Maize N' Brew: I think Rich is pretty safe at this point. No one is "off" his back at this point because, no matter what, a 7 or 8 win season is never really enough at Michigan. The fan base as a whole expects 9-10 wins every year and to be in the top 10 consistently. Just how it is. Rodriguez is definitely looking at a return next year, but dropping the next three (bowl game included) in horrific fashion could make things REALLY uncomfortable over the off season. Personally I think Michigan plays competitively in its next two games and wins whatever bowl they go to, so Rodriguez should be looking at a really good team returning next season and a defense that might finally be mediocre enough to put them in the Big Ten title discussion.
B5Q: Is your defense better than it is getting credited for or is it actually as bad as it seems? Why has it struggled so much? Is Rich Rod only getting top recruits on offense?
MNB: No, it's as bad as it seems. Michigan's defense is just really, really young in the back eight. No one starting in the back five (2CB/2S/1LBHybrid) has more than a full year under their belt. The only "veteran" of the group is Jordan Kovacs (safety), and he's a sophomore who didn't start until a quarter of the way through last season. Senior James Rogers never saw the field until this year, and before that he was a receiver. Then you move to the unqualified disaster that's been the Michigan linebacking corps. Obi Ezeh, a three year starter at MLB, was finally benched against MSU. Jonas Mouton, arguably the most athletic LB, is as much a threat to his own assignments as he is to the opposing team. Uncertainty as to who's playing LB/DE hybrid, bad personnel decisions, youth and inexperience have all conspired to make this an awful defense.But it is getting better. Since Ezeh ceded his role to Kenny Demens, the linebacker play has gotten exponentially better. Mike Martin, if healthy, is the best nose tackle/defensive tackle in the Big Ten. And finally, Michigan seems to have settled on two safeties that have a clue what they're doing. This isn't a good defense. Not even close. But it's no longer the worst defense I've ever seen in my life because people are getting better and some of the play has improved. With regard to the recruiting question, Rodriguez has gotten a number of high profile recruits on defense. The problem has been getting them on campus and/or keeping them there. There has been a number of washouts. Some due to effort, some to injuries, and some to bad luck. But there are some good players on D, specifically on the line that red-shirted and some very good linebacking recruiting for next year. Rodriguez is a very good recruiter and I think people will be surprised by the quality of athletes that start showing up on defense over the next few years.
B5Q: What’s the biggest win in the Rich Rod era? The 2008 comeback against Wisconsin has to be right up there, right?
MNB: The 2008 Wisconsin game was awesome, as I was there and was in the corner of the endzone that Chris Graham rumbled into on the INT, but it's a distant second to the 2010 Illinois game. It wasn't just the score that makes it memorable. That was the first time under Rodriguez that Michigan was bowl eligible, and after two years in the woods, that's a big deal. I think this assessment will change over time, but right now, that's his biggest win.
B5Q: To me, there’s little doubt that was the worst loss for Wisconsin in the Bret Bielema era. Since that season, there has been an attitude adjustment inside the UW football program and as corny as that sounds, it has worked. This is a team that leads the country in fewest penalties and fewest turnovers. I believe that ’08 loss in Michigan has been a big motivator for that attitude change and a win Saturday in Ann Arbor would mean a lot for Bielema and the players who were embarrassed two years ago. Are you worried that will play a factor in Saturday’s game?
MNB: Not really. That loss, while embarrassing, won't play into it for most of the Michigan team. There were four, maybe five guys on defense that played in that game and maybe a half dozen members of the offense. When you put a lot of emphasis on a game like that to correct past failings, it puts a lot of pressure on the kids playing to be perfect. And that's not Wisconsin's strength. Wisconsin's at its best when it's playing loose and simply steamrolling teams with its running game. If Wisconsin's made a big point about not being as careless with the ball as they were in 2008, that's fine, but it won't effect how Michigan prepares.
B5Q: I’ve already heard from Michigan fans who think the Wolverines will win this game. Who do you think will win and by how much?
MNB: I've heard from them too. In my heart I'm thinking there's a chance Michigan can win this game. They're due for a big win this season, and by "big" I mean an upset. The offense will play better at home and out of the rain. The defense looks like it's getting its act in gear. There are plenty of reasons to be positive.But the ugly reality is Wisconsin's a much better team than Michigan this year. Some of you may remember I picked the Badgers to win the Big Ten outright and be our BCS representative. Wisconsin is a power running team that will most likely eat Michigan's diminutive defensive line for lunch, en route to scoring a lot of points. I think the two most similar offenses in the conference are Iowa and Michigan St., and Michigan did not fair well against either team, so I'm not predicting a Michigan victory on Saturday.
Before the season started I predicted Michigan would go 7-5, including a loss (likely a big one) to Wisconsin. I put this game in the "no chance in hell" pile, and left it at that. Now that the season's almost over and I know what both teams are capable of, I think Michigan can probably hang with Wisconsin. However, unless the Wolverines suddenly race out to a 20 point lead I can't see them walking away with a win this year. Wisconsin probably wins this one by at least a two touchdown margin, but I can see this game coming down to the final minutes if the breaks go Michigan's way. And if that's the case, who the hell knows.