British Petroleum had a worse year than Rich Rodriguez, but not by much. Yet there was Rich Rod, the third-year Michigan coach whose name has become a synonym for embattled, bantering cheerfully last week with longtime Wolverines radio color commentator Jim Brandstatter about the glories of two-a-days. "This is our best time of year," said Rodriguez. "Football all day and all night."
There can be no doubting this man's zeal for preparation, as recent headlines have made abundantly clear. Following a lengthy in-house investigation, Michigan announced in May that the program, under Rich Rod's watch, had committed at least four major violations, each related to the coaches' disregard of NCAA limits on practice times. Having admitted guilt, the athletic department recommended that the football program spend two years on probation.
Will Rodriguez survive the widespread calls for his head and be around at the end of those two years? Significant light will be shed on that question starting on Saturday, when the Wolverines host a dangerous Connecticut team that finished last season with four straight wins. How improved is this year's Michigan squad over the 5--7 team that lost seven of eight Big Ten games last season? "We're gonna find out in a hurry," says Rodriguez.
What Michigan fans won't find out until game day is who will begin the season at quarterback. After leading the team to a 4--0 start last year as a freshman, Tate Forcier's fall from grace was downright ... Rodriguez-like. Forcier was, by his own admission, less than fully committed during off-season workouts and was publicly called out by teammates and Rich Rod. The unkindest cut: Early in two-a-days Forcier was one of a handful of Wolverines forced to practice without the iconic "wings" on his helmet, a public shaming meted out to players whose commitment Rodriguez deemed substandard.
Charging through the door left open by Forcier is sophomore Denard Robinson, who relied too heavily on his blazing speed last year. A light went on for Robinson during spring practice: He has looked much more at ease both passing the ball and executing this offense's bread-and-butter play, the zone-read option.
Is the UConn game a must-win? No. But if the Wolverines fail to achieve at least a split in their first two games—they're at Notre Dame in Week 2—the howls for Rich Rod's firing will become very loud indeed. Dave Brandon, Michigan's first-year athletic director, has ridiculed the notion that the coach's job is linked to a victory total. Academics, recruiting and player conduct will also influence his decision, Brandon says.
That said, if Michigan doesn't win at least eight games (possibly seven, if one of the wins is over Ohio State), Rich Rod will be losing more than his wings.
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Like the Michigan-UConn matchup, these season openers also have much on the line. Boise State--Virginia Tech in Landover, Md. Boise's first real shot at the BCS title game will be busted early if the Broncos can't stop running back Ryan Williams (below) and the Hokies in this Labor Day matchup. Oregon State--TCU in Arlington, Texas. Call it the Resourcefulness Bowl: Beavers coach Mike Riley and Frogs coach Gary Patterson are two of the best at maximizing talent. LSU--North Carolina in Atlanta. Les Miles and his underachieving Tigers need this game, but perhaps not as desperately as the Heels, now being investigated for NCAA rules violations, stemming from possible agent and academic improprieties.
JOHN BIEVER (RODRIGUEZ AND FORCIER)
WINGED MAN Rodriguez returned the "wings" to Forcier (5) but has not decided whether to start him or Robinson (below).
TONY DING/AP (ROBINSON)
[See caption above]