There’s a chill in the morning air. Students are beginning to return to campus. A Michigan game week is finally upon us after what seemed like an offseason that would never end.
It began eight long months ago. As the final whistle blew in Atlanta, Florida had just completed its demolition of the 2018 Wolverines 41-15. The loss sentenced Michigan to a 10-3 record for the third time in four years under Jim Harbaugh and left the head coach with plenty of questions on his plate heading into January.
I attended that game in Atlanta. I’ve seen plenty of demoralizing things happen in 20 years of watching Michigan Football; this was near the top of the list. That game felt typical of the highs and lows the Wolverines have experienced since Harbaugh’s homecoming in 2015. True freshman tailback Christian Turner, playing less than forty miles from his native Buford, GA, received the ball on a jet sweep 70 seconds into the game. He scampered out to the right, blazed into the secondary and across the line for six. It seemed Pep Hamilton and Jim Harbaugh used the month of bowl game prep to open up the offense and wanted to pour it on early. One yellow flag laying yards behind the endzone changed that. Turner had stepped out of bounds, and a touchdown turned into a Will Hart punt. Florida scored on the ensuing possession, and you know the rest.
Harbaugh addressed the first massive need of the offseason just 12 days after the loss. Josh Gattis, coming off co-coordinating Alabama’s offensive circus to an SEC Championship and a national runner-up finish. Gattis used Heisman finalist Tua Tagavoiloa’s abilities to allow Alabama to have the most efficient offense in the country per ESPN and S&P, and rank third in scoring at 45.6 PPG.
Michigan had a bevy of offensive weapons in 2018 that went relatively unused. With the proper maestro to direct the offensive orchestra, the first beacon of hope for 2019 arrived in the form of Gattis, and furthermore, the promise that Harbaugh would let him coordinate the offense entirely.
The first sign of that one thing that draws Michigan and all championship starved college football fans back in no matter what arrived: Hope.
Wolverine fans got their first taste of the Gattis experience during the Spring Game in April. Man-ball was noticeably absent (as was much of the running game due to injuries suffered in spring practice). Crossing routes, yards after the catch, the entire receiver depth chart saw playing time with chances to make plays in the glorified scrimmage. It was something the Michigan faithful had not seen much of since Jedd Fisch was coordinating the passing game for Harbaugh during the 2015-16 seasons. Again, it was that one thing that keeps everyone coming back to cheer for the maize and blue: Hope. Hope that #SpeedInSpace is more than just a trendy slogan and will create results in the fall against the best of the Big Ten.
By the time conference media days and fall camp rolled around, things were noticeably quiet when the Wolverines “submarine” did surface during fall camp for media availabilities. Nothing overly noticeable or controversial came up.
The comments regarding the transfer eligibility of former OL James Hudson and former CB Myles Sims did put Harbaugh at the center of the college football universe for the umpteenth time, but as far as we know, it did nothing to affect the team or their preparation for the opener against Middle Tennessee State on Saturday night in Ann Arbor.
College Football made its triumphant return Saturday with a mess of a game in Orlando where Florida beat Miami, and a heart-stopping finish in Honolulu as Hawaii beat Arizona. Wolverine fans will have to wait a few more days before seeing the team run out and touch the MGoBlue Club banner at the 50-yard line of Michigan Stadium.
Wolverine fans come into every year with sky-high expectations. Under Jim Harbaugh, some seasons have exceeded those expectations; others have failed to meet them. Team 140 is a team that still has plenty of questions that need answering not just over the next two home games, but deep into the season when Michigan will face rivals it has yet to beat at home under Harbaugh’s watch as coach.
The pressure is on. Harbaugh knows it, the staff knows it, the players know it after a third straight season of losing to Ohio State and losing the subsequent bowl game. Similar to the past four seasons, and pre-Harbaugh teams, there are plenty of reasons to have hope and a renewed spirit that perhaps this year could be “the” year. It’s what keeps fans coming back year in and year out not just to Michigan, but every sports team across the world.
Saturday morning, alarms will buzz, fans will put on their maize and blue gear, tailgates will fire up on the golf course and at Pioneer High School. It will be an opening day like every other, but also one with a lingering undercurrent of wonder. If this is going to be “the” year for Michigan, the one where the Wolverines beat their major rivals at home, make their first trip to Indianapolis and win the Big Ten Championship with a potential trip to the College Football Playoff at stake, it’s going to take the perfect mix.
Gattis’ offense needs to live up to its Speed in Space motto, Don Brown’s defense needs to show it learned from last season’s games against Ohio State and Florida that exploited its weaknesses. Shea Patterson is back, Michigan has its most talented receiver corps it has had in years. The question marks remain at running back (Turner? Tru Wilson? Zach Charbonnet?) as well as on defense (Who replaces Devin Bush? Chase Winovich? David Long?)
The answers to all these questions will begin to be answered Saturday evening when toe meets leather at 7:30 PM. Myself, along with 100,000-plus others in Ann Arbor in addition to the rest watching from elsewhere will be locked in as the Wolverines return to the field for a new season. Nothing is guaranteed or set in stone, but there is an absolute beauty in Week One – it’s all anticipation. There is no tape to evaluate, no decision-making to question. No wondering if a backup should be playing instead of a starter. It’s all hope, excitement, and anticipation.
While many of you will be excited for this week to end and kickoff to finally arrive, take a second to treasure this pure feeling, this countdown akin to kids counting down the days to Christmas Morning. Our gift is the return of the sport we love, watching a team begin its chase for a championship as the new season dawns.