After two stress-free wins over Hawaii and Central Florida, the No. 4 Michigan football team will finally face a bigger challenge this weekend in the form of Colorado, the Wolverines’ first Power Five opponent of the season.
Though Michigan remains strongly favored, the Buffaloes (2-0) are also coming off a pair of routs, trouncing in-state rival Colorado State, 44-7, and FCS opponent Idaho State, 56-7.
In the spirit of competition, neither team has released a depth chart this week. The Wolverines (2-0) haven’t put one out all season — coach Jim Harbaugh recently called the practice “outdated” — and Colorado responded in kind by releasing a mock chart consisting of all pop culture figures and even some fictional positions, including “roamer dude” and “costly safety.”
Unfortunately, the Daily isn’t qualified to speculate on new quarterback Elmer Fudd’s pocket presence, but we will break down the matchups we expect to actually see on the field Saturday.
Michigan pass offense vs. Colorado pass defense
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight has had about as strong a start as can be expected, throwing for 457 yards and tying a season-opening program record with seven touchdowns in two games. He hasn’t made a major mistake since throwing an interception on his first play as the starter, and he has proven that he’s capable of making plays under duress, like when he turned a near-sack into an 8-yard dump-off pass to redshirt junior fullback Henry Poggi last week.
Of course, it helps to have three of the best weapons in the country. Fifth-year senior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and senior tight end Jake Butt have already racked up 385 receiving yards and six touchdowns, thanks largely to UCF’s choice to play mostly single coverage on them last week.
The Buffaloes’ secondary should be a huge step up from what the Wolverines have seen so far, though. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is an NFL-level player who had 85 tackles, seven pass breakups and two interceptions last season, and he already has one pick to his credit this year. Awuzie can’t cover three receivers at once, though, and Speight has to like his chances if any of the three find themselves in a one-on-one matchup.
Michigan rush offense vs. Colorado rush defense
Michigan’s run game had a down week against UCF, thanks largely to the Knights stacking the box and taking away that part of the Wolverines’ game. That strategy ultimately led to UCF getting torched by Speight in the play-action passing game, though, so Colorado might simply have to pick its poison.
Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley and fifth-year senior offensive lineman Kyle Kalis weren’t at all concerned about the running backs’ quiet performance last week (just 2.9 yards per carry), saying it was more flattering than anything that the backs got so much attention from the defense. Still, Michigan’s stable of backs could stand to prove itself against a better defense — senior De’Veon Smith is a proven bruiser, but speedy freshman running back Chris Evans probably won’t be seeing many gaps as big as the ones he ran through against Hawaii two weeks ago.
Getting the best of the Buffaloes’ defensive line and linebackers could silence some of the running game’s doubters. Colorado comes in having allowed just 98.5 yards per game, good for 30th in the FBS. Granted, though, the Buffaloes’ first two opponents carried the ball just 48 total times after quickly falling behind on the scoreboard. Also, Colorado has just 10 tackles for loss and three sacks (for reference, Michigan has 22 and seven, respectively, while UCF had eight tackles for loss last week alone).
Expect the Wolverines’ backs to snap out of it against a run defense that hasn’t really been tested yet this season.
Colorado pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Michigan is still missing senior All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis, but the rest of the secondary has more than made up for his absence at this point in the season. He remains questionable for this weekend, but senior cornerback Channing Stribling, fifth-year senior cornerback Jeremy Clark and senior safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas have allowed the ninth-fewest passing yards per game in the country even without him.
Much like the Wolverines, though, Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau has a three-headed monster of receiving targets at his disposal. Receivers Shay Fields, Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo each have eclipsed the 100-yard mark already this season, meaning Michigan’s secondary will have its hands full.
The Wolverines have yet to allow a reception of longer than 28 yards this season, but it’s a safe bet the Buffaloes are poised to change that this weekend. Lewis or no Lewis, this will be the biggest test Michigan’s defensive backs have faced all year, but a wealth of game experience makes them well-equipped to handle it.
Colorado rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Wolverines’ run defense allowed UCF to pick up 275 yards on the ground last week — most of them on a few big plays, like an 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and a few quarterback scrambles. When asked about it earlier this week, both fifth-year senior defensive tackle Matt Godin and redshirt sophomore defensive end Chase Winovich identified communication issues as the main culprit.
Michigan will have to be careful not to allow a repeat performance, as Liufau has a proven ability to scramble out of the pocket. The junior quarterback ran for 266 yards and five touchdowns in 2015 and already has 120 yards and a score in two games this year. The Buffaloes use a stable of backs, with Phillip Lindsay and Kyle Evans getting the bulk of the carries, but have no real standout runners. Still, the group as a whole has averaged 261 yards in their first two games.
After having a week to clean up their mistakes though, the Wolverines’ elite defensive line and solid linebacking corps should be able to play up to their usual standard this week.
Apart from one dropped snap by fifth-year senior kicker/punter Kenny Allen, the Wolverines had a near-perfect performance on special teams last week. Sophomore safety Tyree Kinnel got his fingers on two punts, while fifth-year senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley blocked one field goal and altered the path of another. Michigan also recovered a fumble on a kickoff and had redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers return a punt all the way to the 12-yard line, while Allen went 3-for-3 on field goals to remain perfect for the season.
The Buffaloes haven’t had many spectacular displays on special teams so far this season, ranking 68th in the country in ESPN’s special teams efficiency metric. Kicker Diego Gonzalez is 3-for-3 on field goals this season, but he has yet to try a kick longer than 30 yards.
Last season, though, Colorado struggled immensely in this area. Gonzalez was just 18-for-29 on field goals and the Buffaloes had field goals blocked in losing efforts against USC and Utah. They ended up firing special teams coordinator Toby Neinas after the season and now run special teams as a team effort among assistant coaches. The Wolverines are not likely to be a good matchup for this unit.
For the second straight week, most of the talk surrounding Michigan’s opponent has stemmed from events that occurred 20 years ago. After former Nebraska quarterback and current UCF coach Scott Frost resurrected memories of the 1997 national championship controversy last week, the Buffaloes now bring memories of the “Miracle at Michigan” — a 64-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Kordell Stewart that guided Colorado to an upset of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor in 1994.
No one at Michigan has had much to say about the game — less than a quarter of players on the roster were even alive when it happened in the first place — but the Buffaloes certainly haven’t forgotten about it, opting to wear 1994 throwback jerseys on Saturday.
The Wolverines will have coincidentally entered both games being ranked fourth in the country, but this is far from the same Colorado team that was ranked seventh 22 years ago. Michigan has the second-highest combined margin of victory in the country, and Harbaugh has made it clear that the Wolverines aren’t taking the Buffaloes lightly with the Big Ten schedule on the horizon. Michigan has too much at stake to let a similar letdown happen this weekend.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Colorado 17