Rodriguez has guided the Wolverines to just eight victories in his two seasons, and conventional wisdom is that he needs to lead them to a bowl to keep his job.
After struggling with Rodriguez's version of the spread in 2008, the offense seemed much more comfortable last season. But the defense couldn't stop anybody and was especially vulnerable against the run. Michigan has changed defensive schemes, but the secondary is young and lacks depth, which means the offense may have to win a lot of shootouts this season.
A coach on the hot seat maybe having to win a lot of shootouts? That's not necessarily a safe way to keep your job.
Here's a closer look at the Wolverines.
THE SCHEME: Coach Rich Rodriguez runs a classic spread-option offense that generally features an ultra-athletic quarterback. The Wolverines like to get to the edge quickly, usually with an option series. And Michigan likes to do it all at a frenetic pace. In 2008, Michigan had the worst offense in the Big Ten (290.8 ypg). Last season, the attack ranked seventh (384.5 ypg). Expect this season's offense to be the best yet under Rodriguez.
STAR POWER: Senior G Stephen Schilling has all-conference potential and has adapted well to the blocking schemes used in the spread. He and C David Molk form a solid inside duo for the Wolverines.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Some are comparing 6-foot-8, 283-pound redshirt freshman T Taylor Lewan to ex-Wolverine Jake Long from a physical standpoint. Lewan's talents have drawn similar raves. He doesn't head into fall drills as a starter, but he could be at some point this season.
STRONGEST AREA: There are some exciting options at quarterback. Tate Forcier flashed potential as a true freshman starter last fall, and sophomore Denard Robinson is a smooth, athletic option along with true freshman Devin Gardner. If Robinson isn't under center, look for the staff to find some way to take advantage of his skills. Perhaps Robinson can help in the red zone, as the Wolverines had the worst offense in the Big Ten inside the 20. The quarterbacks will have some veteran targets in sophomore Roy Roundtree and juniors Junior Hemingway and Martavious Odoms, who must help improve a passing attack that ranked ninth in the Big Ten (198.3 ypg). Coordinator Calvin Magee is excited about sophomore WRs Terrence Robinson and Jeremy Gallon.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Wolverines were way too sloppy with the ball last season. Michigan ranked last in the Big Ten and 115th in the nation in turnover margin after giving away the ball 28 times. Miscues often meant Michigan had no margin for error - and that frequently proved disastrous.
THE SCHEME: The big change is the installation of a 3-3-5 scheme that Rodriguez employed at West Virginia. A word of caution: Coordinator Greg Robinson never has run a 3-3-5. Still, something had to change for a defense that ranked ninth in the Big Ten (393.3 ypg). With two safeties typically playing near the line of scrimmage, Michigan usually will have eight men in the box. The scheme will make the reads of a struggling linebacking corps easier.
STAR POWER: There really aren't any stars with E Brandon Graham and CB Donovan Warren gone. The closest thing to a star may be senior LB Obi Ezeh, but he is coming off a disappointing season that saw him lose his starting spot at one point. Ezeh is the team's active career leader in tackles but didn't earn any postseason recognition in 2009 after being an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick in 2008. Ezeh may be motivated to go out with a bang.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman FS Cam Gordon turned heads in the spring after switching from receiver. Gordon is a big hitter who covers a lot of ground and plays with passion, elements that have been lacking on Michigan's defense in recent years. Also keep an eye on redshirt freshman Thomas Gordon, who plays the "spur" position, a hybrid linebacker/safety. Gordon, a high school quarterback, is a speedy defender who excels in space.
STRONGEST AREA: Even with Graham gone, the line has potential. T Mike Martin is the anchor after being named the team's top defensive lineman in 2009. He notched 51 tackles, with 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. E Ryan Van Bergen looks poised for a big season. NT William Campbell is a mountain inside.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Stopping the run was especially problematic last season, as the Wolverines ranked 10th in the league (171.9 ypg). The new scheme should help. It also should bolster a moribund pass rush that produced 22 sacks, which ranked ninth in the conference. The secondary lacks depth and experience. CB Troy Woolfolk, who bounced between cornerback and safety earlier in his career, needs to be a leader with Warren off early to the NFL.
The Wolverines lost perhaps the top punter in the nation in Zoltan Mesko, who led the Big Ten with a 44.5-yard average. The new punter is expected to be true freshman Will Hagerup. Michigan also must find a kicker with Jason Olesnavage gone. Michigan got good production in the return game last season. Gallon is a speedster with potential as a punt returner, while WR Darryl Stonum excels on kickoff returns. The punt coverage was strong, but the kickoff coverage must improve.
There are plenty of challenges with eight bowl teams; three of those - Connecticut, at Notre Dame, Bowling Green - come in the first four games. Protecting home turf will be vital, which is why consecutive visits from Michigan State and Iowa in October should be circled in red. The toughest games come at the end, when Wisconsin visits and Michigan travels to Ohio State. Rodriguez may be coaching for his job by then.
Last season started with promise, as the Wolverines opened 4-0. Alas, they lost seven of their last eight, with the lone win in that span over FCS member Delaware State. And the lone Big Ten victory over Indiana was controversial. Bottom line: Michigan endured its worst Big Ten finish in 47 years. Now, Rodriguez enters his third season in Ann Arbor sitting on perhaps the hottest seat in the nation. He has a two-year record of 8-16, has put the program on NCAA probation for the first time ever and is working for a new athletic director in David Brandon. How many games does Rodriguez need to win to keep his job? No one is saying, but getting this program to a bowl would be a good start.