What does it say about the state of your favorite football team when, the day after they play their biggest rival, the only comments you get from fans of the other team are expressions of pity or sympathy?
That's what I got on Sunday. "I felt sorry for you yesterday." "Sorry that happened." "I'm just not going to say anything. I could, but I won't." At one level, that probably says something about the rivalry itself, which has been decidedly one-sided since 2004. I honestly don't remember what a victory the last game of November feels like anymore. And I worry that I'm developing some sort of Stockholm Syndrome-like thing about it...like I'll totally freak out when Michigan actually wins and I won't be able to handle it.
But I get the feeling that it says much more about the state of the program as a whole. One could argue that, regardless of the final score, the games between Michigan and Ohio State '04-'07 were between two evenly-matched, deep, experienced, and competitive teams. Beginning in 2008, however, Michigan has lost 42-7, 21-10, and 37-7. In those years, there has not been one win over a team that was ranked in the top 25 at the end of the season. There were a couple thrills that turned out to be mirages, but that's been it. Since 2008, Michigan has never beaten Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, or Iowa. They got a fluke win over Wisconsin in '08, but in the past two years the Badgers have steamrolled their way to victories going away.
So when Buckeye fans approach me no longer wanting to gloat, but instead offering condolences, I think it's because they see how crappy of a team I have to root for nowadays, and they themselves remember what it was like to beat good Michigan teams...the past three games have been laughably uneven. Michigan has not only lost to OSU and other high-end Big Ten teams the past three years, they have been demolished. And after three years of this stuff, one wonders whether it will get any better.
Here's the good: 7-5 is clearly an improvement over 3-9 and 5-7. The offense is ranked in the top 5. Denard Robinson is developing into a true dual threat QB, such that he became the first to both rush and pass for 1500 yards, was just voted Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and was voted First Team All Big Ten. However, he's also only a sophomore and this was only his first year of starting, and at times the offense has stalled out due to that fact. They'll play their first bowl game since the '08 Citrus (Capital One) Bowl. There is, in some aspects, measured progress that can be seen.
Okay, here's the definitely not good: the defense sucks. Like ranked in the bottom 10 sucks. RichRod has insisted on his 3-3-5 formation ever since he came to Ann Arbor. That side of the ball has also suffered from transfers, flameouts, injuries, and youth. They don't seem to know how to tackle, and they're arguably undersized to play in this conference. Because of all of this, Michigan barely stayed in its wins against Notre Dame, UMass, Indiana, and Illinois, let alone got blown out by the teams mentioned above. They barely squeaked by lowly teams (including one possible Appalachian State Redux). They have no established kicking game either. Some of that can be blamed on the offense as well, as it too frequently failed to finish drives.
There are two basic camps that the Michigan fanbase falls into nowadays. The first (which seems to be growing by the day): get rid of RichRod yesterday. Some of the team's problems (and the argument varies how much of it or how little) is coaching. The team isn't developed in fundamentals, he insists on running his stupid defensive alignment, and he's simply a glorified offensive coordinator who did fine in the Big East but doesn't know how to cut it in a big boy league. By the way, does anybody have Jim Harbaugh's phone number?
The second advocates for patience and more time. The team, especially the defense, is still very young. The secondary has had such atrocious luck that can't be considered his fault. The offense is Top 5 and his QB is awesome, albeit young. And you want to get rid of him despite things just starting to click? It's Greg Robinson who needs to be fired, not him! And the case can be made that nobody would have won with what he inherited in 2008.
I have to admit that, up until Saturday, I was firmly in the latter camp. I knew Michigan was going to lose the games they were going to lose, and I was preparing to settle for 7-5 and a low bowl game. Saturday, however, showed that this team isn't nearly where I thought it'd be by the end of the third year. I thought the same thing after the close call against UMass, and the horrible loss to Penn State, which is QB'd by a walk-on and otherwise riddled with injuries.
Now? For me it's a toss-up. I look back at the '07 season, which featured back-to-back embarrassments against App. St. and Oregon, and I get why then-AD Bill Martin did what he did in hiring Rodriguez: Michigan had been schooled by two spread teams, so let's get us a spread system. However, there is a lot about that hire now that seems desperate to me. The search was hurriedly conducted between the Ohio State game and the bowl game, including a public gaffe involving Les Miles (thanks Herbstreit), and the system didn't need to be completely destroyed and built back up. Carr's team had just been in the running for a national championship in '06, after all. It's not like the program was completely broken. It needed tweaking, but not necessarily an overhaul.
As it currently stands, since this is the hand we Wolverine fans have been dealt, RichRod probably deserves a 4th year. His first recruits will be juniors or seniors, he'll finally have an upper-class QB, the team will return 19 (!) starters, and hopefully he finally gets that he needs a more traditional defense to win conference games. At the same time, all the excuses about youth and giving him time to put his system in place will expire. How much difference will it make, though? And what if they tank in their bowl game before they can even start thinking about the 4th year? Even with those questions, given what the team will return with next fall, a 4th year makes more sense than not, even if only slightly.
Regardless, if Michigan decides to stick it out with RichRod and little to no improvement is shown next year, then he's gone and we're left with more rebuilding. If Michigan cuts ties now, we're left with more rebuilding anyway. It's a stupid predicament, and I want Bill Martin retroactively fired for causing it.
For now, since I'm just a fan to begin with, I'll just look forward to the bowl game and be glad to have such a thing to look forward to. And I'll be a fan regardless. But holy crap is this a mess.