm.”
2. Jim Harrison. “Wolf: A False Memoir.”
3. Pete Dexter. “Paris Trout.”
4. Joyce Carol Oates. “Wonderland.”
5. Jeffrey Eugenides. “Middlesex.”


Rich Rodriguez (West Virginia ‘86), 8-16 after two seasons at the helm of the Michigan program. His debut season, 2008, could not have gone much worse for Rodriguez and the Wolverines, though it seems relatively easy, with the gift of hindsight, to see why it happened: Michigan simply lacked the personnel to implement the spread offense. The defensive concerns were another story, though Rodriguez hoped a change at coordinator will lead to an improvement on that side of the ball. In Rodriguez’s favor, his first year at West Virginia – where he coached before coming to U.M. – saw the Mountaineers finish 3-8; the next fall, W.V.U. went 9-4. His teams then made a rapid climb to the top of Big East, with many still believing in Rodriguez’s ability to eventual propel the Wolverines back into the Rose Bowl mix. Rodriguez’s accomplishments while leading the Mountaineers speak for themselves: a 60-26 overall record, four Big East championships (2003-5, 2007) and three straight seasons with at least 10 victories (2005-7). Before his time with the Mountaineers, Rodriguez’s previous B.C.S. conference coaching experience involved two stops as offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden: two years at Tulane (1997-98) and two years at Clemson (1999-2000). The 1998 Tulane team finished the season 12-0, one of only two teams in the F.B.S. to finish undefeated that year. His resume speaks for itself — you don’t get to Michigan without having won at each stop along the way, as Rodriguez has done. At West Virginia, he showed an ability to take a team unaccustomed to his offense and quickly move it into the conference and national title conversation. The move has not been as smooth in Ann Arbor, but Rodriguez, for now, deserves every opportunity to make it work.

Players to watch

The offensive line will have a healthy David Molk, who missed the final eight games of last season after suffering a foot injury. The junior center’s importance to this offensive front cannot be overstated: a team leader and an all-conference caliber interior lineman, Molk is the glue that holds an otherwise mediocre group together. His return will improve the play of guards Steven Schilling and Patrick Omameh, the latter a sophomore stepping into a full-time starting job after making three starts a year ago.

Omameh will be joined on the strong side by junior Mark Huyge, though former starter Perry Dorrestein is also an option at right tackle. Dorrestein started on the left side last fall, but due to his inconsistent play lost his grasp on the starting role to redshirt freshman Taylor Lewan. Starting a freshman at left tackle is never an appetizing scenario, but if his spring performance holds true, Lewan is an upgrade over his predecessor.

Michigan has options at running back. One is sophomore Vincent Smith, if he makes a full recovery from a late-season A.C.L. tear. He rushed for 276 yards on 5.8 yards per carry in his nine games, though a healthy portion of that rushing output came in Michigan’s win over Delaware State. With Smith out during the spring, most of the first-team looks went to junior Michael Shaw (185 yards rushing, 2 touchdowns) and sophomore Michael Cox (113 yards in 4 games). Redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint is also in the mix, as could be incoming freshmen Stephen Hopkins — the team’s biggest back — and Austin White when each arrives in the fall. Yes, U.M. has options.

The receiver corps is set in the slot, where Michigan can turn to sophomore Roy Roundtree and junior Martavious Odoms. Roundtree’s debut campaign was defined by its torrid finish, as Roundtree posted 30 of his 32 receptions and 390 of his 434 receiving yards over the final four games of the year. Odoms was more consistent, leading the team in receptions with 22 through mid-October, but missed the final five games of the year due to injury. The situation is a bit more unclear at outside receiver, though juniors Daryl Stonum and Junior Hemingway have showed a flair for the big play; each accounted for a 60-yard reception a season ago. As at running back, look for a few yet-unproven underclassmen to burst into the mix at receiver. Junior tight end Kevin Koger has shown himself to be a capable receiving option, chipping in with 16 grabs for 220 yards in 2009.

Now, the defense. The biggest concern plaguing the three-man front is the loss of end Brandon Graham, whose disruptive ability will be difficult to duplicate. Michigan’s wisest move might be transitioning sophomore Craig Roh, a freshman all-American at outside linebacker last fall, down to end. Doing so would allow juniors Ryan Van Bergen and Mark Martin — the latter the team’s most productive down lineman — to move to the interior. Question marks at linebacker might make such a move untenable, however. In that case, U.M. will need sophomore tackle Will Campbell to live up to his immense billing. The former five-star recruit is certainly capable of doing so. That would push Van Bergen outside, Martin and Campbell inside, and leave the linebacker corps static.

Michigan returns two experienced starters at linebacker. Is this a good thing? Seniors Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton regressed last season, with Ezeh eventually finding himself benched, replaced by a walk-on, in Michigan’s loss to Illinois. Despite last season’s struggles, this pair remains entrenched in the starting lineup — Ezeh in the middle, Mouton the weak side. Roh, should he not transition to the line, will play the hybrid rush end-linebacker spot. Depth at the position will be improved: that aforementioned walk-on, Kevin Leach, will be joined in the middle by sophomore Kenny Demens; junior J.B. Fitzgerald will play behind Mouton.

The Wolverines will miss would-be senior cornerback Donovan Warren, who opted to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the N.F.L. draft. His departure means that senior Troy Woolfolk will remain at cornerback after moving down from safety midway through 2009. His position change spelled the beginning of the end for last season’s defense; Michigan can prevent such a decline with improved safety play, last fall’s Achilles heel. Much of any projected improvement hinges on the play of redshirt freshman Cam Gordon, a former wide receiver expected to start at free safety. Sophomore Vladimir Emilien is an option here, as is true freshman Marvin Robinson, even if the latter is more unproven than Gordon.

Sophomore safety Jordan Kovacs will again be asked to play close to the line, aiding the run defense. Kovacs is not a solid option in pass coverage, however, and was often a liability in such situations a year ago. In a perfect world, one of Michigan’s many young additions would eventually claim Kovacs’ spot; that won’t happen by September, however.

Who will start opposite Woolfolk at cornerback? Likely sophomore J.T. Floyd, one of last season’s reserves, though the Wolverines — as throughout the secondary — have a few true and redshirt freshmen capable of making an impact. Unfortunately, one recruit projected to land an immediate role, Demar Dorsey, was unable to join the program. As with Kovacs, Floyd will be the starter on Sept. 4. Whether he can hold onto his starting role is another story, especially as young defensive backs begin to learn the system. The fifth defensive back in Michigan’s 3-3-5 base set is a hybrid safety-linebacker, a role Stevie Brown played a season ago. He’ll be replaced by junior Mike Williams, who made 56 tackles in nine starts at safety last fall.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback The two familiar faces, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, will be joined at quarterback by Devin Gardner, a highly-touted freshman who arrived on campus in time to participate during spring ball. After illustrating flashes of his potential, Gardner could be considered a challenger for the starting role in 2010. Nevertheless, he would be best served taking a redshirt season; the same could have been said last summer about both Forcier and Robinson, in fact. Barring a surprise — say, Gardner setting the world afire in August — Michigan will again face a two-quarterback quandary: Forcier the better passer, perhaps, Robinson unquestionably an electric runner. In my mind, Robinson’s ability to make plays with his feet, a la Pat White during Rodriguez’s West Virginia days, makes him the better choice. Still, it is difficult to overlook what Forcier brings to the table. He scuffled at times during his true freshman campaign, but last year’s experience and a fully healthy shoulder will allow Forcier to be more productive in the passing game. While not altogether dangerous, he’s mobile enough as a runner to keep the opposition honest — again, not quite like Robinson, but good enough. If Robinson can begin to hone his mechanics — and word during the spring was he had — he’s a potential star. Look for this competition to continue during the fall.

Game(s) to watch

The Wolverines won’t have as easy a non-conference schedule as they did a year ago, with Notre Dame improved and Connecticut heading into Ann Arbor in the season opener. Nevertheless, anything less than a 3-1 mark entering Big Ten play would be a sincere disappointment. In my mind, there’s a far better chance that Michigan is 4-0 than 2-2, despite the marquee games headlining the first two weeks of the season. The game to watch in Big Ten play? As if there was any doubt: Ohio State, this time in Columbus.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Don’t get me wrong: Michigan isn’t making a run to the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten schedule, which again has the Wolverines playing Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin — in addition to Ohio State, of course — will prevent this team from making a drastic improvement to, say, 10 wins. That would be an incredible turnaround, one that would dwarf any in the history of the program. Not to say I don’t believe Michigan capable of winning nine games, nor that an eight-win finish would be a surprise. This team is ready to take the next step. The first step, actually, as a finish in the upper tier of the Big Ten would represent the first signal of success the program has experienced under Rodriguez, who needs to indicate significant progress to remove the specter of dismissal from above his head. Is this possible? Undoubtedly. The offense is a year wiser. This experience will be shown at quarterback, even if the starting job has yet to be determined. Likewise on both sides of the line, particularly on defense. This is by far the deepest team of the Rodriguez era, the first that nears the 85-scholarship limit. Team speed is improved. Altogether, the defense should be improved; still, we’ve entered a phase where the defense must prove itself on the field before earning our trust. It will all come down to consistency for these Wolverines. Put together extended periods of stellar play, as it did last September, and this is an eight-win team. Don’t, and U.M. is staring at another difficult season. When all is said and done, I’m intrigued by this team’s potential, confident in its ability to turn things around, and excited — yes, still excited — about what the program is capable of achieving when Rodriguez has the tools to run this ship at full bore.

Dream season How’s this: 11-1, with wins over rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State; and the lone loss coming at home to Iowa. Any complaints?

Nightmare season Michigan stumbles back to 4-8, with a matching 1-7 mark in Big Ten play — that would leave Rodriguez at 12-24 after three years with the program.

In case you were wondering

Where do Michigan fans congregate? Michigan fans talk all Wolverine sports (but especially football) at UMGoBlue.comThe Wolverine and Go Blue Wolverine. The top site for Michigan coverage, of course, is MGoBlog, with Maize ‘n Brew another great option. As always, if you feel there’s another site warranting mention, let me know below.

Tidbit (Internet translation edition) Not sure what Seth wrote earlier? Well, neither am I. So I decided to turn to the Internet, where I found a German-English translator (a Web site, not an actual person). Here’s the translation:

Despite increased expectations Rodriguez fell second crew again into the Big-10-Tiefe. Although those remains still boring victory/defeat Alchemie, a better achievement must be real now — in particular in the back, in the defense achievement. After nearly three years, and with seven returning participants, this attack achievement will be by far the best, the Rodriguez in the Big House brings. However many questions, which have to do with the Rushing defense, remain unanswered: is there capable Linebackers? And which is with the Cornerbacks? Can Gordon the praise did earn, and further-earn it? Rodriguez’ Place, as well as Michigan future, depend on the answers. The league plays look mostly very bad; therefore good results are really necessary against Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan State. As the W/L statistics the Yardage numbers will be just as important: does the parity come back? If it is missing in Bloomington, you know with State the college and Columbus forget. 8-4 (4-4)? Then it remains, and it will have earned it. Worse results may cause changes.

Up Next

Who is No. 36? Our next program has the second-largest enrollment of any private university in the F.B.S.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. george howley says:

    my guess is Penn State but this is tricky because many of the universities are part of large “conglomerate” of campuses

  2. Jer says:

    BYU is next
    USC is the largest

  3. Colin says:

    Yeah, BYU was my guess, too.

  4. Ezra says:

    Seth’s last line (in “English”) would make a good bumpersticker:
    “Worse results may cause changes.”

  5. AMF says:

    FYI, Tom Brady doesn’t play for New Orleans (last time I checked).

    Paul: I have a feeling Payton is going to trade for Brady and install him solely in the Wildcat. No, writing the list of N.F.L. alumni is a mind-numbing task, especially with a long list of names. My mistake. It’s been fixed above.

  6. Cromulent says:

    This is *much* better than yesterday’s UM piece. Hard to believe they could be penned by the same person.

  7. Deeringfish says:

    If this is only a 6 or 7 win team, why do you have them so highly ranked?

    Paul: I think you might be reading “Last Year’s Prediction.”

  8. wildcat6 says:

    Well, it’s not much of a stretch to say that this team will fall between the dream season of 11-1 (7-1) and the nightmare season of 4-8 (1-7). You could probably make that statement about any team in the second quintile (20%-40%) in the F.B.S.

  9. Brandon says:

    The University of Phoenix

  10. LorenzoSt.Dubois says:

    Michigan goes 6-6 this year…Rodriguez is done, and the Maize and Blue hope that everyone in Baton Rouge learns that Les Miles sits on the board of BP.

  11. quigley says:

    “anything less than a 3-1 mark entering Big Ten play would be a sincere disappointment”

    “Put together extended periods of stellar play, as it did last September, and this is an eight-win team.”

    Being 3-1 would indicate a marked improvement over last year. To win 7 games, Michigan would need to beat Illinois and Purdue, which it did not last year, PLUS TWO of Ohio St, @ Penn St (heavy dogs), UConn, Wisc, Iowa, Michigan St, or @ ND. The latter 5 are all tossups at best.

    If Univ of Michigan’s administration is smart, they will understand that a 7 win year is a marked improvement and that coaching change sets the program back further. No change will be made at this very patient institution with 7 wins. 6 – 6 is the tipping point.

  12. quigley says:

    Les Miles is passe. Everyone in Ann Arbor aches for Harbaugh.

  13. KBLOW says:

    quigley apparently forgot a key phrase in his comment:

    “Everyone in Ann Arbor WHO KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT FOOTBALL aches for Harbaugh.”

  14. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is up next. -Jim Narby

  15. Aaron says:

    According to mgoblog.com, Thomas Gordon and Floyd Simmons are the top two at the spur, the position Stevie Brown played, both over Mike Williams.

  16. Kyle says:

    Kevin Koger…. not Kroger.

    Paul: Updated, thanks.

  17. Clayton Adams says:

    I think the growing pains of last year will definitely have Michigan better, 7 wins is realistic and with this schedule would be pretty good for RichRod. Personally, I love the spread option. Watching Pat White / Steve Slaton run it at WVU was real fun. Forcier really looks like the real deal, I love his mobility.

    Hopefully RichRod remembers Brian Kelly and beats him again.

  18. oldgreentar says:

    I like the line about continuing the “stellar play like they had last September”, did uofm play anybody with a winning record during that month?

  19. Jeff says:

    “die Rodriguez”

    I laughed.

  20. [...] the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 37, is Michigan. You can find a larger Michigan preview [...]

  21. BeantownBlue says:

    Though arbitrary, your list of 5 Michigan famous Michigan writers doesn’t include Arthur Miller! Didn’t you have to read Death of a Salesman or The Crucible in high school?

  22. Steve Cote says:

    Rich Rodriguez and his staff need to spend every waking minute focused on defense. Take a look at Michigan’s “glory” years under Bo – great defense is what set them apart. An explosive offense might sell tickets, but defense wins championships. As the saying goes: “if you score, you may win. But if they never score, you’ll never lose. Defense wins championships.”

  23. Horace says:

    Should probably mention UMGoBlue.com and MVictors.com – strong followings. Not sure if there’s a deeper college football new media presence out there.

  24. Al. Lubel says:

    Sorry to see Rodriguez go. I really like the guy and am sure he will land somewhere. His offense was exciting… But, now can Michigan go back to the old style Michigan and smash-mouth defense with a prostyle offense. There has to be a Tom Brady type kid out in California to recruit at QB, right? Blue rules…always so let’s get some ex-nfl guy and bring him in to kick some o.h.state b#@t!

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