CHICAGO -- They are joined this season, though not in the way Rich Rodriguez had hoped or planned. But one year after trying -- and failing -- to sign Terrelle Pryor in his first recruiting class at Michigan, Rodriguez and Pryor are joined nonetheless.
They are joined, this coach from Michigan and that quarterback for Ohio State, because it is time for both of them -- in their own way, at their own school -- to live up to the hype.
Or to recede into the background while the rest of us move onto the next big thing.
One year ago Rodriguez was the next big thing at Michigan and Pryor was the next big thing at Ohio State, but neither delivered. In fairness to both, neither stepped into a situation where becoming the next big thing was all that doable. Rodriguez was trying to bring his 21st century offense to the 20th century Wolverines, while Pryor was doing something even more unthinkable -- starting at quarterback for The Ohio State University as a true freshman.
For both the results were mixed, and for Rodriguez, "mixed" is a kind description. Michigan went 3-9, a season-long Appalachian State Moment. Pryor earned the Buckeyes' starting job and even Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but he also produced the lowlight that came to define the Buckeyes' season -- an ugly fourth-quarter fumble against Penn State that led to the Nittany Lions' game-winning touchdown and cost the Buckeyes the outright league title.
But that was last year. This is this year. And this is their year.
Or there will be hell to pay. That's the thing about football at Michigan and Ohio State -- it's not enough to simply win. Everyone wins at those schools. The question is: How much did you win? How many league titles? How many national titles?
And how many Heisman Trophies?
The bar for each of them is high, but if Rodriguez and Pryor are all they were hyped to be, the bar is reachable.
And if they're not all they were hyped to be ... well, we'll find that out.
Rodriguez has a history of winning big in his second season at a school, and that history runs deeper than his days at West Virginia, where the Mountaineers went 3-8 in his 2001 debut and then 9-4 in '02 with the biggest one-season turnaround in Big East history -- from 1-6 to 6-1.
Rodriguez was "only" an assistant at his previous two stops, at Tulane and Clemson, but he was the offensive guru for Tommy Bowden at both places, and at both places the team's offense was the engine behind the massive improvement from Year 1 (7-4 at Tulane, 6-6 at Clemson) to Year 2 (12-0 at Tulane, 9-3 at Clemson).
|Terrelle Pryor impresses coach Jim Tressel with his work ethic. (Getty Images)|
Rodriguez knows his history from Year 1 to Year 2. That's probably why he seemed so relaxed Monday when he met the Big Ten media to discuss the 2009 season. That, or he's a good actor.
"I do expect us to be a lot better," Rodriguez said. "There were some moments we executed well last year, but they were few and far between. We had a lack of experience everywhere. The more you're experienced with [the system], the more you know the answers to your problems."
Of course, Terrelle Pryor would have been the biggest answer to his biggest problem, and Rodriguez knew it. He tried desperately to make Pryor his first recruit at Michigan -- famously calling him within minutes of taking the Michigan job in December 2007 -- but when Pryor chose Ohio State and when quarterback Ryan Mallett was one of a horde of Michigan players who fled during the coaching transition, Rodriguez was forced to play overmatched Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan at quarterback. This season, the starter could be a true freshman: Tate Forcier.
"By no means is anyone locked onto as the starting quarterback," said Rodriguez, who swung the door wide open to Forcier. "As a coach you're always worried about starting true freshmen, especially at quarterback, but I have all the confidence in the world that our coaches and Tate will put in the work to get ready."
Indeed, it takes more than physical skill. Pryor and his coach at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, know that. For all his athletic prowess, Pryor doesn't shirk the mental aspect of the game.
"He's a guy that's passionate to be really good," Tressel said. "He loves to study film. Loves to be on his own with his DVDs."
And even with that, with his work ethic combined with his ridiculous combination of size (6-foot-6, 235 pounds), speed and arm strength, Pryor wasn't exactly unleashed last season. Tressel leaned most heavily on tailback Chris Wells, giving Pryor an average of 11 carries and 12 pass attempts per game. That's nothing. That's baby food. But with Wells having turned pro after his junior season, and with leading receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline also gone, Pryor is about to be given the Buckeyes' big-boy menu.
And if he's as good as the hype, he should be able to handle it. In those limited opportunities as a freshman, Pryor averaged 4.5 yards per rush and led the Big Ten in pass efficiency. In theory, with more opportunities and his new-age skill set, Pryor could produce at Ohio State like the next Vince Young.
But in theory, Rich Rodriguez and his space-age offense were going to win at Michigan like the next Bo Schembechler.
That's the thing about theories. Theories come, and theories go.