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Monday, September 13, 2010
Easier to believe in Michigan this time

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

As Michigan players celebrated early Saturday evening at Notre Dame Stadium, two thoughts came to mind for many folks.

1. We've seen this movie before.

2. It doesn't end well.

The script goes like this ...

Rich Rodriguez
The hot start by coach Rich Rodriguez's Michigan team this season feels familiar.
Michigan enters the season under intense scrutiny. ... The offseason hasn't brought much joy. ... Coach Rich Rodriguez is under fire. ... The Wolverines open against an opponent believed to be pretty decent and projected, at least by some, to win the game. ... Michigan handles the opponent easily behind the magic of a young quarterback. ... The Wolverines then face rival Notre Dame and provide one of the season's best games to date. ... The young quarterback leads the game-winning touchdown drive and Michigan beats the Irish by four points. ... The young quarterback receives national acclaim ... The Wolverines enter the AP Poll for the first time that season.

There's only a handful of differences between Michigan's start to 2009 and 2010.
In 2009, the Wolverines fizzled after their fast start, dropping seven of their final eight games to miss a bowl game, an unthinkable result after the Notre Dame win. Forcier had his ups and downs, though he got no help from a defense that melted down faster than a Popsicle in Tucson.

As Michigan left the field after its sixth consecutive loss to archrival Ohio State, destined for another winter at home, the fast start felt like years away.

What's to say it won't happen again this year?

Connecticut and Notre Dame both could be overrated, as Western Michigan and Notre Dame were in 2009. Michigan's defense is still prone to major breakdowns, like letting a tight end get behind everyone for a 95-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, as Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph did Saturday. In the coming weeks, the Wolverines will face better defenses from Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State, units unlikely to get embarrassed by Robinson. And how long can Robinson last after carrying the ball 57 times in the first two games?

These are all valid concerns, and they could come to fruition.

The similarities between 2010 and 2009 certainly are present, but so are several key differences that should translate into a better end result.

Here are three of them.

1. Robinson: His numbers are simply mind-boggling, as ESPN Stats & Information details here. You rarely see players set records like these in their first two career starts. But it's more than the numbers. Robinson is working his magic within the confines of Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. It isn't just a gifted player making plays; it's how Rodriguez's offense is supposed to look when in rhythm. Forcier also dazzled us last season, but he did his best work as an innovator, outside the pocket and, in many cases, outside the structure of the offense. Once defenses forced him to stay in the pocket, he made mistakes. This isn't a knock against Forcier, who showed a ton of guts as a freshman, but in some ways, he was a better improviser than quarterback in 2009. Robinson's passing ability provides another element, and I've been really impressed with his throws and decision-making in clutch situations, particularly on third down. If defenses have to respect his arm, he'll be even more dangerous.

2. The offensive line: Pegged as one of the team's strengths entering the fall, the line has met the challenge. Center David Molk provides a huge lift in the interior, and Michigan has better depth throughout the group. Robinson clearly doesn't need much room to gash defenses, and the line is providing enough. Michigan hasn't allowed a sack through the first two games after allowing 28 last season. The Wolverines need to get their other running backs going, but so far, the line looks solid. Perhaps most important, there's a greater familiarity throughout the offense of what is expected.

3. Defense: Will this be a top-30 defense? No. But it won't be as bad as last season's unit, either. The front seven has some solid pieces, including Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Jonas Mouton, who is stepping up nicely at linebacker after some struggles in 2009. A young secondary remains a major concern and breakdowns like the one against Rudolph simply can't happen, but the upcoming schedule (Massachusetts, Bowling Green, Indiana) should give the group time to mature.

We could end up seeing a 2009 re-run, which likely would spell the end for Rodriguez. Robinson's health is a HUGE concern going forward. And if Michigan falls apart, I'll be the first to say I was wrong.

But this team looks different.

Will Michigan win 10 games? Probably not. But I don't see another collapse, either.

It's easier to buy in this time around.