Two weeks ago, no one knew if he'd play. Now, after two games, he’s the best player in college football. OK, that’s an overstatement. But no one has been better through two weeks of the season than sophomore Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, and even if he falls back to Earth over the next few games and plays like someone with his lack of experience, his accomplishments over the opening weekends of the season have been nothing short of special.
Two weeks ago, no one knew if he'd play. Now, after two games, he’s the best player in college football.
OK, that’s an overstatement. But no one has been better through two weeks of the season than sophomore Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, and even if he falls back to Earth over the next few games and plays like someone with his lack of experience, his accomplishments over the opening weekends of the season have been nothing short of special.
They’ve at the very least made him the breakout star so far, at a time when past stars like Texas’ Colt McCoy, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Florida’s Tim Tebow have moved on to the pro game and left a void in terms of big-name players on the college level.
“Offense is a team game, but it certainly starts with that guy taking snaps,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said on Tuesday, “and if you’ve got somebody special you always have a chance.”
Part of what makes Robinson intriguing is that no one even knew if he’d be Michigan’s starter until the last second.
He was in a battle for the job with Tate Forcier, who started last year, and freshman Devin Gardner. Rodriguez didn’t announce who his quarterback would be until just prior to the Wolverines’ season-opener at home against Connecticut, forcing UConn coach Randy Edsall to prepare for different possibilities.
Since taking the field against the Huskies, Robinson hasn’t just been good. He’s been historically good.
He ran for 258 yards last Saturday in a win over Notre Dame and passed for 244. His 502 total yards are a Michigan record, and were 94 percent of the Wolverines’ 534 total yards. His rushing total is fifth all-time at Michigan. And he’s just the ninth FBS player ever to run and throw for 200 yards in the same game.
He ranks first in the nation in rushing (227.5 yards per game) and first in total offense (442.5 ypg).
Beyond just the accomplishments, the growth he’s shown in less than a year is remarkable. He’s a true sophomore, just like Forcier. The two were part of the same recruiting class, meaning whoever one won the job coming out of fall camp last year could have conceivably kept it four years and never allowed the other much playing time.
Forcier won the job, and played great early last year. He even engineered a last-minute victory over Notre Dame last September.
Robinson, meanwhile, came in occasionally to provide a change of pace with his lighting speed. But he never looked like he could compete as a quarterback against high-level competition. In just 31 passing attempts, he threw four interceptions - that’s one every 7.75 throws. But rather than accept his role as backup - or accept that throwing the ball would always take a backseat to his running ability - he committed himself over the spring and summer to becoming better.
He’s still not a great passer, but his work has showed. To say the least.
“It’s a totally different team because of the quarterback,” Edsall said after UConn’s 30-10 loss to Michigan. “It’s a totally different team. I would say that Rich would feel very, very comfortable with this guy at quarterback because this is what Rich did when we played him at West Virginia with Pat White. I’m not saying that he’s Pat White because Pat was pretty good, but with time I think that this young man will have a chance to become a very good quarterback.”
Another aspect that makes Robinson’s sudden success so interesting is how hard it is to do what he’s doing. The numbers aside, becoming a good quarterback takes time. Even the most highly touted recruits go through an adjustment period, and sometimes struggle mightily.
Take Tebow’s replacement, for example.
In games against Miami of Ohio and South Florida - not Alabama or LSU or Georgia - junior John Brantley has just 285 passing yards and the Gators’ offense, always among the best in the nation, ranks 92nd in yardage and 33rd in scoring.
It’s a similar story at Texas, where sophomore Garrett Gilbert is replacing McCoy and the Longhorns’ offense has been pedestrian in wins over Rice and Wyoming. Gilbert has thrown for 394 yards - 109 better than Brantley - but has just one touchdown pass against teams no one will mistake for Oklahoma and Nebraska. And the Texas offense as a whole is 64th in yardage and 39th in scoring.
Even Ohio State junior Terrelle Pryor is an example of just how tough it is to make a spectacular leap in production. Pryor is now perhaps the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, but it’s been slow growth. He threw for 1,311 yards as a freshman and just 12 touchdowns, then 2,094 last year with 18 TDs but also 11 interceptions while running for 779 yards and sevens scores.
This year, so far, he’s thrown for 480 yards and four touchdowns with no picks, plus run for 130 yards and a score.
And then there's Robinson, who’s gone from zero as a freshman to breakout star as a sophomore.
“I think he’s a tough kid,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “I think that’s one thing that stands out. He’s obviously a very explosive player, throws it as well. ... But he’s a tough kid. When you run a quarterback 25 times, you’ve got to have toughness.”
Of course there is reason for pause. First, there's how well Forcier was doing at this time last year, how much it looked like he'd be Michigan's starter for four years. But the thing with young quarterbacks is that they’re inconsistent, and as brilliant as they look for one or two games they can look equally horrendous the next game or two.
There’s also the fact that while Connecticut and Notre Dame are legitimate opponents - it’s not like Michigan beat up on an FBS team, which is what they face on Saturday when UMass visits The Big House - but they also aren’t on the level of what awaits Michigan down the line. The Wolverines eventually play Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
But so what.
Robinson has been a blast to watch these first couple of games. He’s made a remarkable leap from last year to this year.
He’s the breakout star of the young season.
What We Learned
Monster Saturday taught plenty, too much to focus on just one thing.
It made clear that the ACC is terrible, Oregon might be scary good and Boise State’s national title hopes may be non-existent.
Regarding the ACC - a conference that when it attracted Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to join Florida State and Clemson had hopes of challenging the SEC as the nation’s best - the start of the season could not have gone worse.
Two ACC teams were in the spotlight on opening weekend in games that could have boosted the conference’s reputation, but a substantially depleted North Carolina team lost to LSU and Virginia Tech was beaten in a back-and-forth game to Boise State.
Neither loss, however, determined the conference’s reputation for 2010.
That came last weekend when Miami and Florida State both played in spotlight games - the Hurricanes at Ohio State and the Seminoles at Oklahoma. Florida State got crushed by the Sooners, and though Miami put up a good fight in The Horseshoe, it too fell by double digits. But the real catastrophe for the conference came earlier when Virginia Tech lost at home to James Madison, an FBS school, and Georgia Tech was beaten by unranked Kansas.
For a conference already considered closer to the Big East than the SEC or Big Ten, Monster Saturday was terrifying.
On the flip side was Oregon.
The Ducks showed they may be more than simply contenders for the Pac-10 title and a berth in the Rose Bowl and instead be playing for perfection and a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
Oregon whipped New Mexico impressively on opening weekend, hanging 72 points on the Lobos. But it was last Saturday night that the Ducks showed they may be something special. Trailing Tennessee 13-3 - in front of 102,000 orange-clad Volunteer faithful at Neyland Stadium - Oregon ripped off 45 straight points to beat an SEC team in its house by 35.
The Pac-10 slate is filled with potential potholes - there are four ranked teams looming ahead - but the Ducks look scary so far.
But while Oregon, now ranked sixth in the USA Today coaches poll - which is part of the BCS formula - demonstrated it has a shot to make it to Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 10, Boise State’s hope of making it to the title game took a big hit when Virginia Tech lost to James Madison.
That was supposed to be the great win the Broncos had on their schedule, the one win they could point to and say that despite their putrid slate they proved they could compete with the nation’s best and beat them. Well, now the Hokies don’t look close to the nation’s best, meaning Boise State’s schedule - the thing that holds it back even when the Broncos are unbeaten - looks worse than last year’s, which included a win over Oregon.
Virginia Tech’s loss might just mean Boise State, even with a perfect record, will be relegated to another secondary BCS bowl.
Game of the Week
There’s nothing this week like there was last week, no Miami at Ohio State or Penn State at Alabama, not even Michigan at Notre Dame.
What there is, however, is a game that will tell a lot about a team no one’s quite sure about.
Iowa, which came out of nowhere last year to play in the Orange Bowl and beat Georgia Tech, is perhaps Ohio State’s biggest threat in the Big Ten - Wisconsin might also challenge the Buckeyes. The Hawkeyes have a strong defense but a suspect offense, and late on Saturday night they travel to the desert to play at an Arizona team on the cusp of breaking into the Pac-10’s top tier.
The Wildcats played in Iowa City last year and challenged the Hawkeyes, losing 27-17. They went on to beat Stanford and USC, and only fell to Oregon after two overtimes.
They haven’t played the highest quality teams to date this year - Toledo and The Citadel - but they’ve crushed both, winning 41-2 and 52-6. They scored more than 30 points five times last year, and held opponents under 20 points seven times.
Arizona, simply, poses a serious threat to Iowa, which if it were to run the table in the Big Ten would be on the short list to play for the national title.
“It’s going to be a good challenge on a couple of fronts,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “We need to handle the trip well, and more importantly, we’re playing a tremendous opponent. So it’s going to be a big step for us.”
Meanwhile, it’s not like the game doesn’t hold meaning for Arizona.
To beat a team that was 11-2 last year would be a huge confidence boost, potentially launching them toward Rose Bowl contention - they’re the lone Pac-10 team to have never played in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
Iowa at Arizona may not be a monster, but it is a teaching tool. Two similar games will be Nebraska at Washington and Texas at Texas Tech.
If I Had a Ballot ...
1. Alabama (2-0): Taking care of business.
2. Ohio State (2-0): The schedule gets nice and easy until a trip to Madison on Oct. 16.
3. Oregon (2-0): Perhaps the most impressive team so far.
4. Oklahoma (2-0): The Sooners bounced back brilliantly from a bad opening game.
5. Boise State (2-0): Virginia Tech’s loss devastates the Broncos’ strength of schedule.
6. Iowa (2-0): So far so good against easy opposition, but Arizona will test the Hawkeyes.
7. Nebraska (2-0): Interesting game on Saturday against an improving Washington team that could make a statement against the Cornhuskers.
8. TCU (2-0): The Horned Frogs are as reliable as Boise State, never seeming to slip.
9. Texas (2-0): The Longhorns face their first real test on Saturday night at Texas Tech.
10. Florida (2-0): The Gators have started slow, and a slow start at Tennessee on Saturday could prove costly.
Contact Eric Avidon at 508-626-3809 or email@example.com.