Breaking down how a conference-only schedule impacts Michigan

Friday, July 10, 2020 - 3:51pm

Michigan's immediate Big Ten play can throw position battles into overdrive.

Michigan's immediate Big Ten play can throw position battles into overdrive. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

In a decision that created more questions than it answered, the Big Ten Conference ruled in favor of a conference-only schedule for all fall sports on Thursday. And while Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren’s audible keeps the hope of fall sports alive — for the time being — it will cause significant changes in the way student-athletes and coaches prepare for the upcoming season.

The Michigan football team is no different.

The idea of a 10-game Big Ten slate has floated around since the conference’s announcement on Thursday afternoon, but there’s no formal word yet regarding what to expect or when to expect it. Some Big Ten teams, including the Wolverines, have even pulled their original 2020 schedule off their official websites.

For now, let’s operate under the working assumption that a nine or 10-game Big Ten schedule is in store for this fall. From position battles to a sense of urgency, The Daily breaks down how Michigan is impacted most by the Big Ten’s decision to impose a conference-only schedule:

How does this affect the Wolverines’ quarterback battle?

Between senior Dylan McCaffrey and junior Joe Milton, the winner of Michigan’s quarterback competition may not have a particularly long leash.

Given the abbreviated season and lack of postseason expansion, the Wolverines won’t be able to afford many unnecessary hiccups if they want to pursue a conference title, let alone a College Football Playoff berth. The circumstances of this season’s title race will be far from normal, meaning a potential bump or two in the road could be enough to force coach Jim Harbaugh’s hand into a quarterback change.

But if the conference-only schedule delays the season by multiple weeks, the Wolverines will have ample time to allow the battle to play out.

At this point, that’s Harbaugh’s sole focus.

“I’m very excited about the quarterbacks that are on the roster right now,” Harbaugh said during a teleconference with reporters Wednesday. “… I see the drive that they have, which is very high. And they’ve been tremendous leaders, especially Dylan and Joe and (sophomore) Cade (McNamara) through the virtual meetings, the virtual workouts. Doing the right things, it’s very important to them.”

Whether or not a clear signal-caller emerges, however, remains to be seen.

Michigan can’t afford to ease into the season

Even before news of a conference-only football schedule emerged, easing into the season wasn’t much of an option for the Wolverines.

With a Week 1 trip to perennial Pac-12 contender Washington previously on the docket, the coaching staff already had little time to replace a host of starters from last season’s team, including 13 who signed NFL contracts this offseason. But now, without a trip to Seattle and home games against Arkansas State and Ball State, Michigan will have even less time to incorporate its new faces. That includes playmakers such as incoming freshmen wideouts A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson, who each ran verified sub-4.50 40-yard dash times in high school.

Non-conference games would’ve provided an ideal opportunity to add a valuable dimension of explosive speed on offensive and special teams — something second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has mentioned time and time again. For now, however, all that’s left is a message that hinges on preparation and uncertainty.

“The thing (the staff) suggested and I think they really bought into was, ‘The providence will favor the prepared,’ ” Harbaugh said. “… Better to be prepared and not have the opportunity than to have the opportunity and not be prepared.”

It’s anything but an ideal year to break in four new starting offensive linemen

There’s never a good time to replace four starting offensive linemen, but in a normal season, playing a trio of non-conference games would’ve helped get the new faces up to speed.

Even more importantly, it would’ve helped offensive line coach Ed Warinner and the rest of the staff determine who those starters will be. Returning right tackle Jalen Mayfield appears set to headline the unit, while fellow junior Ryan Hayes is the likeliest candidate for the other tackle spot. The other three starting roles are up for grabs, with senior Chuck Filiaga, senior Andrew Stueber and sophomore Karsen Barnhart duking it out for the two guard spots and fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis and sophomore Zach Carpenter battling for the starting center nod.

While replacing four NFL-bound starters is no small task, it appears Michigan is off to a solid start.

“Overall, I would say (the offensive line) looks good,” Harbaugh said. “It looks good right now. Both from a strength standpoint, really good length there and the athleticism is really good in that group. … Individually, they’ve definitely done a great job of understanding the system — installs have been probably installed three times, if not four. Mentally very sharp, and guys are knowing what they’re doing.”

Beyond Mayfield, though, the Wolverines won’t have many answers until they’re thrown into the fire.