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Colorado State at No. 8 Michigan Preview: The new season is here is so are the quarterback auditions

Of all the storylines, none is bigger than the Wolverines’ prolonged quarterback competition.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Georgia at Michigan Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Throw out the Minnesota Vikings drama, forget the coordinator departures, and let go of the recruiting frustrations — the 2022 season is finally here, and the reigning Big Ten champion Michigan Wolverines begin their quest to retain the conference crown. Claiming the trophy will be a difficult task given the amount of turnover on defense, but optimism is high to open the season.

Before the Wolverines can begin this journey, they first must get through a drab non-conference schedule that features three lower-tier teams coming to Ann Arbor, starting with Colorado State on Saturday. This will be the first time the teams have played since Frankie Collins and Caleb Houstan led the comebac... the 1994 Holiday Bowl, their only prior meeting.

The Rams are the toughest of Michigan’s three opening matchups; however, that is not saying much, as they rank just 96th overall per SP+. The Wolverines are listed as 30-point favorites per DraftKings SportsBook. That means this game, and the two that follow, will be as much about the competition amongst the depth chart itself as it is against the opponents on the other side.

Colorado State Rams (0-0) at No. 8 Michigan Wolverines (0-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Sep. 3, 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV/Streaming: ABC
Odds: MICH -30.5, O/U 61.5

All odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.

Unleash the offense

Jim Harbaugh stole the headlines once again with his unconventional solution to the quarterback competition. Both Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy will act as the starter in one of the first two games (though both players may play in each week), and from there the coaching staff will decide on a long-term starter — or at least a long-term plan going forward.

McNamara faces the slightly better defense, as Colorado State sits 71st per SP+. The unit is led by a strong front seven, headlined by Edge rushers Mohamed Kamara and CJ Onyechi and excellent linebacker Cam’Ron Carter. The Rams use these disruptors to impact the passing game, which ranked 38th in total passing yards last year compared to 87th in total rushing defense, and they should grow on these numbers this season.

Still, this should not be a problem for an offensive line that returns three starters from the 2021 Joe Moore Award winning unit and adds transfer Olu Oluwatimi, who was a finalist for last year’s Rimington Trophy. With this level of pass protection and the laughable number of gamebreakers at the wide receiver position, McNamara will have every opportunity to impress during his turn at the helm.

Michigan will certainly miss Hassan Haskins this season, but that loss might not be felt in this contest. Even with the offense expected to open up a bit, both Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards are slated to see plenty of touches. The defensive front has some good pieces, but they are going to have a really tough time limiting either of the dynamic rushers.

New responsibilities across the defense

Anyone who has skepticism about the Wolverines this year will point to the defense. There is no Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, or Dax Hill, and even Josh Ross, Brad Hawkins, and Vincent Gray are gone as well. That leaves a lot of opportunities for complementary and rotational players from 2021’s elite unit to take a big step forward.

The biggest question marks revolve around the line’s ability to make up for the departure of Hutchinson and Ojabo. Mazi Smith is the tone-setter and freshman Mason Graham will get immediate playing time alongside him and Kris Jenkins. There is a ton of uncertainty at the Edge, though, with Mike Morris, Taylor Upshaw, Jaylen Harrell, Derrick Moore, and Eyabi Anoma among those expected to get a chance to claim consistent snaps.

Where it gets exciting is the defensive backfield. With linebackers Junior Colson and Nikhai Hill-Green returning to their positions (though the latter might be injured this weekend), the rest of the back seven all have something to prove. DJ Turner and Rod Moore look like the real deal already, but Rod Moore, Geman Green, and converted receiver Mike Sainristil all must step up to help the rawness up front.

The defense should get a soft introduction to the season, facing a brand new Colorado State offense that will lean on the passing game. Jay Norvell comes to Fort Collins (great city) from Nevada and brought a team’s worth of transfers with him, including quarterback Clay Millen (a former four-star recruit) and receiver Tory Horton. It is not hard to imagine this duo — and heavily featured passing game — as pretty exciting by the end of the season, but a brand new school and system for these players against Michigan’s secondary does look like a mismatch.

Competition all around

By announcing the quarterback decision the way he did, Harbaugh essentially told the country how he views the threat of the non-conference schedule. Colorado State made some big changes this offseason that will hopefully bring about its first bowl berth in five seasons, but the talent gap in this contest is vast.

Michigan can and should use this game as a chance to get its feet under it, working through the two-deep, especially across the defense. Small mistakes and miscues are acceptable at this point, so long as they lead to improvements when the games really start heating up. The Rams are just the right level of competition to provide a little test without having to get stressed out too much on a nice September Saturday (knock on wood).

Despite all this, there is only one conversation topic that will really matter Sunday morning. For much of last season, McNamara was anywhere from passable to solid, but that might not be good enough now with McCarthy breathing down his neck. It is clear he offers nothing in the running game, and his arm talent is a tick below, so McNamara will need to leverage everything else he has to prove that he is the right choice for this team. A good performance might not be good enough; the returning starter needs to pull out all the stops in this one.