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What to Watch For: Week 1 at Minnesota

Here are five critical things to keep an eye on in Saturday’s game.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

So here we are. The Michigan Wolverines are one day away from playing football. The Big Ten’s eight-game, sprint-to-the-finish schedule kicks off this weekend, and the Wolverines begin it with a road trip to Minneapolis to take on the Golden Gophers — a team with a loaded offense, frenetic, fourth-year head coach and momentum coming off their best season since 1960.

On paper, this is one of the toughest tests imaginable for a season opener.

At least, it should be?

I’m going to be writing these “What to Watch For” pieces before every game this season, and I have to be honest: the word should is going to be doing a lot of heavy lifting. As in, Minnesota should be one of the better teams in the Big Ten. Or to turn it into a question: should the Big Ten be playing football right now?

For one, the University of Michigan received a stay-at-home order from local health authorities Tuesday, due to a spike in the number of new COVID-19 cases. Athletics are exempt, at least for now.

On the Minnesota side, you probably are aware of what the Gophers’ frenetic, fourth-year head coach said Monday. At his presser, P.J. Fleck was asked by reporters if he had any players out for Saturday due to COVID-19 or COVID-19 concerns.

“I don’t have an estimate, as I know that number, but I’m just not going to tell you the number,” he said, adding that the number of players unavailable was “not 65.” This is very helpful for anyone looking for more insight into Saturday’s game, because it allows them to determine that Minnesota has anywhere between one and 65 players that won’t play. As I said, very helpful.

This is just how college football is going to be this season. I could tell you that Minnesota has a monstrous, experienced offensive line protecting one of the nation’s best returning pass partnerships. I could tell you that the Gophers might have trouble replacing seven defensive starters, many of whom play up front. But that analysis could all be blown to bits by the time the coin toss rolls around.

I think what I’m going to do for now, at least in this space, is proceed like normal, highlight four or five things I’ll be watching for and see if any of them stick. Which fits, because that’s precisely what college football is trying to do.

Over 30 games this season have been postponed. For now, this one hasn’t. Let’s get excited.

Is Joe Milton’s time now?

It feels like there are two groups of Michigan football fans — those who have been bouncing in their seats waiting for the Milton era to come, and those who are scared into a fetal position concerning its imminent arrival.

As ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren noted yesterday, Milton is the first quarterback recruited by Jim Harbaugh at Michigan to open the season as the starter. He stands 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds and by his own word, can throw a football 85 yards. From a physical standpoint, it’s easy to say Milton is exactly the quarterback Harbaugh has been looking for for five years.

Milton has also thrown 11 passes in his college career. He completed 47 percent of his passes and threw 19 interceptions as a high school senior. He has been known to dislocate his receivers’ fingers due to his extreme velocity.

There’s not really a middle ground of expectations for someone like Milton. That’s due to the wide gulf between what we’ve heard about his near-mythical right arm (it’s literally a rocket launcher) and what we’ve seen from his play (he is a real football player that does exist).

It’d be useless for me to predict that Milton will throw for 400 yards or that he’ll toss four interceptions Saturday. All I’ll add is that for as much uncertainty as there is surrounding Milton, we don’t know an awful lot about who he’ll be throwing the ball to, or who will be allowing him to throw the ball.

Am I allowed to use the term “supporting cast” in relation to Joe Milton yet?

Nico Collins is, officially, no longer a Wolverine. Losing a receiver as good as Collins is a blow no matter what. But Collins, with his NFL-ready blend of speed, size, hands and leaping ability, would have been just about the perfect target for a cannon-armed quarterback with possibly crippling accuracy issues.

Michigan’s receiving corps consist of junior Ronnie Bell (did you know he was going to play college basketball? did you know he had no DI scholarship offers before Michigan?), sophomores Cornelius Johnson, Mike Sainristil and Giles Jackson, and freshmen A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson. It’s nothing like last year’s, which was marked by big, jump-ball maestros Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black with Bell leading the Wolverines in receiving as the slot man.

Bell, Johnson, Sainristil and Jackson, by contrast, rely more on guile, shiftiness and underneath speed. It’s probably a better look for Josh Gattis’ offensive system. It might not be for Milton’s skills. How Gattis deals with that seeming disconnect might make or break the Wolverines’ passing game, and it will need to be on display Saturday.

As far as who will be tasked with protecting Milton, there’s really not much overstating how crucial it is that Jalen Mayfield is back at right tackle. Aside from the possible first-round draft pick, Michigan’s most experienced offensive lineman is left tackle Ryan Hayes, who started all of two games last season.

After the impressive work that Ed Warriner has done in his two years as the Wolverines’ offensive line coach (remember the 2018 Notre Dame game?), the projected starting five of Hayes, Chuck Filiaga, Andrew Vastardis, Andrew Stueber and Mayfield should get the benefit of the doubt at this point. Saturday, we’ll see them actually play.

What does Michigan’s backfield look like?

On paper? Stacked.

Zach Charbonnet flashed bell-cow ability, even through an injury-riddled 2019. So did Hassan Haskins. After being suspended in 2019, Chris Evans is back in the mix. Newcomer Blake Corum has, at times, received similar hype to what Charbonnet got before his own freshman season.

This group isn’t just talented, it’s balanced. Charbonnet brings all-around strength, speed and pass-blocking ability. Haskins went from converted linebacker to Michigan’s second-leading rusher. Evans is the all-purpose weapon who can make an impact as a runner and pass-catcher. Corum? F-A-S-T.

And yet, the Wolverines slumped to their worst rushing season of the Harbaugh era in 2019, averaging just over 150 yards per game on the ground.

The ability of Michigan’s backs, as a unit, to do a little bit of everything might help increase that total. Charbonnet, Haskins, Evans and Corum can ensure that the attack will never be too predictable.

At this point, the biggest question for Saturday will come down to how the running back touches are distributed. Splitting touches effectively among four backs requires not only a recognition of game flow and matchup, but a deft hand to ensure morale stays high and no one falls too far behind in the pecking order if it isn’t merited.

Can Michigan get pressure on Tanner Morgan?

If you like watching big (read: REALLY big) men just go at it, Saturday will be quite fun for you.

The biggest man on either roster — 6-foot-9, 400-pound Minnesota right tackle Daniel Faalele — might not play coming off of major leg surgery last season. Right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. might also be unavailable. The Gophers’ other three starting linemen from last season, Sam Schuleter, Conner Olson and Blaise Andries, ARE expected to play and are massive and experienced in their own right.

The battle between Minnesota’s O-Line and Michigan’s D-line is strength vs. strength, and a major proving point for returning Wolverines Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp, as well as less-proven youngsters in the middle like Chris Hinton. If the Wolverines can beat the Gophers up front enough to get Morgan out of his rhythm, it will only bode well for what they can do to the rest of their schedule.

Doing so should, first and foremost, be necessary Saturday, as Morgan and the Big Ten’s reigning Wide Receiver of the Year, Rashod Bateman, take aim at an inexperienced Wolverine secondary. Which brings us into the final section of this article.

Can Vincent Gray go toe-to-toe with Rashod Bateman?

In a non-COVID 2020, Ambry Thomas vs. Bateman would have been one of the marquee one-on-one battles of the college football season. But with Thomas opting out, the gargantuan task of slowing the Gophers’ top wideout falls to Gray.

Our own Daniel Plocher already broke down the matchup in detail yesterday. The short version, which I’ll write here, is this: Gray showed strong flashes as the Wolverines’ third cornerback a season ago, more than holding his own against the Big Ten’s third receivers. His 32 percent completion percentage allowed was the fifth lowest in the conference since 2014.

Gray doesn’t have to do exactly that against Bateman, or even necessarily win the matchup. But Bateman averaged nearly 100 yards receiving last year, and Gray would do well to hold him there. What would really hurt the Wolverines, as well as not boding particularly well for the rest of the season, is Minnesota’s aerial attack picking on their No. 1 cornerback all night long.