Last week, I was an outspoken member of the camp that found itself a little bit baffled by Coach Rod’s decision to burn Devin Gardner’s redshirt. The thought process went something like, “why burn a year of eligibility for a projected stud when we currently have two very good options at QB who are only 1 year ahead of Devin?”
Then I took another long look at our post-realignment 2011 schedule. After studying it, I think I understand what Coach Rodriguez, Dave Brandon and the athletic department are thinking.
9/3 – vs. Western Michigan (Big House)
9/10 – vs. Notre Dame (8 p.m.) (Big House)
9/17 – vs. Eastern Michigan (Big House)
9/24 – vs. San Diego State (Big House)
10/1 – Minnesota (Big House)
10/8 – @ Northwestern
10/15 – @ Michigan State
10/22 – BYE
10/29 – Purdue (Big House)
11/5 – @ Iowa
11/12 – @ Illinois
11/19 – Nebraska (Big House)
11/26 – Ohio State (Big House)
What they’re thinking is that Bo himself could not have designed a more perfect, more balanced, BCS-friendly schedule than what we have in 2011, and they’re thinking that with the starters we have returning in 2011, it may be a while before we find ourselves in such a favorable situation again.
To break it down:
What makes the schedule competitive in a BCS-sense?
Legit opponents: We play Nebraska and Notre Dame. Coupled with our traditional Big Ten opponents like Iowa and OSU, this is a very legit schedule that can’t be attacked as too soft by anybody
Prime time: We play Notre Dame at the Big House under the lights on prime time TV. This will be the MOST-WATCHED REGULAR-SEASON GAME OF 2011, period. All the AP voters will either be on hand or tuned in, and since it’s a prime time game, many of the other FCS coaches (think Coaches’ Poll) will catch it.
What makes the schedule favorable to Michigan?
8 home games: there are only four “@” symbols on that 12-game schedule.
Absent opponents: neither Wisconsin nor Penn State appear on our schedule
Home-court advantage: we get Notre Dame, Nebraska, and OSU at the Big House .
We play who we know: two of our cupcake opponents are WMU and EMU. Our 2011 starters played (and dominated) both of them just last year. The fact that we’re playing someone we know makes it less likely that either of them could sneak up on us and pull off the upset or even just cause us to struggle in a way that could hurt our ranking.
What should we be concerned about?
NEBthen OSU: we play Nebraska and Ohio State back-to-back. This is probably the least favorable aspect of this schedule for Michigan. The one saving grace is that we get them both at home.
Iowa City: we have to travel to Iowa, but we competed very hard in Iowa City last year against the best Hawkeye squad anyone has seen in a long time. They can’t all be home games, and if we had to choose to play 1 road game against Iowa, ND, Nebraska and OSU and get the others at home, I think a majority of Michigan fans would chose Iowa.
Returning starters on offense: most of this year’s offense returns next year. We only loose Schilling and Dorrestein. Molk, Lewan, Omahmeh, Roundtree, Stonum and Koger will all be back, as will Denard and our entire stable of running backs
Upperclassmen on offense: our offensive starters will be loaded with upperclassmen for the first time since 2007. Lewan will be the only underclassman (as a redshirt sophomore)
Returning starters on defense: Martin, RVB, Roh, Woolfolk, Floyd and Kovacs will all be back.
Running Backs: our talented stable of running backs will be more experienced (and, hopefully, we’ll have a certain freshman from Orlando, FL)
So what does all this have to do with Devin Gardner?
What all this means is that Rodriguez is hedging his bets because he knows that you can’t squander an opportunity like the one we have in 2011.
As phenomenal as Denard has been playing, the fact remains that Devin Gardner is and always has been projected (key word) to develop into a better option at Quarterback once he learns the system. He’s bigger (and presumably less likely to get hurt) than Denard, he has all the physical tools, he appears to be a more refined passer, he’s better with the long ball, and he has the mobility to succeed in RR’s system.
Now, it might turn out that Devin is a better option at QB than Denard after fall camp, and it might not. But given how favorable this schedule is, the last thing you want to do is risk putting yourself in a position where your best option at QB has never taken a collegiate snap before during a year when you’re trying to make a serious championship run.
Hence, Devin Gardner’s burned redshirt.
Rodriguez is hedging his bets and getting Devin reps now so that the learning curve is well behind him by the start of the 2011 season. If Devin out-competes Denard for the job, the bonus is that we get to have Devin and Denard on the field at the same time since the offense will find room for Denard either in the slot or at tailback. Who knows…by then Denard might embrace the idea if it looks like a position change is his best shot at making the pros.
On the other hand, if Denard continues to improve and turns out to still be our best option at QB at the start of the 2011 season, then all is still well since it would mean that he beat out a projected stud. It would also mean that Devin would be entering the 2011 season with some snaps under his belt ready to step in at a moment’s notice if 2 years of running the QB draw in the Big Ten catches up with Denard and he has to come out at any point during the season.
In sum, 2011 is the perfect storm for Michigan in terms of favorable schedule and returning starters. Even the angry Michigan-hating God himself is going to have trouble keeping Michigan out of BCS contention in 2011. This is a rare opportunity that the coaching staff knows it can’t squander, and for these reasons, burning Devin’s redshirt was the right decision.