Rich Rodriguez made his debut as Michigan football coach in 2008 with an ambitious plan.

"Our goal has been to build the best program in America," he said, "and we have never wavered from that focus."

But Rodriguez acknowledged this week that, until now, reality has not kept pace with his vision.

"I thought we'd be further ahead," he said. "But I thought a lot of things when I got here."

The Wolverines are 15-19 overall and 6-16 in the Big Ten Conference on Rodriguez's watch, which also includes an expensive NCAA investigation concluded earlier this month that resulted in three years of probation for practice and training violations.

The hot seat under Rodriguez has cooled ever so slightly thanks to consecutive wins over Illinois and Purdue that made Michigan (7-3, 3-3) bowl-eligible for the first time in his tenure.

That cool down will continue if the Wolverines make a good impression in the last two games of the regular season. They host the sixth-ranked University of Wisconsin on Saturday and play at No. 8 Ohio State on Nov. 27.

The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is well-known, so it's fair to wonder if Rodriguez is worried about his players looking beyond Saturday's game. That issue cropped up Monday when senior cornerback James Rogers was asked about the opportunity to make a statement in the next two weeks.

"We need this Ohio State win bigger than anything," he said. "That's something we've been waiting on, and I guarantee that's where our focus is going to be at real soon. We're going to take on Wisconsin first and get ready for that game."

During the Big Ten coaches' teleconference Tuesday, Rodriguez emphasized his players will keep both projects separate.

"Our guys understand what a great challenge this is," he said of facing the Badgers, who haven't won at 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium since 1994 (0-5). "Plus the fact it's our last home game for our seniors at the Big House, that means an awful lot to our program as well."

The Wolverines are fresh off a confusing performance during a 27-16 win at Purdue. Their electric offense — ranked fifth nationally in combined rushing and passing — was short-circuited while their defense — ranked 100th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs — rose for the first time this season.

"Our defense played better than it has in a while," Rodriguez said.

Whether it was an aberration or a genuine step forward remains to be seen, but there's no doubt a more cohesive effort will help down the stretch.

Michigan is 0-2 this season and 1-8 overall under Rodriguez against top-25 teams, so speculation about his job security is very much in play even though he has three years remaining on his contract and there are signs of progress.

"I understand the talk's out there," Rodriguez said. "It's been out there for three years. It's probably been out there since the day I took the job.

We've had obstacles. We've had bumps in the road. We're pressing forward. I'm hoping there's enough positive momentum and talk that all the negativity that's been out there gets pushed aside a little bit."

 

Wisconsin Michigan

When: Nov. 20, 11 a.m.

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WIBA-FM/101.5 and AM/1310 with Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas

Wisconsin: Stats | Roster | Schedule

Michigan: Stats | Roster | Schedule

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