ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Man, it’s been a long wait.
We’re already well into the dreary part of Michigan’s fall season, when the sky is almost always gray, it’s dark by the time dinner ends and I have to put on long pants to take a walk.
Most years, as we wake up (reluctantly) in October, wondering where the summer went, there’s at least Big Ten football to get us through. But so far that’s been another casualty of 2020. Is nothing sacred?
The Big Ten canceled its season way back in August, only to watch most of the other conferences play on as scheduled. Then, when games were reinstated, they were still more than a month away.
Now, mercifully, football is back.
Jim Harbaugh immediately spoke out against the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the season, and Michigan has been practicing throughout the delay. He expressed confidence in the program’s COVID-19 precautions, and as of Monday, the team didn’t have any players unavailable due to positive tests.
Setting the stage
Michigan will kick off this strange season Saturday night against a Minnesota squad that won 11 games last year. Both teams are ranked in the top 25, and ESPN’s “College Gameday” will be in attendance.
Michigan and Minnesota haven’t met since 2017, when the Wolverines walloped the Golden Gophers in a weather-delayed, soaking wet night game. That’s the only time these rivals have met during the P.J. Fleck era.
So, my prediction? Well, I’m about to break down four well-thought-out reasons why Michigan will lose to Minnesota, then I’m going to pick Michigan to win anyway.
1. The Michigan letdown sampler platter
Michigan has won some big games under Harbaugh, but the unavoidable truth is the Wolverines have come up short more often than not.
This year’s opener is setting the stage for the most cliche Michigan loss possible. It’s a road game. Against a ranked team. At night. On “Gameday."
It’s like Minnesota picked up a “Michigan letdown game” appetizer menu and ordered an entire sampler platter.
By now, you probably know the numbers. Michigan is 1-7 against ranked teams on the road under Harbaugh, with the only win coming against a Michigan State team that eventually finished 7-6.
To be fair, ranked teams usually win at home because, well, they’re good enough to be ranked. But Michigan’s struggles in this category do warrant some criticism.
Michigan has started its season with true road games twice in the Harbaugh era: Both 24-17 losses -- against Utah in 2015 and Notre Dame in 2018.
If history matters at all, it’s against Michigan this weekend.
2. Quarterback certainty vs. uncertainty
Quarterback is by far the most important position on the football field, and the two starters in this matchup are polar opposites.
Tanner Morgan was ranked outside the top 1,000 recruits in the 2017 class, while Joe Milton was a four-star in 2018. Morgan’s top scholarship offers were from Minnesota and Louisville. Milton’s were from Michigan, Georgia, LSU and Florida.
But those rankings don’t matter anymore. Milton comes into this season with just 12 career pass attempts. Morgan threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns last year while completing two-third of his attempts for an average of 10.2 yards.
The Michigan fan base is excited about Milton, and rightfully so. But everything they’re hoping he can do, Morgan has already accomplished. His 2019 with Minnesota would translate to arguably the best season for a passer in Michigan history.
3. Moving pieces on offense
Remember the excitement surrounding Michigan’s offense in 2018? Shea Patterson took over as the starting quarterback. A bunch of young weapons were emerging at the top of the wide receiver depth chart. The offensive line was inexperienced, but talented.
Michigan has a new starting quarterback, mostly unproven wide receivers and four new faces along the offensive line this year. Not to mention it’s only the second season calling plays for coordinator Josh Gattis.
In the 2018 opener, Patterson and his receivers couldn’t get on the same page. Michigan lost two turnovers and ran for just 1.8 yards per carry. By the end of the game, the Wolverines had just barely scraped together 300 yards.
This year might not necessarily be that ugly, but a bit of a learning curve should be expected with so many new pieces. It took Michigan half a season to really get comfortable in Gattis' scheme last year. There’s no guarantee it’ll click right off the bat for the new guys.
4. Strength vs. weakness
Football is a game of matchups, and the biggest mismatch, on paper, heading into this game is Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman against Michigan’s unproven cornerbacks.
Mike Zordich has gone from David Long to Lavert Hill to Ambry Thomas at the cornerback position the last four years, and that’s been the secret ingredient to the defense’s success. Don Brown can’t be overly aggressive and commit a bunch of players to the blitz unless his cornerbacks are strong in man-to-man coverage.
Maybe Michigan will continue to pump out elite corners, but the players taking over for Long, Hill and Thomas don’t have nearly the same pedigrees.
Vincent Gray held his own as a backup last season and figures to be a reliable No. 1 corner. Behind him, well, anyone reading the tea leaves can see Michigan has issues.
The Wolverines reportedly considered moving Daxton Hill -- who could be one of the best safeties in the nation -- to cornerback. When that didn’t happen, they converted safety Sammy Faustin instead, and that very week Harbaugh named him a frontrunner for the job.
That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the players who were already involved in the competition. It sounds like Michigan knows there’s a hole to fill, and the coaches aren’t exactly sure how to patch it.
If that’s the case, and there is a weak spot in the secondary, Bateman will expose it. He caught 60 passes for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019. That’s more than 20 yards per catch. Tyler Johnson moved on to the NFL, so Morgan is going to be looking for Bateman even more.
Bateman exploded in Minnesota’s biggest games last season, racking up 203 receiving yards against Penn State in front of a “College Gameday” crowd. Later, he made six catches for 147 yards against Wisconsin in a game to decide the Big Ten West Division.
The moment Bateman opted back into the 2020 season, he saw a young Michigan secondary and started licking his chops. Does Michigan have an answer?
Why I’m picking Michigan to win
By now you’re either thinking I have a pretty fair argument against Michigan or angry at me for pointing out Minnesota’s advantages.
Here’s the thing: For some reason, I still think Michigan will win the game.
Do I think Milton will outplay Morgan? No. Do I think Michigan will shut down Bateman? Not a chance. But the Wolverines do have some factors working in their favor.
First of all, Fleck said early in the week that Minnesota will have “a number of players” unavailable due to COVID-19. He didn’t say which players, or how many, but it suggests the Golden Gophers are dealing with some uncertainty in that regard, which is a major advantage for Michigan.
Secondly, despite all the offensive similarities between this year and 2018, there are some key differences:
- Patterson arrived in Ann Arbor a few months before suiting up for the 2018 Notre Dame game. Milton has been part of the program for two full years.
- If the passing game struggles, Michigan has a deep, proven running back unit that appears to be fully healthy.
- While Michigan’s offensive line has four new starters, Ryan Hayes started multiple games last year due to a Jon Runyan Jr. injury, and Andrew Stueber was trending toward a starting job before a knee injury. Ed Warinner has plenty to work with and deserves the benefit of the doubt.
I also get a sense that Michigan’s receiver turnover might end up being a blessing in disguise. Nobody has come out directly criticizing members of last year’s team, but there could be some addition by subtraction in the wide receiver room, in terms of buy-in and attitude.
The new receivers are young and unproven, but Harbaugh talked about their togetherness and oneness, and that might have something to do with simply being a better fit in the offensive scheme. Gattis preaches “speed in space,” and now -- between Mike Sainristil, Roman Wilson, A.J. Henning, Giles Jackson and others -- he has the speed. He just needs to create the space.
Michigan’s greatest strength -- and the main reason I believe it will win the game -- should be its pass rush. At times last season, Michigan struggled to get pressure on the quarterback. There’s no reason for that to be the case in 2020.
By all accounts, Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye have only gotten better this offseason, and they were already two of the best pass rushers in the conference. The interior of the line can only improve, and Cam McGrone and Josh Ross should be a strong linebacker duo.
Even if Bateman gets his catches, Michigan can pressure Morgan and contain the run -- two important facets of the game.
There’s a reason Minnesota opened as a slight favorite: The Golden Gophers are coming off a better season than Michigan, and they’re also at home.
But there’s also a reason the betting line flipped to Michigan, and it’s not just rich alumni. The Wolverines have more talent across the board, and while that doesn’t always translate to wins, it’s a good place to start.
Harbaugh kept Michigan on the practice field even when the season was postponed, and that could work in the favor of a team replacing so many key contributors.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Minnesota came out on top, but I’ll predict a competitive 27-21 Michigan victory.