Rich Rodriguez's third season at Michigan begins with an intriguing test Saturday, when his old Big East foe, Connecticut, visits Ann Arbor. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Michigan Stadium is fixed up all nice and shiny and bricky, which is excellent timing. Now the most-influential alums can complain about the coach, as well as the temperature of the shrimp scampi, from the quiet of glassed-in luxury boxes.
Perfect. And maybe someone can explain how an 83-year old stadium gets rebuilt quicker than a football team. (Ouch.)
Kidding aside, I heard Rich Rodriguez was consulted on the stadium renovations, and all he specifically requested was they not leave behind any bare cupboards. (Ba-da-bum).
But seriously folks, the stadium looks great. The scoreboard bulbs to light up the visiting team's total aren't even burnt out yet. And those fans way, way up in the skyboxes might notice the Michigan players appear smaller. It's not an optical illusion. All those tiny fast guys? Those are just the starting quarterbacks!
Obviously, this Rich "Lightning" Rod experiment is still going through an, ahem, adjustment period. That's what makes Saturday's game against Connecticut so huge, the biggest Michigan opener ever against a team from Connecticut. Rodriguez has to improve his 8-16 record or new athletic director Dave Brandon will rupture facial muscles straining to explain how much he still supports his coach.
It's unfair to suggest a victory total needed for Rodriguez to get off the hot seat, and no one is doing that. And by "no one," I mean "everyone." I have no idea, but if I were Rodriguez, I'd try very hard to at least go 7-5, beat Michigan State and lose by fewer than three touchdowns to Ohio State. I think he can (honestly, I sort of do).
These are strange times indeed, as another season starts with Big Ten darkhorse Michigan State picked higher than Michigan. The Wolverines are coming off a 5-7 season, which allowed the Spartans to steal all the glory with their 6-7 record.
The point is, there ain't much cause for braggin'. Look around our state, and there's nary a defense in sight. I don't mean to be an alarmist, but if you put together Michigan's defense and Michigan State's defense and the Lions' defense, you'd have a core that maybe could serve as Alabama's backup defense.
I exaggerate (slightly). Cut me some slack. I'm entering another year of dumbfounding prognostication without some of my favorite fools and foils. Notre Dame has a new haughty coach, Brian Kelly, and a noticeably sleeker look. I don't know why, but with Charlie Weis there, I never could get my arms around that program.
Naturally, much of the focus will be on Ann Arbor, where these days you're likely to see black helicopters hovering and dark-suited men whispering into their sleeves. Clouds can lift with one stirring performance, no doubt, but two things have to concern the Wolverines.
1.) Connecticut is pretty good, and has to be perpetually grumpy considering the school's women's basketball team is much, much more popular.
2.) At last month's hearing, the NCAA made it clear to Michigan there were explicit rules limiting the number of defensive players on the field, and under no circumstances would a 3-3-5-3-5 alignment be permitted.
This has been a difficult period for Michigan fans, who watched the same brand of football, ate the same musty hot dogs and used the same rusty bathroom facilities in the ol' stadium for decades. It takes a while to get used to all the new features -- not waiting as long for the potty, not going to bowls, not being able to dismiss the NCAA enforcement dweebs with a wave of their bejeweled hands.
To a certain degree, I feel for Rodriguez, who had no idea what he was getting into here. He has charisma and stubbornness, normally fine traits in a coach. They're just more embraceable when paired with these traits -- "quarterback" and "defense."
Maybe Denard "Untied Shoelaces" Robinson will be the spark Michigan craves. Maybe Tate Forcier earned back his helmet wings for a reason, by adjusting his helmet size.
Someone has to tie it all together, quickly. When the Big Ten split into two divisions, Michigan people scratched their heads and said, "Hey, we split into separate divisions three years ago!"
The Rodriguez Camp still exists, smaller but passionate. For all the mutterings and musings, there's only one way to grow it. I've got to believe, as the dust settles on the new stadium, he will have his team prepared. (Note to NCAA: Not over-prepared! Check the practice logs!)
Pick: Michigan 34, Connecticut 27
Pick: Michigan State, 41-13
Pick: Notre Dame, 27-17
Pick: Virginia Tech, 24-21
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