UM's Robinson returns to home state
Bulldogs' defense ranked third in SEC against the rush
While Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was apparently being considered for some of the top jobs in college football, Rich Rodriguez is unsure if he'll even have one at Michigan next season.
These coaches have received very different messages from their athletic directors, as Mullen's Bulldogs get set to meet Rodriguez's Wolverines on New Year's Day in the Gator Bowl, where Denard Robinson will play in his home state for the first time.
Both teams missed out on bowls the previous two seasons. Rodriguez had two losing seasons before Michigan went 7-5 this year, while Mullen went 5-7 in his first season with the Bulldogs in 2009 before an 8-4 campaign this season.
The strong campaign for No. 21 Mississippi State fueled speculation Mullen would be considered for openings at Miami and Florida, where he was Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator from 2005-08. Those jobs have been filled, and Mullen agreed to a new contract Thursday that will pay him an average of $2.65 million over the next four years.
Rodriguez is in an entirely different situation with the Wolverines. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon will evaluate him after the season, with speculation rampant that Rodriguez's third season will be his last.
"It is a unique situation and you do with it the best you can," Rodriguez said. "I'm excited about coming to work every day."
While Rodriguez's status may be affecting Michigan's recruiting, it also seems to be impacting preparations for this game. The players have voiced their confidence in Rodriguez, with junior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen saying it may be in some of their minds that they might be playing for their coach's job in the Gator Bowl.
"Personally, I'm all in for coach Rodriguez and everything he does," Van Bergen said. "All people see is the stuff that goes on camera. You can't understand what happens at Schembechler Hall. He cares about his players as much as any other coach in college football. That's what we like about him and why we embrace him."
Rodriguez appears to have the best player on either side in Robinson. The sophomore helped guide an offense that ranked sixth in the FBS with an average of 500.9 yards, and he set the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,643.
Named the Big Ten offensive player of the year, the Deerfield Beach, Fla., native is excited about finally playing at home.
"Man, going to Florida, I mean everybody in my family has been asking, 'When are you going to play down here, play down this way?'" Robinson said. "And you know, no Big Ten teams are down that way. Being able to go down to Florida is going to be a big deal. All my family is going to want to be there, they're going to be there rooting me on, cheering me on so it's going to be a good thing."
The Bulldogs finished fifth in the competitive SEC West, where they faced some of the best players in college football in Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton of Auburn and Mark Ingram of Alabama as well as SEC passing leader Ryan Mallett of Arkansas. They know that Robinson, the fourth-leading rusher in the country at 136.9 yards per game, presents a unique challenge.
"They have a very explosive offense," Mullen said. "We've watched them play some this year. Explosive. Denard Robinson is one of the most explosive players in the country. He got worn down a little as the season went on, but we're going to get 100 percent of him. Rich Rodriguez is a great coach. Should be pretty exciting."
Mississippi State may have an answer for Robinson since it had the third-best run defense in the SEC, allowing an average of 121.7 yards. Newton had his worst per-carry average of 3.9 in any game in which he rushed at least 15 times when he faced the Bulldogs' front Sept. 9.
The Bulldogs also feature the second-best rushing attack in the SEC at 215.8 yards per game. Vick Ballard had 16 rushing touchdowns and 892 yards while quarterback Chris Relf added 683 yards on the ground and four scores.
That should be a factor against Michigan's defense, which was second-worst in the Big Ten against the run - allowing 187.7 yards per game.
Michigan backup quarterback Tate Forcier is academically ineligible for this game. The school says Forcier, a sophomore who threw for 597 yards and four touchdowns as Robinson's backup this season, "did not meet university standards."
These teams have never met. Mississippi State has not played a Big Ten opponent since a 1980 matchup with Illinois.
No. 21 Mississippi State (8-4) vs Michigan (7-5), 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2
- Series Record: First meeting.
What's at Stake
Probably a recruiting boost and certainly positive feelings heading into the offseason. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez might be able to save his job with a resounding victory, although athletic director Dave Brandon has offered no guarantees.
Mississippi State’s defense vs. Denard Robinson. The Bulldogs defended Auburn’s Cam Newton relatively well in September, holding the Heisman Trophy winner to 136 yards passing and 70 yards rushing. Can they do the same against the equally dynamic Robinson?
Players to Watch
Michigan: WR Roy Roundtree has played a huge role down the stretch. He torched Illinois for 246 yards receiving and two touchdowns on Nov. 6, and has 27 receptions for 472 yards and four scores in Michigan’s last four games.
Mississippi State: LB Chris White leads the team with 105 tackles and six sacks, and might have his hands full trying to corral Robinson.
Facts and Figures
Although temperatures all week were relatively cool -- it was in the mid-30s when teams arrived last weekend -- it will be around 75 degrees for Saturday’s game. “Seventy-five will feel like 95 for us,” Rodriguez said. Added Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen: “The hotter the better for us.” … Michigan has lost five of its last seven games this season … The Wolverines are back in a bowl game after missing out the last two years … Michigan is 18-20 all time in bowl games, including 1-1 in the Gator Bowl … The Wolverines are 7-3 in bowl games against teams from the Southeastern Conference and 23-5 overall against the league … Michigan will be without backup QB Tate Forcier, who is academically ineligible. Without him, true freshman Devin Gardner will serve as Denard Robinson’s backup. Gardner has played sparingly this season … Mississippi State has won three consecutive bowl games … This is Mississippi State’s first New Year’s Day game since 1999 and the first in Florida since the 1937 Orange Bowl.