A lot has changed since the last time Michigan faced Minnesota. It was 2017, Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck was in his first year on the job, the program needed a rebuild. Michigan was the superior team that year, winning 33-10.
Now it’s 2020, and Minnesota is coming off an 11-2 season capped off with an Outback Bowl win over Auburn. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is among the best in the Big Ten, as is dynamic receiver Rashod Bateman. Minnesota is on the up and up, and are receiving a lot of preseason love from pundits and Vegas. Michigan opened up as a 2.5 point underdog.
Michigan will be heading to Minneapolis for a night game that will be called by Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, the ESPN College Gameday crew will be in Minneapolis earlier in the day. Although there won’t be fans in the stands, it’s a huge matchup on a big stage.
Even if Michigan respects the Golden Gophers, which they surely do, they still have to feel disrespected by being perceived as the inferior team heading into the tilt. The masses don’t believe U-M quarterback Joe Milton, who will be starting in his first game, and Michigan’s new look offensive line (4 new starters) will gel enough to come out victorious on the road to start the season. Michigan should take that personal, because it is.
P.J. Fleck is a coach that gets the most out of his players, he’ll be energized and his team will be ready to fight. But in an irregular year, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s experience should not be disregarded. Harbaugh’s push for a fall season went above and beyond that of any head coach in college football. Harbaugh refused to give up on a fall season, he kept preparing his team for their opportunity. Michigan never took its foot off the gas. And now they’ve arrived at their destination, week one. The added time may benefit players like Milton, the o-line, and every player in between on Michigan’s roster that are deemed ‘inexperienced’. The extra months of practices have allowed for chemistry building and added reps to work out the kinks in their game. There would have been more room for concern in this regard if the season actually started in September, but with the added time it may benefit a team like Michigan that has new starting players at key positions on both offense and defense.
Let’s be clear, Minnesota had a good season last year, one of their best ever. Their victory over Penn State was one of their most memorable in the history of their program. However, their struggles and good fortune can’t be ignored either, and playing in the Big Ten West is always easier than the East. Minnesota’s first four games were all close wins beating South Dakota State 28-21, Fresno State 38-35, Georgia-Southern 35-32, and Purdue 38-31. A win is a win, but Minnesota’s 11-2 season could have easily looked a bit different. Still, they were a good team and only received one whoopin’ (Wisconsin, who did the same to Michigan).
Balancing out the hype and the talent of Minnesota, it’s questionable as to whether they’re the better team and should be favored. In the quest to retain the Little Brown Jug the fact that this is a debate, whether it’s a warranted one or not, can’t really sit well with Michigan. Each year brings new challenges and new aspirations, but history is important too. Minnesota has just 10 winning seasons since 2000 and Michigan has 17 during that span. Fleck at Minnesota may mean the program will continue to ascend to new and unprecedented heights, but for a program like Michigan that touts they’re the winningest program in college football history, a loss against Minnesota will forever be unacceptable. Michigan leads the all time series 75–25–3 for a reason.
Michigan’s an underdog, and from their perspective, they’d love to show Vegas and everyone who picks against them why they were so far off with their prediction. The team has struggled on the road against ranked opponents the past few seasons, but the upset in my view would be Minnesota doing major damage to Michigan’s season right out of the gate. Jim Harbaugh went through the NFL lockout of 2011 and led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game during his first year on the job. This is something that shouldn’t go unnoticed leading into the game. Harbaugh’s already been there and done that when it comes to an irregular off-season where his team wasn’t able to practice as they normally would for the regular duration of time. That experience matters, and it’s been evident in how Harbaugh has attacked this year. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said Harbaugh put together a thorough plan right when the pandemic began to put the team in the best situation, and that plan has the potential to pay dividends now as we sit here in October.
No matter what success Harbaugh and Michigan have, they are always left with more to prove. And that starts with beating Minnesota and making it clear that they are for real in 2020. If they don’t have a chip on their shoulder already, they’ll have one by kickoff. Nobody likes being told some other team is better than you, and that should be all the motivation they need to go out and put together a cohesive effort.