Game One: Michigan-Central Michigan Preview

USA TODAY Sports

The Chips come to town for the season opener, and Michigan is looking to start its season off with a bang.

Michigan vs. Central Michigan

Ann Arbor, MI; 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

Enemy Blog: Hustle Belt

Football is here.

It has been a long, long time coming, and after watching that awesome finish in the Vandy-Ole Miss game last night, I am more than excited to get back into 12 hours of football every Saturday.  It's only a problem if you admit it.

Since this is Central Michigan, this week's preview will be a bit short (and a couple days later than it will normally run).  NOW ABOUT THE FOOTBALL.

When Michigan Has The Ball

For all the hubub about Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, you can bet that the first thing Michigan is going to try and do on Saturday is establish control on the ground.  Fitzgerald Toussaint is completely healthy, Michigan has a few options it is looking at for his primary backup, and the interior of the offensive line is completely new.

This is priority one, two, and three.  Michigan's fortunes this year are going to rest with how well this team can move the ball on the ground, and this game — like the other two cupcake non-conference games — will be about getting everyone in sync.

Michigan should have good luck with this.  When I asked Ron Balaskovitz of Hustle Belt about Central Michigan's weakness, he responded with this:

The defensive front four. They struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season long last year, and it contributed to the secondary looking bad. You can only cover receivers so long if you're going to let the quarterback stand in the pocket all game. And if CMU can't get pressure on Gardner, then it's going to open things up for the running game, and then we'll be in a world of trouble.

If you are a Michigan fan looking for your team to get comfortable running the ball while also giving the quarterbacks (yes, Shane Morris will play, because obviously) time to ease into the passing playbook with little pressure, this is music to your ears.

Outlook

Central gave up quite a few yards (433 per game) a year ago, and barring a major turnaround on defense, this should bode well for Michigan to move the ball both on the ground and through the air at will.  The key will be unforced errors.  If Michigan makes boneheaded mistakes it'll give Central a chance to score some cheap points and work with short fields.  This would not be good.

When Central Has The Ball

This might as well say, " When Zurlon Tipton Has The Ball," because as he goes, so does the Chippewa offense.

Last year Tipton averaged 115 yards/game and was 14th nationally.  This year he is on the Doak Walker and Maxwell award watch lists.  He is a senior and has plenty of experience (third year getting playing time, and 2011 was derailed by injury) and size at 6'0, 221.

Fortunately, this runs right into Michigan's strength as a defense.  While the DL has failed to mount a sufficient pass rush in the last two seasons, it has done a good job of stopping opposing run offenses.  With Quinton Washington back on the inside and two very capable inside backers, Tipton will have a tough time running between the tackles.  It remains to be seen how well Michigan can hold up in run support on the edge with Craig Roh gone and Frank Clark (never known for his run support) slated to start.  If Michigan lets Tipton get the edge with regularity, it will be a long day.

The big question is how can Michigan's defense hold up against the pass.  Safety is a huge, flashing neon question mark right now as someone has to play next to Thomas Gordon.  That will probably be Jarrod Wilson, who has the look of a Big Ten free safety, but has yet to show it in practice.

Thankfully, Michigan will be going against first time starter Cody Kater.  Kater signed with Central, followed Butch Jones to Cincinnati, and made his way back to Mount Pleasant by way of a Juco transfer.  Now he has taken the lead for the starting job, and he will have the benefit of throwing to Titus Davis, Central's leading returning receiver.

The Chips also have to replace some bodies up front, so Michigan's pass rush could get just the boost it needs.

Outlook

It is hard to imagine Central establishing much of a consistent run game against Michigan given the state of the offensive line and the fact that Michigan has been so good at run defense under Greg Mattison.  Now, this will probably force CMU to rely on Kater for some big plays, and I don't see why that won't work out well for them at least once or twice.  The Chips will score, but Michigan should keep the offense in check.

When Someone Is Kicking The Ball

You have to like MIchigan's advantage here.  Central lost last year's kicker and Michigan brings everyone back and puts Dennis Norfleet in charge of returns.

Other Stuff

Key Matchups:

- Michigan's interior line vs. the throes of youth. This is really the matchup of the season, but against a MAC team at home in the first game you really want to see a solid performance.  If Michigan falls apart against the Chips, things have the potential to get ugly really quick (i.e., next week).

- Devin Gardner vs. WHY U THROW THERE? We's all spent the off season raving about how good Gardner can be if he takes a step forward.  A big part of that is limiting the big mistakes that are caused by flustered reads and bad footwork.  Central shouldn't mount much of a pass rush, so Gardner needs to calmly work through his reads and hit his receivers.

- Michigan's front seven vs. the weight of expectations. At this point everyone expects Michigan's run defense to just be good (see above).  There is some turnover here as the Wolverines lost a couple key players from last year, but the unit should be as good or better at stopping the run.  Should be.

- Jarrod Wilson vs. the ghosts of safeties past. THIS IS WHERE YOU PULL OFF YOUR MASK AND SAY "SURPRISE, I WAS GOOD ALL ALONG."

Alternate Programming: Everything.  Watch all of it.  Find every channel with a college game on it and go to it  until a commercial comes, then quickly bat at the remote until more college football is on.  Soak it in.  This is what you waited the last 8 1/2 months for.

But, if you want specific recommendations, Wisconsin and OSU both take on patsies at noon, and you can get your full dose of Johnny Football talk watching TAMU-Rice at 1pm.  When you aren't watching Michigan, flip over and check out the Irish playing Temple (file it away as research, or see how bloody it gets when Oregon plays something called Nicholls.  Night game options abound: Clemson-UGA, LSU-TCU, Boise St.-Washington, and Northwestern-Cal.

College football returned.  And it was good.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 2.  Its a home opener against a traditional underdog.  What could possibly go wrong.

/looks around nervously

Okay, so I will throw something when/if Wilson busts, but this one has the makings of a nice, easy start to the season.

Final Prediction: I don't think this one is necessarily close, but I don't see Michigan blowing the doors of Central either.  I think Michigan's lines control the game for the most part, and a consistent rushing attack — albeit with a few bumps along the way — paves the way for Michigan to keep its offense moving and its defense off the field.  Central will come up with a couple big plays because Jordan Kovacs can't stop things from Miami, but unless Devin Gardner loses his mind or Cody Kater is what Alex Carder never was despite what Graham Couch thought, then Michigan should be able to put this one away without too much drama.

Michigan 34 - Central Michigan 10

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