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Three things we hope to learn from Michigan’s non-conference schedule

The unofficial preseason is upon us!

Colorado State v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

College football is back! Well, mostly. Week 0 is in the books for the true sickos among us and this Thursday, Week 1 and a full slate of games over the course of four glorious days gets underway.

The Michigan Wolverines open up the three-game non-conference portion of their schedule on Saturday against the ECU Pirates on Peacock. In the following weeks, Michigan will play UNLV and Bowling Green to conclude the unofficial preseason.

Michigan’s non-conference schedule the last two seasons has been compared to making a Hot Pocket for dinner; playing a mildly intense game of pickle ball; exiting through one tunnel without violence.

In other words, it’s easy. In arrogant fairness, the Wolverines could probably win all three with only reserves playing. But despite the lack of early quality opponents, there are still several things we can learn over the next three weeks.

By Sept. 17, here are three things I want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Who wins the position battles?

Last season, it only took two weeks for head coach Jim Harbaugh to decide who his starting quarterback would be. This season, due to an absurd amount of depth and returning talent, it might take all three weeks to decide several key battles.

The following positions are up in the air:

  • Left tackle — Can Karsen Barnhart hold of LaDarius Henderson?
  • Right tackle — Trente Jones vs. Myles Hinton is a clash of the Titans.
  • Center — Is Greg Crippen about to pull the biggest upset on the roster?
  • Kicker — How reliable is James Turner?
  • Punt Returner — Who is it?
  • Kick Returner — No way it’s actually Alex Orji, right? RIGHT?
  • Punter — Does Tommy Doman kick nukes?
  • Wide receiver — What does the order look like beyond Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson?
  • Edge rotation — How will the rotation of Jaylen Harrell, Derrick Moore, Josaiah Stewart and Braiden McGregor shake out? Where are TJ Guy and Kechaun Bennett?
  • Linebacker — Is the hype around Jaydon Hood real?
  • Second corner — Can Josh Wallace play at a Big Ten-caliber level?
  • Third running back — A battle of thickness between Benjamin Hall and Kalel Mullings.

We could witness different starters or pairings in the first two games and have the third game serve as a tie-breaker, or rotations as frequent as every other series. There is so much to transpire in each of these individual competitions during the first three weeks that even garbage time will be compelling.

Has this team really found balance?

Michigan was one of the most run-heavy Power Five teams in the country last season. While a team identity is a prerequisite for a championship, a lack of offensive diversity can lead to predictability.

This offseason, there has been an increased emphasis on balancing the offense. It is highly unlikely the offense will need an even 50-50 split in these first three games, but as Jake Butt suggested during his In the Trenches appearance, these games are an opportunity for experimentation. A chance to see what works, and more importantly, what needs improvement.

Michigan knows it can run the ball and dominate in the trenches, but not if it can win a game through the air. Once the Wolverines are ahead, expect the offense to open up the passing attack for a series or two to test plays, rhythm, scheme, and build rapport with several receivers through live reps.

If J.J. McCarthy is connecting on deep shots in Week 1, this offense could have a chance to be equal parts dominating and explosive throughout the season.

The health status of Blake Corum

Is running back Blake Corum healthy? How will he cut? How will he block?

Despite the fact Corum is built and plays like the T-1000, he is human. Over the last two seasons, Corum has battled through an ankle injury and, most recently, a devastating knee injury that cost him a potential Heisman Trophy.

It has been nine months since Corum injured his knee, and entering this season, one can’t help but wonder how it will affect him mentally and physically. All indications are he is back and better than ever, but until proven in live action, it is impossible to not be at least the slightest bit concerned.