Gator Bowl preview: Last call for Rich Rod?

With persistent rumors that his days at Michigan are numbered and that Jim Harbaugh will be named as his replacement in a week or so, Rich Rodriguez keeps on coaching.

If nothing else, he has a chance to go out a winner with a Progressive Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State on New Year’s Day in Jacksonville, Fla.

Whether an impressive performance by the Wolverines can save Rodriguez’s job remains to be seen, but that appears to be increasingly doubtful.

Athletic director Dave Brandon has said he will meet with Rodriguez sometime after the season for an evaluation. Harbaugh, a former Wolverines’ quarterback, coaches Stanford in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3.

Press conference on Jan. 4 or Jan. 5?

The Michigan players must try somehow to overcome this enormous distraction while making their first bowl appearance in Rodriguez’s three years as coach.

“That’s not something I can control or anyone on the team can control,” nose tackle Mike Martin said of his coach’s possible lame-duck status. “We’re just going to play. We’re worried about the game.”

It’s certainly on their minds, though. How couldn’t it be?

“With all the media stuff circulating, it would be hard not to notice,” defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen said. “There’s always something out there, or some guy on campus asks you, ‘If you guys lose, are you going to lose your coach?’ “

Since his emotional, highly scrutinized speech at the team banquet a few weeks ago, Rodriguez has tried to take the focus off himself. He’s tired of talking about being in limbo and all the controversy surrounding him.

As for whether the Gator Bowl is a must-win for him personally, Rodriguez said, “I think all coaches probably feel every game is a must-win. We put so much pressure on ourselves as coaches to win. Bowl games are always added importance.”

Rodriguez (15-21 at Michigan, including 6-18 in the Big Ten) is in the third year of a six-year contract worth $2.5 million annually. If he were to get fired, the buyout drops from $4 million to $2.5 million on Jan. 1.

Although Rodriguez’s record has improved from 3-9 in 2008 to 5-7 last year to 7-5 this season, it simply has not been up to Michigan standards.

“The progress has been slow, but it has been progress,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not to the level we want. I feel it has been made.”

Rodriguez’s program was put on a three-year probation for exceeding NCAA rules for practice and training time limits.

The coach, however, was cleared by the NCAA on the most serious allegation of whether he failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

More than anything, it’s been the ineptness of Michigan’s once-proud defense that has put Rodriguez on such an extreme hot seat entering this bowl game.

The Wolverines, who are 4 1/2-point underdogs to No. 21 Mississippi State, rank No. 108 out of 120 FBS teams in total defense, No. 102 in points allowed and No. 111 in passing defense.

Injuries depleted the secondary, forcing true freshmen into key roles before they were ready. A switch to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme this year was a complete failure.

The worst of it all came against Wisconsin, which made the Wolverines look weak and inferior by running the ball down their throats in the second-to-last regular-season game.

The Gator Bowl originally was expected to select Tennessee out of the SEC, but later opted for Mississippi State, which is a more physical team and, therefore, not a good match-up for the undersized, soft Wolverines defense.

Mississippi State (8-4) ranks No. 16 nationally in rushing offense at 215.8 yards per game. Running back Vick Ballard leads the Bulldogs with 892 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. Quarterback Chris Relf, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior, ran for 683 yards.

Michigan had some success early in its final regular-season game against Ohio State by using a four-man front. Van Bergen said he thinks that might be a good option for this game, too.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, must hope their electrifying quarterback, Denard Robinson, is back to full strength after being hampered by knee, shoulder and finger injuries for the last couple of months.

Robinson, only a sophomore, rushed for 1,643 yards, with 905 coming in the first five weeks, when he was considered the Heisman Trophy front-runner.

“Denard wasn’t 100 percent from, really, the Bowling Green game (Sept. 25) on, but he battled through that, still was pretty productive,” Rodriguez said.

Mississippi State’s defense, led by linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright, ranks No. 19 against the run, averaging 121.7 yards given up per game.

The Bulldogs contained Auburn’s Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton as well as any defense all season. Newton finished with 70 yards rushing and 136 passing in a 17-14 victory on Sept. 9. Auburn was held scoreless in the second half.

Nevertheless, Robinson, playing in his home state of Florida, should be fresh and ready for a big performance.

The question, as always, is can he score more than his defense gives up?

Dec. 27, 2010