The most famous uncommitted recruit in the history of Michigan football is very likely Terrelle Pryor. He is a big, tall, dual-threat QB who likely represents the future of NFL signal-callers. He is the #1-rated recruit at any position according to Rivals which, of course, makes him important. I would continue to address those who haven’t heard of him but I’m not sure any such person exists. So I’ll skip over the “Pryor is the next Vince Young” hyperbole and get to the point. By most accounts, Pryor’s destination of choice will either be Ann Arbor or Columbus making this another Michigan/Ohio St. recruiting showdown. Pryor to Michigan could quickly turn the momentum in the rivalry. Pryor to Ohio St. could be four more years of Buckeye-domination. Clearly, it behooves Michigan to get Pryor to Ann Arbor. From a Michigan-perspective, though, it’s vastly more important for Ohio St. to not get him than it is for Michigan to get him.
Short-term success is likely with or without Pryor
There is no question that the Michigan football program would explode with the combined momentum of Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense and a commitment from a recruit as sought-after as Pryor. However, too many people are tying Michigan’s fate to Pryor’s arrival. Michigan doesn’t need Pryor. He would be a godsend for a coaching staff trying to delicately transition a pro-style football roster into a full-on spread offense. But, not getting Pryor won’t mean years of mediocrity and—contrary to what most seem to believe—likely won’t mean one year of mediocrity. The cavalcade of “doomsday”-predictors for 2008 seem to have forgotten that Michigan has more talent than every team on its schedule sans Ohio St. The defense returns seven starters including All-Big Ten candidates Morgan Trent, Donovan Warren, Terrance Taylor, Brandon Graham, and Tim Jamison. Even if the offense is putrid next season—which is doubtful considering putrid spread offenses are as common as a Wade Phillips playoff-win—Michigan’s defense will be good enough to keep it in every game.
The year-one offense is clearly the big worry among Michigan fans and a favorite point of emphasis for Michigan-haters. However, I don’t think that the question is whether the offense will be bad enough to keep Michigan from a bowl game as many have speculated. I think the question is whether the offense can be good enough for Michigan to win 10+ games. If the offense has any continuity whatsoever, Michigan should be quite good next season. If the offense is in a state of flux for the entire season, the overall talent of the roster should still be good enough to yield Michigan’s status quo of at least eight wins.
Worst Case for 2008
Worst case scenario entering the 2008-season is that Pryor chooses OSU and Rodriguez can’t land a mid-level recruit capable of stepping in as a freshman. That would leave Steven Threet—a top 10 QB recruit coming out of High School—to run the offense. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much comfort in that. However, remember the spread Michigan unveiled in the Capital One Bowl? That’s the same spread Rodriguez would’ve used if Ryan Mallett stuck around. It’s not like Rodriguez is going to try to install a run-based spread offense with Threet. He’s not an idiot. He would put Threet in the shotgun and spread the field like Purdue or Texas Tech. Purdue and Texas Tech have formidable offenses whether they have a fifth-year senior or a freshman at QB. Michigan—even in a year in which it loses Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Jake Long, Mario Manningham, and Adrian Arrington—will have more talent on its roster than Purdue or Texas Tech has ever had. Greg Mathews and Carson Butler are very good receiving threats. Among the bevy of capable underclassmen receivers (Toney Clemons, Junior Hemingway, Darryl Stonum, LaTerryal Savoy and Martell Webb) will almost undoubtedly be a break-out performer.
Michigan will have a number of options at running back including Kevin Grady, Carlos Brown, Brandon Minor, Avery Horn, and Sam McGuffie. That’s eight four-star recruits and a five-star recruit at the skill-positions alone that Rodriguez will have to work with. Rodriguez could only dream of that level of talent when he was forced to work with 2 and 3-star recruits exclusively at WVU. In the four recruiting classes from 2003-2006, WVU signed zero four-star recruits who actually contributed meaningful minutes on the field (the three he did sign got booted from the team). The players that Rodriguez inherited at Michigan are extremely talented. Most would be feature players at Texas Tech, Purdue or West Virginia. There is no question in my mind that you can plug Threet into an offense with Michigan’s current crop of running backs and wide receivers and come up with a product that isn’t awful.
A lot will be made of Michigan’s problems on the OL. Fortunately, the spread can mask weaknesses on the OL. The Michigan OL was marginal at best in 2007. That “marginal” line didn’t just magically mold into a fantastic line for the Capital One Bowl. The spread gave Henne more time to throw and forced Florida to dedicate more players to defending the pass. Thus, the OL becomes less of an issue. Even still, Rodriguez will have some very talented players at his disposal. Justin Boren, Steve Schilling, and Dann O’Neil were all Rivals100 recruits. I don’t want to make recruiting seem like the end all. I just want people to realize that year-one isn’t all “doom and gloom” like many have speculated. The defense will be very good and the offense will have a number of talented players to work with.
This is going to sound totally revolutionary to some people but winning eight or nine games at Michigan is not a difficult feat. In fact, winning eight games per year is about the worst possible outcome in any given year considering roster talent and relative ease of Michigan’s typical schedule. In most seasons, Michigan plays about five or six “loseable” games. It is the results of those games which determines how successful the season is going to be. Nothing has changed in that regard for the 2008 schedule. Michigan “should” beat Utah, Miami (OH), Toledo, Minnesota, and Northwestern. That’s five wins right there. I have no problem penciling in Ohio St. as a likely loss. That leaves Notre Dame, Illinois, Wisconsin, Penn St., Michigan St., and Purdue. A loss at Notre Dame is possible but not probable. A loss at home to Michigan St. is possible but not probable. And, a loss at Purdue is possible but not probable. I would be surprised if Michigan fared worse than 2-1 in those games. Much has been made of Michigan’s personnel-losses but Michigan St., Purdue, and Notre Dame lose a considerable amount as well. I don’t see how any of those three teams are better off than Michigan for 2008.
It will undoubtedly become chic to predict losses at home to Wisconsin and Illinois and at Penn St. All three could happen but I would be surprised if all three did happen. Wisconsin and Illinois also lose a number of important players. Michigan should be good enough to take one of those games at a minimum. That adds up to eight wins. I would be very surprised if Michigan won fewer than eight games even with a transition-year.
There is no question in my mind that Michigan would do just fine in the short term without Pryor. There is even less of a question that Michigan will do just fine in the long term without Pryor. Rodriguez doesn’t need Terrelle Pryor to have an unstoppable offense. He just needs Pat White. White was merely a three-star, wide receiver recruit in high school. He didn’t succeed at WVU because he was a great-passer. He had the athletic-ability to run the spread and was smart enough to make the right reads. One can daydream about the explosiveness of a Pryor-led Michigan offense. But, there is no guessing necessary to understand the explosiveness of Rodriguez’s offense even when it’s led by an unheralded, three-star, wide receiver who can make the right read. Much has been made of the Big East’s reputation for weak defenses but surely Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma count as formidable defensive obstacles. With White at the helm, WVU put up 38, 38, and 48 points against the #4, #20, and #9 defenses in its last three bowl games. Rodriguez has success with a system—not with a player. The skills required to run Rodriguez’s offense are so specific that a mid-tier recruit like White can and will flourish at the helm. There are a gazillion more Pat Whites out there than Terrelle Pryors. That certainly bodes well for Michigan but Rodriguez will find out soon enough that he won’t have to “take chances” on guys like White at Michigan. As Rodriguez has stated numerous times, you're dealing with a whole different caliber of player when you’ve got the block “M” on your hat. If it isn't Pryor this year, it'll be his equivalent next year.
So, if—or more likely when—Pryor chooses OSU on signing day, don’t go removing “Michigan” from the top of the “most consecutive bowl appearances” list. Michigan is—and always has been—more than one player.