There’s something special about watching the Maize and Blue sprint from the tunnel and touch the banner for the first time of the season. It’s time to look forward to that again.
Let’s not call it quite a respite, but following the season opener on neutral turf against a tough Florida Gators squad, Michigan gets to come home and face a Cincinnati Bearcats team that finished 1-7 in the AAC a year ago. This will also mark the first time ever that these two schools will meet on the football field.
- WHO: Michigan vs. Cincinnati
- WHAT: Michigan’s Home Opener
- WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 (Time TBA)
- WHERE: The Big House
Let’s take a look at how UC looks heading into 2017.
For years it seemed the University of Cincinnati was the perfect school for head coaches looking to advance their careers. Consecutively, Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State, Brian Kelly took over before leaving for Notre Dame, and then Butch Jones led the program before leaving for Tennessee. It wasn’t until Tommy Tuberville was named head coach in 2013 that the program shifted. He compiled back-to-back nine-win seasons, but then went 7-6 in 2015 and 4-8 last season.
The Bearcats limped to the finish line in 2016, losing their final five games and seven-of-eight. But teams change from year to year. Former head coach Tommy Tuberville resigned at the conclusion of the season and the Bearcats looked in-state to find his replacement, with former Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell signing a six-year, $13.4 million deal.
Will this new hire save the program?
The defense wasn’t entirely the problem. They were a middle of the road team, ranking 54th in points and 73rd in yards per game. Fickell will likely only make this unit better, being a defensive guy himself, though they will be losing their top three tacklers who combined for 315 total tackles in 2016. The 2017 defense will rely heavily on returners like defensive end Marquise Copeland, linebacker Kevin Mouhon and safety Carter Jacobs to lead the way.
The struggle lies with the offense. The Bearcats ranked 123rd of 128 programs in points scored last season at just over 19 per game. In fact, there were four contests where UC failed to put up double digits, including three weeks in a row near the end of the season. To call it anemic would have been an understatement.
The revitalization will fall on the shoulders of Mike Denbrock, the former Notre Dame offensive mind who left Brian Kelly’s staff to join the staff where Kelly formerly coached. The Fighting Irish, of course, who were a top 10 preseason team in 2016 and loaded with talent, also struggled to a 4-8 finish and only mustered 31 points per game (53rd nationally). And let’s not forget that the Notre Dame offense was led by DeShone Kizer at quarterback, who many see going in the first round of next week’s NFL Draft.
Denbrock won’t have the same weapons to work with at Cincinnati. The good news is that they will have some experience under center in redshirt junior quarterback Hayden Moore. The Bearcats will be losing last season’s leading rusher in Tion Green, but will return senior Mike Boone. On the line, Denbrock will have to replace three starters. It’s safe to say this offensive will be classified as a work in progress heading to Ann Arbor.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Make no mistake about some of the talent on the offensive side of the ball: there is potential, and with the right coaching they may have some real playmakers. Running back Mike Boone is the first who stands out. As a true freshman in 2014, Boone led the team in both rushing yards (650) and touchdowns (9). In his sophomore campaign he upped the rushing yards total to 717 with an average of 7.5 yards per carry. Last season was a setback for Boone, only tallying 388 yards before going down with a foot injury against BYU, missing the final three games. The Michigan defense will have to have its eye on Boone every play, as he is a true multipurpose back, not only rushing but also catching passes out of the backfield and from the wideout position. Oh, and he also returns kicks.
Another name to keep your eye on is quarterback Hayden Moore. After redshirting in 2014, Moore went to work in 2015, starting two games and appearing in nine. That season he threw for 1,885 yards and nine touchdowns, though he was picked off 11 times. The highlight was when he relieved injured starter Gunner Kiel against Memphis and shredded the Tigers for a school record 557 yards through the air with four touchdowns. A big quarterback at 6-4 and 233 pounds, Moore nearly replicated those numbers in 2016 when he added 1,744 yards and 11 scores. It may be challenging to learn a new system for this upcoming season, but with two years under his belt and a clear path to the starting job, look for Moore to make even more strides this year.
In Luke Fickell’s sole year as head coach in 2011, the Buckeyes finished 6-7 for the school’s first losing season since 1988. The regular season finale also saw Fickell march Ohio State into the Big House for a 40-34 loss. Unless something drastic happens from now until September, Fickell will once again walk out of Michigan Stadium after suffering defeat. Even a young and relatively inexperience Michigan roster should take care of business against the Bearcats. Cincinnati took too big of a step backward the last two years and has too much to replace from last season’s squad to challenge the Wolverines in the second week of 2017.
Michigan’s new starters will get thrown into the fire in the season opener in Dallas, and the following week when Cincinnati comes to the Big House for the first home game, the entire Maize and Blue roster should be amped.
Over the course of the summer, we will be breaking down each of Michigan football’s upcoming 2017 opponents.