Michigan Football has lofty goals and expectations once again heading into the season, but as is always the case, Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines will be defined by what they do in rivalry games. Michigan is 2-7 against the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State in his four years in Ann Arbor with the two victories coming against three and seven-win editions of the Spartans in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
Michigan gets all three of their traditional rivals at home this season and each of them have their own set of interesting storylines and questions heading into the year. Here is what their rivals have been dealing with during the offseason and how the Wolverines compare heading into the new campaign.
The Fighting Irish are always a team that is hard to put a finger on because in any given season they could either only win eight games or rip off an undefeated regular season, like they did last year en route to the College Football Playoff.
The Irish lose quite a bit of star power defensively coming into this year with Jerry Tillery, Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill and Julian Love moving on after last season, but they should still be quite good on that side of the ball led by defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem and a pair of safeties in Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott that are among the best tandems back there in college football.
The biggest thing Notre Dame has going for them this year is their offense, led by quarterback Ian Book. When they made the switch to Book last year, the offense perked up and they have a nice bevy of playmakers in Chase Claypool and Chris Finke at wide receiver, Jafar Armstrong at running back and Cole Kmet at tight end.
Notre Dame will play seven home games this year, which is good news for them seeing as they have won 11 in a row in their own building. Virginia, USC, Virginia Tech and Boston College all come to South Bend, but feels like the Irish should have the upper hand in all of those games. Where things get dicey for them is a road game at Georgia in Week 3 and a strange scheduling quirk where seven of their last 11 games of the season come against teams that will be coming off of a bye week with extra time to prepare for them. Now that the “Book” is out on them offensively, could we see a regression there with the extra time that teams will get to gameplan? We will see, but this feels like another nine to ten-win Notre Dame squad.
As far as how they compare to Michigan, it feels like the Wolverines are a bit more talented on both sides of the ball and have the advantage of this season’s game being at home, which could help them get out to a fast start like the Irish did in this game last season in South Bend. Should both teams find themselves undefeated or with one loss at the time, it could serve as a College Football Playoff elimination game of sorts when they play on Oct. 26 in Ann Arbor.
This is the longest section of the bunch, but you will see why shortly.
People in the past have accused Jim Harbaugh of being too stubborn, being too loyal and being stuck in the past with the way he has run his football team. However, does that not fit the bill for Mark Dantonio and where Michigan State currently is operating?
The Spartans were totally inept offensively last season and finished the year with the 112th-ranked offense in the country according to the S&P+ metric. Fans and defenders of the program will say that a healthy Brian Lewerke returning at quarterback will be the magic elixir, but the last time he was 100% for a season was 2017, where the Spartans were still ranked 72nd in the country offensively. The good news for them is that difference paid off in a 10-3 season in 2017, though it was a window dressing year that they like to accuse Michigan of having, seeing as they got trucked by Notre Dame and Ohio State and did not win the Big Ten East.
MSU was actually ranked higher offensively during its 3-9 season the year before, coming in at No. 55 in S&P+ in 2016. The Spartans won the Big Ten in 2015 and went to the College Football playoff with S&P+’s 30th offense in the nation and the year prior to that in 2014, they had the 12th-best offense in the country en route to another 11 win season and a Cotton Bowl win.
Most coaches would see the regression offensively as an adjustment that needs to be made, especially when in the span of five seasons, the offense is 100 spots lower than it was when the team was contending for Big Ten Championships. Dantonio instead kept all of his offensive coaches and simply changed their titles and roles. Brad Salem now takes over as offensive coordinator and they believe in East Lansing that he can bring some new ideas to the table, but without a new voice in that offensive meeting room, one would assume they will continue to do all of the things they have continued to do.
With as good as their defenses usually are and certainly will be this season, it takes a ton of pressure off of their offense and they showed in 2017 that they can get away with being average-to-below average offensively and still find a way to win 9 or 10 games. But with where the Big Ten and college football is at today, MSU probably is not competing for the things they deride Michigan for not having in 15 years if they cannot find away to be in the top fourth or so of offensive rankings.
The matchup between Michigan and MSU this season will be fascinating because it showcases two programs who have similar goals and had similar issues offensively, at least from a standpoint of running outdated systems. Harbaugh went out and addressed that by handing the offense to Josh Gattis and modernizing their attack. Dantonio kept his buddies around and played musical chairs with their roles.
MSU will be a factor in the East and are always a threat to win it, but they will play road games at Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin this year. It might be challenging for them to get to that Nov. 16 game in Ann Arbor with less than one or two losses, but the possibility of that cannot be written off. They feel like an eight or nine win football team this year, but there are scenarios in play on each end of the spectrum where they could either fall off or return to form.
Dantonio may have the longer track record of providing results on the biggest stage, but we will see which of the coaches made the best short and long-term play for their offensive outlooks.
Always be weary of the “it cannot get any worse” take. It was not supposed to get worse for Michigan’s offense when they went from Al Borges to Doug Nussmeier, someone who was a “quarterback guru” and a younger mind.
Entering the season, the Buckeyes might be one of college football’s most fascinating case studies. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the Buckeyes have been a national power that sort of kicked off with Jim Tressel and continue to carry through the Urban Meyer era, but Meyer made them historically great and won at a clip that seems nearly impossible if you aren’t Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney. Now he’s gone and gives way to first-year head coach Ryan Day.
Buckeye fans are hoping that the transition from Meyer to Day goes smoothly and that they have their version of Lincoln Riley in Columbus, but there are still a ton of questions about what this program will look like moving forward. They still will recruit at an elite level and their standing as a Big Ten title contender does not feel changed right now, but the first year of any coach’s tenure is a foundation-setter. The foundation is already quite strong down there, but at least now there is some uncertainty about the future.
Day was OSU’s offensive coordinator the last two seasons and developed Dwayne Haskins and an offense around him last season that was prolific. He gets a crack at another elite quarterback talent in Justin Fields, a former five-star recruit from Georgia.
The Buckeyes do not go through rebuilding stretches and usually reload pretty easily, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They could also have another potential No. 1 overall pick at defensive end in Chase Young, so the cupboard is far from bare heading into the Day era.
I look at this team on paper and at the talent they have assembled and feel as if they are still absolutely a threat to win the Big Ten and go to the playoff despite Michigan being nearly unanimously picked to do so. What separates these two teams right now is that there are a lot more unknowns with OSU than with Michigan and that this year’s edition of “The Game” will take place in Ann Arbor. That’s it. That’s the margin that puts the Wolverines ahead of them expectations-wise heading into this year.
OSU typically improves with each week heading into the final game of the season, where Michigan has been guilty of perhaps peaking a bit too early and cracking down the stretch. That will be in play again this year and it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes respond to any bit of adversity with Day there. They did a pretty good job when he was the interim head coach during Meyer’s suspension, but their long-time leader is not walking through the door to fix their problems (even if he probably will still be hanging around and lingering anyways).
How to do you feel Michigan stacks up and compares to its rivals heading into this season? Let’s hear your take in the comments below.
Which rivalry game scares you the most this year?
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