Best case-worst case: Michigan

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The fourth installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.


Tate the Great and "Shoelace" Robinson flummox opponents, the defense rebounds under Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez's history of Year 2 turnarounds continues.

Rodriguez's spread offense starts to take shape around the freshmen quarterbacks, who are suited to the system. The veterans at running back, wide receiver and offensive line ease the transition early before Tate Forcier and/or Denard Robinson takes control by the start of Big Ten play. Senior Brandon Minor headlines a strong stable of running backs and earns first-team All-Big Ten honors by rushing for 1,400 yards. The receiving corps also steps up, buoyed by the return of Junior Hemingway and former Michigan hoopster Kelvin Gray. Michigan's defense overcomes inexperience up front and in the secondary, and plays as a cohesive unit. Brandon Graham leads the league in sacks while linebacker Obi Ezeh tops the tackles chart. Punter Zoltan Mesko gets a lot less work but still wins the Ray Guy Award.

Michigan begins by doing something it last accomplished in 2006 -- win the season opener. The defense holds off Tim Hiller and Western Michigan, setting up a matchup against Notre Dame. Graham and Mike Martin bulldoze the overhyped Fighting Irish line and punish Jimmy Clausen all afternoon as Michigan pulls a mini upset and prevails 24-14. Loaded with confidence, the Wolverines stomp all over both Eastern Michigan and Indiana to complete a 4-0 start.

The team hits the road for the first time and regains in-state bragging rights by rallying to beat Michigan State in the fourth quarter. Michigan vaults into the top 20. After a loss at Iowa, Michigan handles Delaware State easily. The Wolverines split their next two games against Penn State and Illinois but pound Purdue on Nov. 7, as Robinson rushes for three touchdowns.

The last two regular-season games won't be easy, as Michigan visits Madison before hosting archrival Ohio State. But by now, the offense has started to ro
ll and the young defenders have settled in around Graham, Ezeh and Donovan Warren. Michigan wins a close one at Wisconsin before taking Ohio State to the brink on Nov. 21. It'd take a lot to see the Wolverines upset the Buckeyes, but hey, this is a best-case scenario, so what the heck. The streak ends at five games as Terrelle Pryor throws three picks.

At 10-2, Michigan heads to the Capital One Bowl and beats Mississippi in a shootout. Fans finally embrace Rodriguez and his style, forgetting 2008 and all the player departures during the transition. Minor finishes as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, and Graham wins Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Michigan is back.


A 2008 redux at quarterback, more mistakes crop up on defense, Mesko leads the nation in punt attempts and Michigan misses a bowl for the second straight year.

Despite more experience elsewhere on offense, the quarterback position dooms the Wolverines again. Rodriguez plays all three candidates and none settles into a rhythm, allowing defenses to load up to stop the running game. Opponents double-team Graham and wipe away the pass rush, allowing their quarterbacks to exploit the obvious weaknesses in the secondary. Mesko leads the nation in punting and Michigan stumbles out of the gate again.

Another season opener, another loss, as Michigan falls to Western Michigan and Hiller, who tosses four touchdown passes. Clausen takes note the next week and eclipses Hiller's touchdowns total by one as Golden Tate and Michael Floyd make Michigan's secondary look silly. The Wolverines get booed as they head to halftime down 28-7 and never get within 14 points of the Irish. After an underwhelming win against Eastern Michigan that evokes memories of last year's Miami (Ohio) triumph, Michigan evens its record at 2-2 by outlasting Indiana.

The problems on offense can't be masked for long, and Michigan's first road trip results in a long afternoon for Forcier and Robinson. Michigan State further establishes itself as the team to beat in the state with a 31-17 victory. Things only get worse the next week in Iowa City, as Michigan fails to get on the scoreboard against the talented Hawkeyes defense. After taking care of Delaware State, the Wolverines see their home win streak against Penn State end at five games.

Another loss follows at Illinois, as Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn hook up for three touchdowns. Needing a perfect finish to keep its bowl hopes alive, Michigan survives against Purdue but drops its final two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Buckeyes roll once again, extending their win streak to six games as Pryor accounts for six touchdowns (4 pass, 2 rush).

At 4-8, Rodriguez's future seems very much in doubt. After some extensive deliberation, AD Bill Martin decides to keep the coach, but says a significant improvement must be made in 2010. Several key players leave the team, including one of the freshman quarterbacks, which puts Rodriguez and his staff in a negative light yet again. Mesko winds up as Michigan's only first-team All-Big Ten representative. Ohio State wins its fifth straight league title and the Rose Bowl.