As I settle into my easy chair this Saturday to watch the Wolverines battle Mississippi State in the annual Gator Bowl, I will carry the same question from kickoff to final whistle: what will it ultimately mean? What will a win, or loss, actually speak about the Michigan football program, its players, its coaches and … its future?
What will it say for a 7-5 team to face one of the middle rung squads (8-4 on the season) of the Southeastern Conference, albeit a nationally-ranked middle-of-the-pack team? And what happens on Jan, 2 when the dust clears and all eyes return to the future of UM head coach Rich Rodriguez?
Here’s what I know: If Michigan loses the game, Rodriguez most likely will have coached his last game in Ann Arbor. If the Wolverines win, and do it impressively, RichRod will be back for 2011; athletic director Dave Brandon will not have the ammunition to fire him.
Michigan accepted this bowl bid because it will bring more revenue to the school; it IS a New Year’s Day appearance at a recognized post-season encounter (really, who knows any history about the Insight.com Bowl????); and it will bring exposure to whatever progress has been accomplished in the last three seasons under Rodriguez.
The folks in Jacksonville, Florida invited Michigan because they were contractually obligated to have a Big 10 team and were delighted with UM because of its vast reputation in college football history and … they want to showcase Denard Robinson in their game. He will be a top three Heisman Trophy candidate for 2011 and what better way to inaugurate that campaign than with a huge showing at Raymond James Stadium.
With “Shoelace” at the helm, Michigan, when healthy, possesses one of the top five offenses in the nation. Sadly, too many people were absent against Ohio State in what had to be the worst performance of the 2010 season and THE most disappointing (the overall effort did not match the game’s importance).
Conversely, it turns out that Robinson’s first start proved to be the team’s best win this season – 30-10 over BCS bowl-bound and eventual Big East champion Connecticut in what was the best defensive effort of the year (I know the triple overtime win over Illinois was the most exciting game but it exposed everything that was wrong with Michigan.
So what does anyone in Michigan actually KNOW about Mississippi State? Most people don’t even know where the school is located (Starkville), the coach’s name (Dan Mullen in his first head coaching job in his second season after going 5-7 in 2009) or any “star” for the Bulldogs (you got me there).
Why the Bulldogs are ranked, and why they are a 4 ½-point favorite is a mystery. Mississippi State is clearly the little brother in that state and its signature victory in the 2010 season was over Ole Miss (31-23 in the regular season finale called the Egg Bowl … really?). The ‘Dogs only defeated three teams, all 6-6 (Georgia, Florida and Kentucky), that got bids to minor level games.
The four losses, all in SEC action, were home games against Auburn (17-14) and Arkansas (38-31 in double overtime) and on the road at LSU (29-7) and Alabama (30-10). They average 27.1 points per game and allow a smidge over 20 points per contest, although the defense has surrendered 30 or more points more than twice.
In my mind, the game comes down to Robinson’s ability to dominate the action on offense (if his receiving corps is healthy, it’s a wide-open attack; if not, it will be difficult to reach the 35 points I predict Michigan will score) and the Michigan defense successfully making stops in the Bulldog end of the field.
I’m predicting UM 35, MSU 24 because Michigan’s kicking woes won’t be solved in Florida for any fourth-down opportunity will not mean three-point tries.
And, as said before, most likely come Monday, the REAL game begins about Rodriguez’ continuance as Michigan head coach. So the question remains” what will it ultimately mean?