After months of speculation, planning, canceling and a return to action, Big Ten Football is back this weekend a month or so after the rest of the Power 5 returned to action. The game that headlines the conference’s grand opening in 2020 features the Michigan Wolverines as they travel to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in another battle for the Little Brown Jug.
It is about as big a stage that one can step on to in the current climate. There will not be fans in attendance on Saturday — or any Big Ten game this season — but the eyes of the nation will be on both teams with ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance and a primetime kick on ABC.
There are a lot of narratives on both sides of the matchup this week, so let’s start with Michigan.
Saturday night’s game begins the sixth season of Jim Harbaugh at the helm of the program, but perhaps with the team that has the least amount of expectations under him since the 2017 season. Gone are last year’s starting quarterback, three of the top wide receivers on the depth chart, four of five starters on the offensive line and a handful of key contributors on the defensive side of the ball. While that is a cause for concern, optimism has never been brighter for Michigan inside of Schembechler Hall.
Hope springs eternal with the breakout offseason of quarterback Joe Milton, who took the lead in Michigan’s positional battle and not only did not look back, but he jumped out way in front. Saturday will be the first time that a Harbaugh-recruited signal-caller out of high school will start a season-opening game for Michigan. Around him, Milton has a young, but burgeoning wide receiver room, a deep stable of running backs and an offensive line that is inexperienced, but features program veterans and guys who have played together in reserve roles. Add in a second-year playcaller in Josh Gattis, who developed a nice rhythm down the stretch last year, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic they might have something here.
Defensively, you simply know what you’re going to get out of the Wolverines. There are potential first-second day NFL’ers all over the field in defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, linebackers Cam McGrone and Joss Ross, safety Daxton Hill and more. Defensive tackle Carlo Kemp, cornerbacks Vincent Gray and Gemon Green and safety Brad Hawkins round up a really solid group there. The questions here come from the depth on the two-deep chart, which features a lot of youth. But there will be plenty of opportunities to prove those concerns unnecessary. Brown’s defense will remain aggressive, but this is the type of game against an explosive passing offense where that aggressiveness has hurt them in the past.
Minnesota comes into the game as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten West and a team that some believe poses the biggest threat to Ohio State in the conference this year. That is debatable, but head coach PJ Fleck’s ability to squeeze every single drop out of his roster is not. The Gophers took off last season with an 11-2 record, which some will say has an asterisk next to it because of the schedule they played. Regardless, this will be a challenge for Michigan right out of the gate.
Minnesota’s strengths are at the quarterback position with Tanner Morgan, who was one of the conference’s best passers last season, and star wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who initially opted out of the season but was able to opt back in. Bateman is by far the biggest key to the game for Michigan, as team’s top playmakers has at times hurt Michigan in a big way. Depth on defense might be a concern for Minnesota, but it does bring back both starting cornerbacks and a few other solid pieces. For them, the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr. and the effect it has on that side of the ball will be worth watching.
Fleck will no doubt be on the shortlist for some big jobs after this season if he leads Minnesota to another strong season. Year 4 is where things really took off for him at Western Michigan, as the Broncos finished that season with a 13-1 record. Minnesota was a year early in its trajectory there and now they expect to compete — and potentially win — Big Ten Championships.
Michigan wins this game if...
Milton shines and plays a mostly-clean game and Michigan wins the time of possession battle, led by the ground game. The biggest key to this game is making sure Bateman does not go off against them. The defense has its work cut out for them, but the offense can help by keeping Morgan and Bateman on the sidelines.
The defense is going to give up points. That has been a theme in these types of games and the college season as a whole so far has been full of shootouts. Forcing Morgan and the Minnesota offense into mistakes and winning the battle up front is where they can set the tone here.
Minnesota wins this game if...
Well, if the opposite of the above happens. Milton being forced into “rookie” mistakes will hurt the rhythm of the entire offense. The Morgan and Bateman connection getting hot is going to be trouble for any team this year, let alone a Michigan defense breaking in an almost entirely-new cornerback rotation. The Minnesota offensive line keeping its quarterback clean is probably not good news for the Wolverines.
I have gone back and forth on this game all week. On paper, I believe that Michigan might be the better and more talented football team. But there are question marks everywhere despite the fact they come into this game as a favorite. More often than not, Michigan wins the games it is favored to do so, but this one is difficult.
At the end of the day, it comes down to me knowing what Minnesota is more than what Michigan is. Chemistry and attitude-wise, things do feel a bit different in Ann Arbor this year, but we have to see it first.
Minnesota 28, Michigan 27
Teams: No. 18 Michigan Wolverines at No. 21 Minnesota Golden Gophers (Battle For The Little Brown Jug)
Date: Oct. 24, 2020
Location: TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Television: ABC (Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Maria Taylor on the call)
Streaming: ESPN+, YouTube TV, Hulu, FuboTV (free trial link here)
Radio: 950 AM in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, see affiliate stations here
Spread: Michigan -3, over/under set at 54 points (Vegas Insider)
- Michigan holds a 75-25-3 advantage all-time in this rivalry and currently holds the Little Brown jug after a 33-10 win over Minnesota in 2017.
- Michigan has won 24 of the last 26 games in this series.
- The Wolverines are 114-23-3 in season openers and 3-2 under Jim Harbaugh with losses at Utah (2015) and at Notre Dame (2018).
- Michigan has a 34-26 record all-time in night games, which the program defines as games played after 5 p.m. ET.
- The Wolverines are 7-9 in one-score games since Jim Harbaugh arrived at Michigan with seven of those losses coming on the road. PJ Fleck is 9-4 in one-score games at Minnesota and the team has won eight of the last nine of that variety.