For the first time I can recall, the Michigan football program experienced what can truly be called a tumultuous offseason. The hiring of Rich Rodriguez immediately brought problems relating to his departure from West Virginia and allegations of destroyed files. The heir apparent at quarterback, Ryan Mallett, noted R-Rod's spread offense and that as a pure dropback passer he wasn't the guy to run it. Mallett quickly transferred to Arkansas. This on top of a year in which the Wolverines lost a considerable amount of talent to the NFL, including the top overall draft pick in Jake Long.
Michigan will no doubt be ready to just step on the field and play football. Conventional wisdom says the program needs a year of adjustment to the Rodriguez system, and that does appear to be the case with the offense. Freshman Steven Threet is projected to start at quarterback and there is not a single senior projected to start anywhere on O. For a program as accomplished as UM, this dearth of senior step-ins is almost unheard of.
One place that won't be a problem is at running back. Michael Hart will be missed, particularly his leadership qualities, but both Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor are solid replacements. But on a unit riddled with youth at quarterback, receiver and offensive line, it's going to be tough sledding. Mark Snyder of The Detroit Free Press reports that position switches have already begun, with John Ferrara jumping from defense to offensive line, as Rodriguez attempts to make the transition a little less rocky.
The mood on defense is a little brighter, with all four starters up front back in the fold. The secondary is similarly stacked, with three-year starter Morgan Trent returning at corner to lead a talented and experienced group. Defense hasn't carried the day in Ann Arbor for some time now, but it looks like 2008 will be different.
Rodriguez won't get the luxury of breaking his team in against an easy schedule. The home opener is against a good Utah team, the same program that won the Fiesta Bowl in 2004, and a road trip to a potentially rejuvenated Notre Dame will be tough. UM also plays both Penn State & Ohio State on the road, and if the team doesn't find its footing quickly a September 27 home game with Wisconsin could easily turn into a loss.
The possibility Michigan could finish with a losing record has been floated. While it's not unthinkable, given the transition chaos on offense, I think there is too much talent on defense to let that happen. Defense makes sure you win the games you're supposed to win, and there's enough of those that Rodriguez can at least get seven or eight victories. Anything beyond that though, would be a major surprise.