Big Ten favorites. College Football Playoff expectations. A different attitude, both inside the building and across the nation. The 2023 Michigan Wolverines are not satisfied with the past two seasons and are determined to finally get back to the top of the mountain and lift the CFP trophy at the end of the season.
The path there begins on Saturday in Ann Arbor with the first of three non-conference tune-ups. Again the early-season schedule is fairly weak, and even without Jim Harbaugh and Sherrone Moore the Wolverines are expected to roll. Maybe the East Carolina Pirates will put up a fight, but the outcome of this one seems all but guaranteed.
ECU finished 8-5 last season, in the middle of the AAC, and is projected to finish around there again. On the analytics side, SP+ drops the visitors from 62nd at the end of 2022 to 87th heading into the new year thanks to the exit of quite a few key contributors. Last season saw the Pirates lose a close one to local rival NC State in the opener, the only Power Five opponent they faced.
This is still a better squad than the typical non-conference opponent as of late, but there is a reason Michigan is favored by a whole lot. With many starters returning and a couple Heisman candidates ready to shine, Saturday should be a fun way to kick off what could potentially be a very special season.
East Carolina Pirates (0-0) at No. 2 Michigan Wolverines (0-0)
Date & Time: Saturday, Sep. 2, Noon ET
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
Offense: Define “50/50”
It feels crazy to say, but this Michigan offense could be the school’s best in the modern era. J.J. McCarthy is living up to the hype and should be a first-round pick either next spring or the following year, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards are both among the top running backs in the entire nation, and the offensive line has been the best in the country for two seasons in a row.
The only questions — and that term is used pretty liberally here — are unlikely to be truly tested against ECU. The first uncertainty revolves around some new faces along the offensive line. While this group has been elite the last two seasons, there are some new starters at center and tackle. The Pirates do return a few starters themselves on the defensive line, but it is hard to see how this Michigan front will be significantly challenged on Saturday.
The other minor concern on offense is the lack of a super strong pass-catching group. However, to see if McCarthy can get some help beyond Cornelius Johnson, Roman Wilson, and Colston Loveland would require throwing the ball, and despite claims to be a balanced run/pass offense, it seems very unlikely that Michigan comes out and slings the ball around. ECU did basically lose all of its corners from last season, so the opportunity will be there, but even with Kirk Campbell calling the plays, this is still a run-first team.
Defense: Everybody get in here
On the other side of the ball, the Pirates will start Mason Garcia at quarterback, who was actually a top-400 recruit. Garcia has just 38 pass attempts in his first three years, though, and putting him up against this Michigan secondary seems unfair. He has carried the ball a handful of times and offers a little mobility, but that is going to be put to the test against an athletic defensive line.
Continuing the theme of attrition, ECU lost its top running back and top two receivers from the 2022 squad, and none of the new starters come with a ton of experience or accolades. Compare that to a Michigan team that brings back a ton of talent at all three levels and was very staunch for most of last season, and it becomes no surprise why SP+ projects the Pirates to score fewer than five points this weekend.
Should the scoreboard become lopsided as expected, this will be a great time to test out the Wolverines’ depth. The edge spot is particularly interesting and could have a fun time in the backfield, thinking back to how 10 different defenders recorded at least 0.5 sacks in the opener against Colorado State last year. Derrick Moore, Braiden McGregor, Josaiah Stewart, and more should all get plenty of shots at Garcia.
Sink the Pirates
Michigan will (deservedly) again get plenty of disrespect given its weak non-conference schedule, but none of that matters unless something goes terribly wrong. The Wolverines are big favorites for a reason, and this is a great chance to go out and set the tone for the next month — and the rest of the year.
Though a 50/50 split on offense seems like a fairytale, Campbell is likely to give McCarthy some legitimate reps, and getting the returning starter into a rhythm early is one of the most important things that can happen on Saturday. Obviously it will be great to see plenty of players across the depth chart too, but having the studs show they mean business from the get-go is essential.
Teams in the past might have gotten off to a slow start in games like these, but that would be a big surprise this weekend in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are appropriately ranked No. 2 in the nation, and all of the chatter out of the team this offseason has seemed very focused on the biggest prize. If that truly is the goal, then there is no excuse for anything less than domination against ECU.