Breaking down the questions Michigan faces with football season five weeks away
For six months, since the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports, the preeminent question facing Michigan was whether its season would happen at all.
At first, the notion of no season seemed impossible, even if the possibility of having fans in attendance dwindled by the day. But as the pandemic raged into the summer, with cases increasing again by early June, a season felt less and less possible until the Big Ten indefinitely postponed all fall sports on Aug. 11.
For five weeks, the conversation shifted to why the conference cancelled, with players, parents and coaches protesting the decision. The answer to whether the season would happen at all remained incomplete.
Finally, on Wednesday, the conference released its final decision: Football will return on the weekend of Oct. 23. Suddenly, in one unanimous, early-morning decision, the questions facing Big Ten teams are back to something resembling normalcy.
These are some of those questions that Michigan will have to answer over the next month:
Who is opting out?
Forget what I said about normalcy for a second. This is still the strangest of preseasons, with issues of testing results and players opting out dominating headlines.
Only five Michigan players thus far have opted out. Running back Christian Turner is sitting out the season due to COVID-19-related reasons, while quarterback Dylan McCaffrey opted out to pursue a transfer. Meanwhile, offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield, cornerback Ambry Thomas and receiver Nico Collins have declared for the NFL Draft.
“He’s not playing,” Brian Mayfield, Jalen’s father, told the Detroit Free Press. “Not for eight games. And there’s no guarantee they’re making it through.”
Collins and McCaffrey both made their decisions Wednesday after the return to play was announced.
It seems likely that Thomas will also remain steadfast in his decision. He’s been training for the NFL Draft in California, while classes have been underway for almost two weeks, complicating the possibility of a return to school.
Linebacker Cam McGrone and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, two of Michigan’s potential early-round draft picks have indicated that they will play out a fall season. Tight end Nick Eubanks, defensive tackle Carlo Kemp and defensive end Kwity Paye have made similar indications.
Potential draftees, though, aren’t the only players who could opt out. While only Turner has opted out for COVID-19-related reasons thus far, other players could follow his lead with Michigan now playing other schools, increasing the risk of exposure to the virus.
How does Joe Milton look?
When the Big Ten announced a return to play on Wednesday morning, the question was, ‘Who will start at quarterback?’ That question seems to have been answered by McCaffrey’s decision to pursue a transfer.
The question that remains is how Milton performs. Since arriving on campus in 2018, Milton has been an enigma. His big arm often draws accolades from teammates, who say he has improved his accuracy over the past three years. On the field, though, he has only attempted 11 passes, completing six for a touchdown and 117 yards. He has also thrown two interceptions.
If Michigan wants an improvement from Shea Patterson’s 3,000-yard, 23-touchdown performance last year, that won’t be good enough. Complicating matters for Milton will be the loss of three of the Wolverines’ top four receivers from a year ago.
It’s unlikely that fall camp will provide many answers as to Milton’s progression, as Jim Harbaugh often prefers to keep criticism close to his chest. Once the season starts, though, all eyes will be on Milton.
Is the offensive line cohesive?
If Milton is going to succeed, Michigan’s offensive line will need to gel quickly. The last time the Wolverines had significant turnover on the offensive line, it resulted in a disastrous showing in a season-opening loss to Notre Dame in 2018.
That year’s group, though, had the luxury of non-conference games against SMU and Western Michigan to build chemistry before conference play began. This year, Michigan will have to be ready for conference play from the jump.
That’s a problem further complicated by Mayfield’s decision to declare for the NFL Draft last month. Not only is Mayfield a projected first-round pick, but he would have been the single returning starter from last season. Instead, the Wolverines’ only linemen with starting experience are left tackle Ryan Hayes and right guard Andrew Stueber, both of whom have started two career games.
Hayes said last week that the most likely starting group is him at left tackle, fifth-year senior Chuck Filiaga and redshirt freshman Trevor Keegan in a rotation at left guard; fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis at center; Stueber at right guard and redshirt freshman Karsen Barnhart at right tackle.
And while that compiles an athletic group that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has praised for its ability in the run game, it’s also one severely lacking in game experience. For Michigan to challenge the likes of Penn State and Wisconsin, let alone Ohio State, that’s an obstacle it’ll have to overcome quickly.
Can Dax Hill carry an otherwise flawed secondary?
When safety Dax Hill arrived on campus a year ago as the 14th-ranked overall recruit in his class, he carried the expectation of a defensive difference-maker.
Last year, he only sporadically needed to fill that role in a secondary filled with experience and NFL talent. This year is a different story. Safety Josh Metellus and cornerback Lavert Hill graduated before Thomas declared for the draft last month.
Suddenly, the Wolverines’ secondary is a unit with the potential to undermine a talented front seven.
Preventing that will be Hill’s role. One safety doesn’t make a young, inexperienced secondary tick, but if Hill can parlay the flashes of brilliance he showed last season into sophomore stardom, it would go a long way towards making Michigan’s defense a capable unit.