August 30: vs. Appalachian State; Sept. 6: at Notre Dame; Sept. 13: vs. Miami (OH); Sept. 20: vs. Utah
Football is still more than four months away, but let's take a look at Michigan's non-conference schedule and what we might expect over those four games. Will we go 3-1? Can we go 4-0? Nobody knows that yet, but football time is slow time, and the work put in by the student-athletes over the summer will contribute mightily to how we do during the first four games, and success or failure in those four games does not make or break the entire season. Some positions will get stronger, others weaker by injury, toward the end of the year than at the beginning. Football time is slow time. But let's look at some of the things we can expect from the four teams we are going to square off with: Appalachian State, Notre Dame, Miami of Ohio, and Utah.
These teams in their collective went 18-31, while playing many of their foes in the MAC, Pac-12, and Southern Conferences. The exception is Notre Dame, which once again enters a summer under Brian Kelly full of question marks, talent, and potential, two years removed from an appearance in the title game and a 13-6 victory over the Maize and Blue. They lose Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III, QB Tommy Rees, OC Chuck Martin, DC Bob Diaco, as well as a valuable 6'7" tight end in Troy Niklas. What they retain is the toughest big-name schedule in college football - last year against #3 Sparty, #11 Stanford, #6 Oklahoma, #21 Arizona State, and #19 USC, this year against Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Michigan, and USC.
The team has a Michigan-like roster of talent and youth, but the youth is perhaps their third-biggest question mark. They need a breakout season or at least reliable presence from either of their young mobile quarterbacks, the junior Golson or sophomore Malik Zaire. Golson is a big name but has only played one season in which he was benched for Tommy Rees against Stanford and Purdue and threw for fewer yards and TDs in that season than Rees did in the years before and after. The team will also turn to redshirt freshman Greg Bryant, a five-star tailback who suffered an injury that cost him much of last season and underwhelmed when healthy, to compete with Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston at RB, and by all reports he's impressed so far this spring.
The best chance for Michigan to keep the ground game in check is if the Wolverines' defensive line wins the one-on-one matchups with strength and has the patience and self-confidence to not break contain as it did last year when certain players (such as Clark, or Cam Gordon) tried too hard to make plays for everyone else and causing "spillage." Michigan will also throw out a veteran linebacking corps, but they may of course be outmatched if the defensive line fails to hold their blocks and keep the ND O-line out of the second level. Jake Ryan should be in the middle of everything, but he'll be met by either the physical, Todd Gurley-like Bryant or the more shifty and elusive Folston. If guys like Willie Henry and Frank Clark develop into star players, that's fine, but what Michigan needs here is depth, and strength - so the development of players like Taco Charlton, Pip Jr, Henry Poggi, Mario Ojemudia, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone and Mo Hurst is needed to complement the work of veterans Brennen Beyer and Frank Clark (yes, those are the only veterans).
Two second-year five-stars on defense - linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Max Redfield - join undersized and uber-productive D-lineman Sheldon Day on a ND defense with talent spotted throughout but also some weaknesses at each level. The team seems to be switching to a 4-3 base after losing quintessential 3-4 linemen in Tuitt and Nix and hiring a coach with a deep 4-3 background. What Notre Dame tries to do will be dictated by how the coaches feel they can plug in guys who were recruited to be 3-4 defenders into their new schemes, and also how quickly those players can learn and adapt to those schemes. So, however much talent Brian Kelly may have to work with back there - and he has even out-recruited Hoke over the last few years - nobody knows yet, not even the ND coaches, how well they will fare at the start of non-conference play.
Of course, before we get to Notre Dame, we will face a new member of the Sun Belt Conference and member of the FBS in Appalachian State. This should be a chance for Nussmeier to test some of what he'd like to do against a weaker opponent. Yes, this happened before - we underestimated a team that 'couldn't' beat us but ultimately shocked us. But as monumental as this game is in terms of historical importance, Appalachian State is a 4-8 squad that is now entering a tougher slate of opponents in the Sun Belt. In 2006, App State was a 14-1 team after going 12-3 the year before that. Among FCS teams, they were elite, and two from that 2007 squad even played in the NFL. This time, this should be a vindication for Michigan as well as a repeat of last year's 59-9 win over Central Michigan, a win that left everybody feeling good and did wonders for our running back corps.
The third game of the season may be even easier, as we face Miami of Ohio in Michigan Stadium. The new coach of the team is actually the former offensive coordinator for Notre Dame, Chuck Martin. He may have the RedHawks in the right direction within a few years but he'll try to improve a roster that finished 119th in passing offense last year, 123rd in red zone offense, 114th in rushing offense and and 113th in total D. This means, among other things, that we may see early-season sightings of Shane Morris no matter the distance between him and incumbent Devin Gardner, and everyone will be able to look and evaluate the statistics for both before we get into the heart of the B1G schedule. It also means we may look good early; our running game may be sharp and our receivers getting separation, but what won't be tested, outside of Notre Dame, is mental toughness. The fourth game of the B1G season, on October 25th against Michigan State, will do that.
Finally, Utah, which went 5-7 in the Pac-12, presents a good test for Team 135. This, much more than Appalachian State, is a team not to be overlooked. They won against Stanford in October of last year, and lost to UCLA by 7 and Arizona State by 1. Their coach, Kyle Whittingham, had been the defensive coordinator for Urban Meyer there and ascended to the top spot after he left. Utah was very successful in the Mountain West (finishing #2 in the AP poll in 2008 and beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl) and is 18-19 the last three years and 9-18 in conference play. They have some good pieces but struggle a bit offensively and had injuries to two of their starting linebackers in spring that will keep them out until after they play Michigan. Still, overall, their strengths lie in the fundamentals - a top-30 team in run defense, punting, fewest penalties, and fumbles lost and gained.
What does this mean for Michigan? Ultimately, nothing - a team's success comes not from the opponent but from within. How well Michigan grows and how motivated they are to physically mature and hold each other to the highest standard of success will be what everyone will be watching as the summer winds down and fall arrives. All four teams are beatable, but Notre Dame looks like a very tough out, a talented squad with a workpail, drama-less approach. We may have the talent to match theirs, with Devin Gardner, Funchess, Freddy Canteen, Amara Darboh and a slimmed down Derrick Green. Notre Dame could stumble after making changes to their defense, and their quarterback play could implode and leave them vulnerable to a concerted effort from a hard-working and underrated Michigan D. Or, one of the other teams could surprise us, even Appalachian State. We'll see what the fall brings. But, as always, the success will only come from the work put in until that point, and the real football is still a long way away.