The summer of 2010 has been one of discontent for Michigan football. On the heels of 3-9 and 5-7 seasons (with a combined 3-13 in the Big Ten) new athletic director David Brandon proclaimed that “Rich Rodriguez is our coach for this year.” This very circumscribed support prompted intense speculation on Main Street and Media Street–what record does U-M need to achieve so that Rich Rod keeps his job?

Most guesses range from a 6-6 record and a bowl game invitation to an 8-4 season with a good win over a primary rival. But one former player who’s remained close to the program calls such speculation naive. “Brandon is three steps ahead,” this source says. “He knows where he wants to go and where the vagaries of events will lead him. He isn’t simply reactive. He has contingencies.” This implies there aren’t any hard-and-fast benchmarks and many more factors than the win-loss record: Any further problems with the NCAA. The deportment of the kids Rodriguez has brought to the program (well above average, so far). How recruiting goes in the fall. But, most of all, a subjective evaluation of “how did the team play?” and “were we better than last year?”

Some 7-5 seasons could see Rich Rod on a greasy skid to Palookaville. Some 6-6 seasons could see him around for another run. Another 5-7 record? Well, it had better be a pretty remarkable 5-7. With three cream puffs on the docket (U Mass, Western, Bowling Green), that would leave the Wolverines just 2-7 against “real” teams. It would also be the first time in school history that U-M has three consecutive losing football seasons.

The other summer topic has been “who starts at quarterback?” Though Tate Forcier started every game last season, Denard Robinson had a remarkable spring. While Forcier might throw the ball a bit better, Robinson has closed the gap in understanding the offense and in the passing game. He showed a remarkable big-play ability, one few players anywhere possess. Fans oohed and aahed at Robinson’s open spring scrimmage performance, but his (closed) practice performance on the prior weekend is said to have been even more impressive. One high school coach who was present observed that “Denard just likes to run into traffic to make the defense look sick.”

At the close of the spring the betting was on Robinson to win the starting job, but Rodriguez will keep his options open as the season unfolds. Both QBs will get their chances.

The Michigan offense should be good, and maybe dynamite, this fall. There might be some question about right tackle. They may not have a receiver who can stretch the defense as well as Rich Rod might prefer. The running backs are unproven. But Rodriguez’s offensive system has proven that it works, and he now has enough of the pieces to make it work here.

The defense is a different matter. Last year’s generally unsuccessful unit lost its three best players. The question is whether a continuity of defensive coordinators (for the first time in four years), greater depth (there was none the last two years), and the chance that some younger players will break out will be enough to push the unit to defensive competence.

If Michigan’s defense improves over last year, Rich Rod should be back for 2011. If not, the answer lies on Brandon’s chessboard of algorithms.