Starting the season on the road, at night, against a ranked opponent, with a first-time starter at quarterback is a recipe for disaster. Layering on top of that the craziest year that any of these players have ever experienced plus a non-traditional offseason only accentuates this further. Still, the Michigan Wolverines enter the first game of 2020 with plenty of optimism.
A lot will be taken from the season opener, which makes sense considering that no one really knows what to expect out of this team. Michigan is replacing a bunch of key contributors, and there is not a lot of game film (or practice reports) to dissect on many of the new starters. Instead, how the team shows up against Minnesota is where the baseline will be set for the rest of the year.
Anyone’s guess is as good as mine heading into this huge Week 1 test, but here are four things that I expect to see on Saturday night.
Joe Milton goes through some normal ups and downs
At least once in the first half we are going to see Joe Milton connect on a deep bomb downfield. There is just too much talk about his arm for the coaching staff to not let him rip it once or twice, and the fan base is going to go crazy after he connects for an electric touchdown. However, Milton is going to have some accuracy issues, and that will lead to some frustration.
Jake Rudock threw three interceptions in his Michigan debut, Wilton Speight infamously threw a pick on his first pass as a starter, and Shea Patterson did not score in his first game in maize and blue, so the bar should not be set too high for Milton in his first start. Even if he does not turn the ball over, there are likely going to be some growing pains regarding hitting open receivers and making the right decision every time.
The lines will be just fine
A lot of attention is going to be on the lines for different reasons. On the offensive side of the ball, the Wolverines will be relying on four new starters with just Jalen Mayfield returning. Even with all of this inexperience, though, there is plenty of talent — and size — all across this unit. I do not believe this group will be shaken, and while it may take a few games to truly gel, I think the newness will ultimately be a non-factor, especially given that many of the projected starters are upperclassmen.
Meanwhile, there is also some concern on the defensive line, specifically on the interior. Michigan is going to need someone like Donovan Jeter or Mazi Smith to step up next to Carlo Kemp, and I think that there will be enough production in the middle to keep things together defensively. It will help to have both Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye causing a lot of disruption on the ends, and with all of the athletic linebackers on the roster, the Wolverines should get enough out of the tackles to help the front seven stay be productive.
Rashod Bateman shows up, but does not ball out
Fans may be shuddering when thinking about Rashod Bateman, remembering how Jerry Jeudy lit up the Michigan secondary for over 200 yards during the final game of last season. Bateman is a definite talent and is sure to get a handful of catches, and it is no secret that the Wolverines are hurting at cornerback with the departure of Ambry Thomas.
In a weird way, I think the lack of reliable corners could help Don Brown here. Bateman is the obvious weapon for the Gophers, and that means that Michigan cannot just rely on man coverage to keep him in check. Instead, the defense will need to provide some help from multiple spots and get creative with how they cover the star receiver. I can see him finding the end zone, but I would not be surprised if he ends the night with a decent, but not spectacular final line.
A little more traditional, a little less speed in space
Scoring has been crazy to start the college football season, undoubtedly related to the abbreviated offseason that teams experienced. Coaching defenses against nuanced offensive systems is hard enough in a normal year, but 2020 has made the challenge even more difficult. This sounds like a perfect opportunity for Josh Gattis to unleash his scheme, but I wonder if we might see more of the opposite.
While defenses have lacked a proper preseason, so has the Michigan offense. With a new quarterback, an inexperienced offensive line, and a wide receiving corps that saw limited snaps last season outside of Ronnie Bell, it may be unreasonable to expect everything to be ready to go from the start. Instead, the Wolverines can rely on their stable of talented running backs and try to out-physical the Minnesota defense. This style may be on the way out, but Jim Harbaugh is still the head coach, and it might not be the worst way to ease the offense into the season.