ANN ARBOR, Mich. - For the second weekend in a row, Michigan football is hosting a major underdog from a Group of Five conference. But this time, the Wolverines face a tougher challenge.
Last week's Cincinnati games stayed surprisingly close for three quarters, as the Bearcats trailed by just three points in the third. Cincinnati only won four games last season and struggled with Austin Peay in its opener.
Now, Air Force is visiting the Big House for the first time since 2012, when the Falcons nearly pulled off a big upset but fell short at 31-25. Michigan will have to play much better to avoid another scare this season.
The spread is currently 23.5 points. Here are three reasons Michigan might cover the spread, and three reasons it might not.
Why it will be a blowout
Air Force's offensive scheme
The first thing that comes to mind when fans think of the Air Force football team is its triple-option offense.
Many teams struggle defensively against the service academies because of the unique way their offenses are run. Air Force is a prime example, as it ran the ball more than 800 times on average over the past three seasons. In comparison, Michigan, which relies heavily on the running game, ran the ball under 600 times last season.
While the Wolverines haven't seen a triple option attack, they've shown an elite ability to shut down opposing running games. Florida managed just 11 rushing yards against Michigan, and Cincinnati gained just 68.
Air Force's rushing attack will look much different than the ones Michigan faced in the past, but the Wolverines have an elite defensive line and an athletic group of linebackers. That's the formula to shut down a heavy ground attack.
Air Force's offensive strengths match up with Michigan's defensive strengths, and that could make it tough for the Falcons to move the football.
Air Force is a much better team than Cincinnati, but in terms of speed and athleticism, the Falcons can't match up with Michigan.
This is the type of game in which Jim Harbaugh will try to overwhelm Air Force's defense with Michigan's advantage at the skill positions. Chris Evans has struggled in the first two games, but this is a matchup he could use to break out of his slump.
Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones will be major factors in the game if Wilton Speight can get them the ball. Harbaugh might get creative and force the ball into their hands, like he did on the end-around to Peoples-Jones last weekend.
Air Force is strong in the trenches, but in the open field, this is a huge mismatch.
Early dominance under Harbaugh
Harbaugh has only been at Michigan for two full seasons, but the program has already developed a reputation for dominating as a home favorite.
In 2015, the Wolverines took the nation by storm when they smacked No. 22 BYU 31-0 and routed No. 13 Northwestern 38-0 in the first half of the season. Each of their five home wins came by more than 20 points.
Last season, they turned it up a notch, beating Hawaii by 60, Central Florida by 37, Colorado by 17 and Penn State by 39 in the first four weeks.
When Michigan corners a team at home, it usually has no problem putting them away.
Why it won't be a blowout
Air Force is no pushover
Air Force isn't a big name in the college football landscape, but the team is absolutely not a pushover.
Last season, the Falcons finished with 10 wins after ripping off six straight to finish the season. They lost three straight games in October by single digits, but it's been almost 11 months since the Falcons lost a football game.
The 10-3 season wasn't a fluke. Air Force won eight games in 2015 and 10 games in 2014. During a 2015 trip to East Lansing, Air Force lost by just 14 points to a Spartans team that eventually went to the College Football Playoff.
With 20 minutes to play Saturday, Cincinnati was down three points with the ball in Michigan Stadium. If Michigan plays with fire again, Air Force is a good enough team to make the Wolverines pay.
Experience and discipline
What the service academy teams lack in sheer athleticism, they more than make up for in experience and discipline, especially in the trenches and the backfield.
Air Force won't be intimidated by the largest crowd in college football, as they've got the most experienced team in the nation. That will be a huge advantage for the Falcons as they take on a Michigan team that plays more freshmen and sophomores than any other team.
Even if Air Force's experience isn't enough to win the game, it will help keep the game close. The Falcons won't break under pressure if Michigan gets out to a fast start, and if the roles are reversed, the young Wolverines will be tested.
Special teams mistakes
It's hard to blow out good teams while making huge mistakes on special teams, and that's been a problem for Michigan the first two weeks of the season.
In the opener against Florida, Michigan had a punt blocked deep in its own territory and missed two field goals, although one was from more than 50 yards away.
The Wolverines were well on their way to blowing out Cincinnati before a short punt bounced off the leg of Ambry Thomas and gave the Bearcats a short field. Was it an unlucky play? Yes. Could it have been avoided? Absolutely.
Harbaugh has a very young team, and that youth is showing on special teams. As the players begin to fully grasp the importance of special teams, they will start to cut down on the lapses. If they give away possessions and allow Air Force's offense to start on a short field, this game will be an uncomfortable one.
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