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Does Rich Rodriguez need a signature win?

When Rich Rodriguez first arrived on campus in December 2007, the Michigan football program had plenty of reason for optimism. The Wolverines were coming off a bowl win over the Florida Gators and welcoming in a coach who had amassed a 60-26 record in his seven years at West Virginia.

In the last two-plus years, that optimism has turned to impatience.

Expectations are high in Ann Arbor, Mich. In 13 years under Rodriguez’s predecessor, Lloyd Carr, the Wolverines were 122-40, never missing a bowl game. Their worst season under Carr was 7-5, and they never won fewer than five conference games in a season.

In his third year, Rodriguez has yet to reach the five-win plateau. He has a 15-20 record heading into Saturday’s season finale, committed NCAA violations and failed to guide his team to a winning record until this season.

“When I took the job, I thought about building the best program in America,” Rodriguez said Monday during his weekly press conference.

The Wolverines have taken a step in the right direction in 2010. At 7-4, Michigan is bowl-eligible for the first time in Rodriguez’s tenure.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said he has been impressed by Rodriguez’s work.

“I think, just from a universal standpoint, there’s always unrest if you don’t win every game at this level,” Tressel said. “Secondly, the thing that is impressive to me is that I’ve watched them for three years and I haven’t seen them blink. I mean, they have gone out and they’ve played every game to the end, and that means something good is going on.”

Nonetheless, at just 6-17 in Big Ten play, Wolverine fans are becoming weary. Some see Saturday’s contest as a litmus test for the Michigan headman, but Wolverine players don’t see it that way.

“I don’t think about that really,” senior offensive lineman Stephen Schilling said. “I think we’ve shown progression the last three years under coach Rod and no, I don’t think that way.”

OSU captain Bryant Browning said the Buckeyes will not look at the game like that from the opposite sideline either.

“That’s not something that we try to think about. We know that he is going to have his team ready to go and try to get his first win in the rivalry,” Browning said. “That is something that he has on his team’s mind to stay focused on, and I know the players and their seniors and everyone at the university is going to be fired up for it.”

Although Michigan sophomore defensive end Craig Roh said they are not playing as if their coach’s job is on the line, he did say, “It would be a great win for Rich Rod.”

Amid the uncertainty, Rodriguez remains for now, and his players wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love Rich Rod as a coach,” Roh said. “He’s just a tough-working guy and through all that he’s been in he’s kept such a positive attitude. He’s really affected me and a lot of other guys with the way he comes in and just kind of emits positivity.”

But the players aren’t the ones who sign his paycheck. With a big test ahead for the Wolverines and his job security in limbo, Rodriguez might be undergoing an employee performance evaluation Saturday in the Horseshoe.

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