The dawn of the 2019 season brings a lot of excitement to a Michigan team with high aspirations. When the ball is finally kicked off on Saturday night, there are a countless number of players and factors that fans and analysts will be following, as one might expect after some significant changes during the offseason.
Unlike last season, Michigan begins the year will a reasonable task. Opening up in South Bend was always going to be a tough proposition, and while the Wolverines did recover nicely from their Week 1 loss, it benefits everyone to start the season against a non-Power 5 opponent.
Middle Tennessee State is not the worst team in the country, but a preseason S&P+ ranking of 101 says enough about the caliber of team that is strolling into the Big House. This is a game that everyone expects Michigan to win, and barring (a repeat of) the improbable, this contest is more about seeing who the 2019 team truly is as opposed to the actual struggle between the two sides.
I did not want to call this piece “One Thing to Watch” or “Key to the Game,” although those headlines are not too far off from what I am attempting to accomplish. Instead, here is what I believe Michigan needs to do to give the fan base some confidence heading into the year:
Michigan needs to score 14+ points in the first quarter
Sounds simple, right? The Blue Raiders defense is projected in the 80s in S&P+ and should not pose a huge challenge for the Wolverines on offense. A lot of hype surrounds the program with the introduction of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, and if his offense is as innovative as expected, the scoreboard should be lighting up on Saturday.
Some bumps should be expected with a new scheme, but returning a quarterback and many skill players gives Michigan a chance for a good transition into this modern offense. Fans are itching to see what this actually looks like on the field, and there is no time like the very start to see everything come into action.
Last season Michigan averaged just 4.9 points in the opening quarter of play. This is...not very good. Far too often the offense struggled to set the tone against lesser competition, and against stronger teams it put the maize and blue in a difficult place. When playing teams like Middle Tennessee State, Michigan absolutely needs to attack early and take advantage of the talent mismatch. This rarely happened in 2018:
2018 Michigan Points Scored
Against teams ranked outside the Top 50 in the final S&P+ rankings, only one time did Michigan even manage a touchdown. One time! Of course, the Wolverines did go on to win all of these games, but the contests were kept close much longer than they needed to be; these are the types of matchups that should be basically over by halftime.
Everything is set up for Week 1: a night game at the Big House, a brand new offense, lofty national expectations, and an inferior opponent. A win is obviously a must, but for me to feel good about the game on Sunday, I need to see Michigan put up at least a couple scores in the first quarter.