Last year’s hiring of Rich Rodriguez triggered a sort of hysteria among Michigan football fans. The change from the forty-year reign of Bo Schembechler and his heirs to a new regime with no ties to Wolverine tradition split fans into polar camps.

One group was ecstatic. Early in the 2007 season, Appalachian State, a Division II school, had edged U-M in Ann Arbor using Rodriguez’s very sexy spread offense. The following week, Oregon shredded Michigan with the Rodriguez Spread. For many fans, the humiliation only confirmed their conviction that Michigan football was shackled by stodgy and pedestrian ideas.

Rodriguez had championed the spread in obscure places–Salem College and Glenville State–before taking over as offensive coordinator at hapless Tulane and helping to lead it to a 12-0 season. At West Virginia, Rodriguez inherited a mediocre program and made it a national power. Michigan fans who considered Lloyd Carr’s coaching too conservative looked for a similar transformation–and they expected it pretty much overnight. Add Rodriguez’s avant-garde system to the Wolverines’ abundance of talent, these optimists reasoned, and Michigan would roll.

I found that scenario to be somewhere between the curious and the lunatic. I just couldn’t buy the assumption that four decades of winning seasons, from Schembechler to Carr, were somehow deficient, that the Wolverines’ talent had been held back by unimaginative coaching. Yet it was the majority view, held by even the thoughtful and brilliant. Former Ann Arbor attorney Jon Rowe, for example, told me last year that the 2008 Wolverines “would go 11-1, at least.”

I was in a minority that believed the horses weren’t there in 2008: that U-M did not have a quarterback who fit Rodriguez’s system nor sufficient quality on the offensive line to make his system work. We pessimists believed the defense might be good enough to keep the Wolverines in some games (we were wrong), but the Wolverines just wouldn’t be able to score enough points (we were right). In response to Rowe’s enthusiastic forecast, I hedged that “6-6 would be a pretty reasonable outcome”–feeling I was being perhaps too pessimistic. I never imagined 3-9, even in my worst nightmares.

The Wolverines punctuated their 2008 season by losing to a wretched Toledo team at home. The loss–Michigan’s first ever to a team from the Mid-American Conference–was surrounded by eight more. In one of the three worst seasons in Michigan history, the high points were a sluggish 16-6 win over an awful Miami (Ohio) team, a completely fluky win over Wisconsin and (somehow) an elegant and dominating performance against Minnesota.

Afterward, there were any number of theories about what went wrong. But one thing is certain: bad luck wasn’t involved. The most meaningful stat in football, the one that separates performance from randomness, is yards per pass attempt. In Big Ten play, the Wolverines averaged 3.98 yards per passing attempt, while their opponents averaged 6.9 yards. That minus 2.92-yard differential was, by far, the worst in the Big Ten last year. I doubt that any Big Ten team has ever done significantly worse.

Some of the causes are obvious. Michigan had lost quarterback Chad Henne, left tackle Jake Long, running back Mike Hart, and receivers Adrian Arrington and Mario Manningham to the NFL. Backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, starting right guard Alex Mitchell, Mitchell’s backup Jeremy Ciulla, and starting center Justin Boren didn’t like the new regime (or vice versa), and also departed. Boren told me he didn’t like the frenetic pace of the new offense or the running regimen imposed by Rodriguez’s new conditioning coach, Mike Barwis.

With one returning starter–right tackle Steve Schilling–this was an offense going nowhere under any offensive system. The defense? Hell if I know. But I do know that an offensive staple of three-and-outs makes it tough on any defense. I also suspect that the Michigan weaknesses at safety and linebacker were too much for the defensive line and corners to overcome. As Lloyd Carr has said, “On defense, it is hard to be better than your weakest player.”

Now, if Carr had stayed, so would have Boren, Mitchell, Ciulla, and Mallet. So might have Arrington, and maybe even Manningham (though I suspect Mario would have gone to the pros either way). These players–and a continuity of systems–would have put U-M in a bowl in 2008.

Is it fair to blame Rodriguez for the defections? Well, hearts beat fast at the end of an era. (When Schembechler landed in Ann Arbor in 1969 he lost more than a dozen players–kids who didn’t sign on for the intense Bo, as opposed to the laid-back Bump Elliot.) Mallett, a major talent, had no interest in playing in a spread system that didn’t fit with his abilities. Same deal, perhaps, for Arrington. Hart and Henne had graduated. Mitchell, always struggling with his weight, may have not have preferred the Barwis conditioning system. Boren just didn’t seem to like or adjust to the change in coaches. Change always creates some drama.

The broader issue, for some, is whether Rodriguez is to blame for the debacle. Even though he lost players, Schembechler went 8-3 in 1969 and demolished No. 1-ranked and undefeated Ohio State to win the Big Ten championship. But there were fewer roster restrictions at the time, so even after the defections Bo was left with 113 players. His roster was dotted with future NFL players and seventeen eventual All-Big Ten first-team picks. My guess is that no first-year coach ever found himself with as much talent.

If Bill Martin and Mary Sue Coleman had known that Rodriguez would go 3-9, would they still have hired him? Who knows? But now that they’ve made their multi-million dollar bet, they won’t throw it away after one season, however miserable. The reality is, regardless of record, Rodriguez is here for the next three or four years, minimum.

Rodriguez has been successful at every stop in his career. Carr told me, “I think [Rodriguez] will win a lot of games here before his time is through.” My surmise is that Carr’s prediction will come to pass.

The question is when. Last year reset fans’ historically sky-high expectations for Michigan. Coming into 2009, no one sees U-M as a championship team. No one is crowing about a ten-win season. Instead, the debate is whether the Wolverines will be 5-7 or 7-5. For once, expectations and reality are more or less in unison.

And, unlike last year, I am hopeful. True, U-M will likely be saddled with the learning curve of a freshman quarterback, Tate Forcier. But Forcier was dynamite in the spring game and late-spring scrimmages. He has an accurate arm, can throw while running to the right or left, and has the sort of scrambling ability the spread demands. And, if Forcier falters, Michigan has an experienced quarterback waiting in the wings–Nick Sheridan, who showed improvement in the spring. The Wolverines also have the fastest QB on the planet (no exaggeration), freshman Denard Robinson, as a competitor this fall. And, unlike last year, the offense now understands the Rodriguez spread.

Pre-Rodriguez, running was the weakness of the spread offense: it was impossible to get a blocking advantage, or even to have the same number of blockers as defenders at the point of attack. Rodriguez’s key contribution to football theory was his realization that if you have a sufficiently nimble quarterback, there’s no need to block the backside end–the defensive end away from the direction of the play.

Suppose that, out of the shotgun, the running back is positioned to the right of the quarterback and runs to the left when the ball is snapped. If the backside defensive end (now to the right of the QB) holds his position, it’s safe for the quarterback to hand off the ball to the running back, who will continue left with the support of at least as many blockers as defenders. If instead the backside end “crashes” (making a radical run to the play side), a quick QB can fake the handoff and swivel outside of the crashing end into an open running lane. Whichever way this “read option” plays out, no one lays a hand on the backside end. It’s as if the QB blocks him without touching him.

Last year, the Wolverines struggled with the backside crash, since none of their QBs could either make the read or get through the fleeting openings. Forcier (and probably Robinson) can.

The offensive line, a disaster in 2008, will also be better this year. Two young tackles, Mark Huyge and Patrick Omameh, have emerged, and their fight at the right side will allow Steve Schilling to move to left guard, a better fit for him. The rest of the line–David Molk (center), David Moosman (right guard), and Mark Ortmann (left tackle)–now understand the spread and are physically more imposing, thanks to Barwis’s conditioning. And with a couple of quality redshirt frosh pushing the starters, the offensive line should have plenty of depth.

The so-called skilled positions are fine. Kevin Koger and Martell Webb may be as good as a pair of tight ends as Rodriguez has ever had. Roy Roundtree, a freshman wide receiver, seems poised to break out and help the experienced Greg Mathews, Tay Odoms, Junior Hemingway, and LaTerryal Savoy. Redshirt frosh Terrence Robinson will get some time. Excellent recruits are on the way. No problems here.

Michigan is also in good shape at running back. Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown have experience, ability, and speed. In spring drills, freshman Vincent Smith looked like he might be able to break into the lineup. Fullback Mark Moundros is proven. Again, there shouldn’t be any problems.

The defense is an enigma. Defensive end Brandon Graham will be an All-Big Ten player, at the least. Defensive tackle Mike Martin is a weight-room beast with remarkably quick feet for a big man playing inside. Michigan has two skilled corners in Boubacar Cissoko and Donovan Warren. Hopefully, J.T. Floyd will be a third. Most teams are fortunate to have one. Plus, first-year corner/safety J.T. Turner may be too good to keep off the field.

But after this the questions begin. The defensive line lacks depth, especially at tackle. Will Campbell, an all-world high school player from Detroit, will be forced into early action. Ryan Van Bergen should be a reasonable complement to Brandon Graham at the other defensive end, but if either is injured, new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson won’t have a lot of places to turn. Backup ends Adam Patterson and Greg Banks and starting tackle Renaldo Sagesse all need to step up. Craig Roh, a freshman this fall, is a likely future star, but he needs a year in the weight room.

Over the past couple of years Michigan’s linebacking and safety play has ranged from erratic to terrible. This year, there is reason to believe that it will be better. Obi Ezeh, in the middle, is experienced and has shown promise. Jonas Mouton, making the transition from safety to outside linebacker, should be improved over last year. The other linebacking position is up for grabs (Brandon Herron, another weight-room star, has the inside track at the moment). Safety also remains unsettled, with Stevie Brown and Mike Williams being pushed by Troy Woolfolk and frosh Vlad Emilien and Brandon Smith. As much as any position, safety may be the key to the defense this year.

Defensive coordinator Robinson has been around the block–among other stops, he has been defensive coordinator for the University of Texas and the NFL’s New York Jets, Denver Broncos, and Kansas City Chiefs. He was defensive coach for teams that have won four Rose Bowls and two Super Bowls. He is 8-0 in bowl games. His reputation is that coaches and players both respect and respond to him, that he is “high energy” and “creative,” a coach who is able to adjust his defenses to the type of talent available,

Robinson has already shown flexibility and creativity in making adjustments to the talent he has and the trend in offensive football toward spreading the field. His brilliant but luckless predecessor, Scott Shafer, seemed most comfortable with a traditional defensive line, either 4-3 (four linemen and three linebackers) or 3-4 (three linemen and four linebackers, a la Schembechler). Robinson has created something he calls a “spinner”: a player who sometimes lines up as a defensive end and other times flexes off the line and acts as an additional linebacker. This allows the defense to “zone blitz,” attacking the quarterback with a linebacker or a safety while dropping the spinner into pass coverage.

Robinson also is likely to take Stevie Brown, a cross in ability between a linebacker and a safety, and use him as a wild card on defense. Sometimes, Brown will be in traditional coverage, as a nickel (fifth defensive) back. Other times, he may line up as an extra linebacker, in either “under” (the safeties) coverage or in helping to stuff the run.

Can any of this work? Sure. Anything can work with the right players. But coming off last year’s experience, no one is assuming it will. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that Robinson has the classic nose guard for the 3-4 defense. It also seems unlikely he can find a player with deathbacking skills–a guy who can play both defensive end and linebacker is rare. As one smart poster on MGoBlog said, “After having very low expectations for 2008, I now officially have NO expectations for the 2009 season. HOPE is a four letter word.”

I do not share the pessimism this time around, though I concede Michigan may have to score a lot of points to win games. If Forcier stays healthy, U-M will make it to a bowl game this year. Since there should be five “easy” wins on the schedule (Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Delaware State, Indiana, and Purdue), this is no great achievement. Still, anything beyond 7-5 should be cause for celebration this year. Anything worse than 6-6 should be cause for concern.

The game is on in 2010, when expectations return to normal in Ann Arbor.