Michigan vs Penn State 2010 Preview

he question Michigan fans seem to be asking most heading into tomorrow’s showdown with Penn State: Is this a must-win for Rich Rodriguez?

The answer: I really hope not.

I say this not because I think Michigan will lose on Saturday, but because they definitely could lose (the Wolverines are only a three-point favorite) and I don’t want Rodriguez to lose his job if they do.

First of all, let’s go over two assumptions regarding Michigan’s four remaining opponents after Penn State:

Michigan will lose to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Even the most optimistic Michigan fans counted these two games as losses in the preseason. Not enough has changed since then to think otherwise.

Michigan will beat Purdue and Illinois. These two games get a W next to them, but we should write them in pencil, as opposed to the ink used for the L’s. If we’re considering these wins, perhaps we should consider Penn State a win, too, but I still think Penn State on the road is tougher than Illinois at home or Purdue on the road.

With a loss in Happy Valley, Michigan (5-2) gets to 7-5 at best and potentially finishes 6-6, which would mean the 2010 collapse was just as bad as last year. But I don’t think Rodriguez should be fired even if this does happen.

Football, especially college football, is not like the other major sports. A new coach, even a good one, often sets you back three or four years as he implements his system and gets the recruits he needs to make it work. Look at a once-proud program like Notre Dame. Michigan does not want to go down that road.

If Rich Rodriguez looks like this in tomorrow’s press conference, it could spell doom for the Michigan football program. (Credit: Greg Dooley/MVictors.com)

Rodriguez is in Year Three in Ann Arbor; you might argue that is enough time to show meaningful progress and another season without beating a quality opponent should mean he gets fired. I’d argue he has shown meaningful progress. Remember the Wolverine offense in 2008, Rich Rod’s first year? A walk on started games at quarterback and not just because of injuries. The offensive line resembled a group of oversized matadors. Two years later, Michigan has the second best offense in the country as far as yards per game. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.

The defense and special teams have regressed since Lloyd Carr left, but astute Michigan followers know this is not all Rodriguez’s fault. Carr’s defensive recruiting was extremely weak in his final year and there have been an unusually high number of transfers. I’m not making excuses for Rodriguez, and I still think he should be held accountable at the end of the day, but I have reason to believe the defense can be competent next year and more Michigan-esque in 2012 and beyond.

The good news? New athletic director Dave Brandon seems to understand this. He’s repeatedly said there’s not a win quota for Rodriguez to keep his job. I think it will take a truly epic collapse—winless from here on out—for Brandon to replace the head coach. On the other hand, there is pressure on Brandon to get the football program on the right track. Even if it goes against his gut he could feel obligated to axe Rodriguez; I view this is doubtful, however.

Regardless of who starts at quarterback for Penn State tomorrow (it is rumored to be a walk on sophomore; sound familiar?) or how many injuries the Nittany Lions have on defense, a victory in Happy Valley still means something—in this case, it also means a trip to a bowl game (and in my opinion a guaranteed seven wins and really good shot at eight, which would exceed all but the most optimistic preseason projections).

A loss would be bad, no doubt, but if it leads to Rodriguez’s firing it would probably be the program’s most devastating loss in 25 years.

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