April 09, 2009
With the residue from last fall and the sketchy quarterback situation and the general uncertainty of the times, Michigan partisans have been able to console themselves with one solid trend: The rapid, tangible improvement teams have seen from Year One to Year Two under Rich Rodriguez, at least partly responsible for the Wolverines' improved standing in Vegas and the focal point of Ivan Maisel's latest feature for the Worldwide Leader, in which Maisel tries to rebut that nagging, harrowing fear:
What if 2008 is the new Michigan? What if the football team is no longer the escape for a state in an economic death spiral? What if it's a mirror?
The history of Michigan football declares that the Wolverines will rebound. The history of Rodriguez's career screams it in 72-point type. Alas, these days, history doesn't count for much.
Economic pablum aside, readers can be forgiven if they don't take Maisel at his word about the "72-point type": The "pattern" he cites begins and ends with West Virginia, where the Mountaineers vaulted from 3-8 in 2001 to 8-4 in 2002, and only lost to championship-bound Miami within the Big East. That's the only rebuilding job Rodriguez has taken on as a head coach since stepping up from Glenville State, but one stop does not a pattern make. To establish that, you have to look back, to Rod's stints as Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson, and draw your conclusions from there:
Ah, conclusion drawn, I think. These are not minor leaps: At every stop, Rodriguez's offense increased scoring by more than 30 percent and dramatically widened its overall advantage over opponents in terms of points and yards. More importantly, I think is, is to note where these programs were coming from: Tulane, obviously, had the greatest season in school history in 1998, by far; when Bowden and Rodriguez arrived at Clemson, the Tigers were six years removed from their last appearance in the final AP poll (No. 23 in 1993) and had fallen to the bottom half of the ACC since Florida State assumed the conference throne in 1992. If you consider the top-10 finishes his last three years at West Virginia -- the first time WVU had ever finished back-to-back seasons in the top-20, much less top-10, and much less three in a row -- Rodriguez has not only left his teams better than he found them, but on historic highs. In that regard, his reputation for quick rehabs is well-deserved.
But how does that translate to Michigan in 2009? There are a couple crucial differences, one in the Wolverines' favor, and one mocking their optimism: a) Unlike any of his previous stays, Rodriguez has a foundation of elite or near-elite talent from banner recruiting efforts, which are just par for the course in Ann Arbor and not prone to delivering two straight disasters; and b) Unlike any of his previous stays, Rodriguez isn't returning a potentially dynamic quarterback. Tate Forcier, in fact, is not only unlikely to resemble Shawn King or Woody Dantzler as a true freshman, he isn't even a lock to finish the season as functional starter. The raw material is there for the same kind of three or four-game jump Rodriguez has orchestrated elsewhere; it would be almost impossible not to massively improve under the circumstances.
But consider that the ultimate goal is also much further away for Michigan than it was for Clemson or West Virginia, who historically can live with solid respectability. Three or four games will only get the Wolverines back to bowl eligibility. But considering where they're coming from, and where they want to be again, those are just baby steps along lost ground.