Tony Ding, Associated Press
First-year Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez gives running back Brandon Minor (4) some pointers.

Rich Rodriguez inherited more than just high expectations at Michigan. He's also charged with getting the program past last year's shocking 34-32 season-opening loss to Appalachian State.

"Obviously that was an upset," Rodriguez told ESPN. "Our guys don't like to talk about it, and I don't blame them."

Even though he doesn't plan to bring it up much, Rodriguez acknowledged there were some lessons learned. Parity in college football, he added, may be better than it has ever been.

Michigan, however, is different.

The Wolverines traditionally operate at the game's highest level.

They lead the nation in all-time victories with 869 and have won 42 Big Ten Conference titles and 11 national championships.

Rodriguez, who won 60 games in seven seasons at West Virginia, was brought in to restore glory to the program. Last year's 9-4 record and No. 18 national ranking simply wasn't good enough for Michigan.

The Wolverines, though, may be hard-pressed to match their 2007 win total.

They return just three starters on offense and will start a quarterback with no — as in zero, zip, nada — game experience at the collegiate level.

As such, there are low expectations this time around. For the first time since 1985, Michigan opens the season without a ranking in the AP poll.

"I can understand why the fans wouldn't know what to expect. Because in some respect, the coaches don't either," Rodriguez said. "We know a lot more because we've been around in practice, so I don't want to say we're going into this thing totally blind. because we're not.

"We've been practicing for several weeks now. Still, until you put them in a game situation, you don't know for sure how certain players are going to react — particularly the freshmen.

"There are some sophomores and even upper classmen that are getting their first opportunity to play a significant amount," he added. "There will be a few anxious moments until we get out there and perform."

At quarterback, sophomore Nick Sheridan and freshman Steven Threet are battling for the starting job in Saturday's season-opener against Utah.

Mystery. Curiosity. Unanswered questions.

Rodriguez acknowledges they all apply as Michigan's offense makes the transition to a spread scheme. The Wolverines reportedly may use seven receivers, four tailbacks and rotating linemen against Utah.

"I think we are going to be in a situation where we are going to play a lot of people and see who responds well in the game," Rodriguez said.

It's a situation that Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen is well aware of.

"We need to be ready for everything that happens within the spread," he said. "They will force you to prepare for a whole bunch of offense."

On the other side of the ball, Michigan's defensive personnel is well known. Nose tackle Terrance Taylor headlines an attack featuring eight returning starters.

"He's a great player. There's no question about it. I think their whole front four is amazing. They do some real good things," Utah quarterback Brian Johnson said. "The challenge will be up to our O-line, and I'm sure they'll definitely be ready for that challenge — step up on the big-time stage and make some big-time plays."

Taylor anchors an experienced front four that includes defensive ends Tim Jamison and Brandon Graham, as well as tackle Will Johnson.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said blocking them may be the key to the game.

Starting guard Robert Conley agrees.

"They're very physical. They've got great size and they play hard," he said. "So we've got to come out there, set the tone early and just play hard. Play all four quarters."

Other notable Michigan defenders include safeties Stevie Brown and Brandon Harrison, cornerbacks Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren, and linebacker Obi Ezeh.

The Wolverines, Whittingham noted, may have the best defense the Utes will face all season long.

Michigan also has a talented punter. Zolton Mesko is a Sporting News honorable mention All-American.

Season opener

Utah at Michigan

Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

MT TV: ABC

Radio: 700 AM


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com