The game nine months in the making will at long last arrive Thursday evening.
The Michigan football team — coming off a 5-7 season it wishes it could forget — will travel to Salt Lake City to take on Utah, craving a fresh start.
It will serve as a grudge match for the Wolverines — who were bulldozed by the Utes 26-10 last September — but win or lose, revenge will be an afterthought compared to the new face on the sideline.
The game will help introduce the nation to the 2015 football season, but the game will also introduce the nation to the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan.
To make a good first impression, Harbaugh will have to take down the Utes, who stand tall after a 9-4 season.
“It’s a big stage, and it’s a really good football team that has winning on their side,” Harbaugh said. “They’re a confident team, and they should be.”
The matchup will be among the most anticipated games in years for the Wolverines. After making national headlines in the worst way all of last fall, Harbaugh and one of the most experienced teams in the country have reversed course since his hiring Dec. 30, steering the ship through a splashy offseason before turning it into a “submarine,” low on noise and appearances but high on productivity.
Though the team has been mum, the rest of the country hasn’t. Fox Sports 1, which is broadcasting the game, has introduced a khaki-wearing bus (not a typo), and a Khaki-Cam, which will watch Harbaugh the whole game (also not a typo). Student organizations at Utah are throwing Harbaugh-themed scavenger hunts, and many around the country project it to be the most-watched game of the opening weekend.
The submarine has emerged, but questions still remain about Michigan’s playmaking ability. Harbaugh said in a teleconference Tuesday that the top two quarterbacks — graduate transfer Jake Rudock and junior Shane Morris — know who the starter will be, but both are listed as first-string quarterback against Utah.
Behind either quarterback will be a bevy of running backs; all capable but none proven yet. Junior De’Veon Smith will be the starter, but Harbaugh expects fellow juniors Ty Isaac and Derrick Green to get carries in the game.
Out wide, six receivers, led by seniors Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, will look to fill the shoes of second-round NFL Draft pick Devin Funchess as the go-to receiver.
On the defensive side of the ball, things become clearer. The Wolverines return eight starters on defense, and welcome sophomore safety Jabrill Peppers and senior linebacker Desmond Morgan back from season-ending injuries last fall.
To such a deep and experienced unit, it’s not a matter of if they make plays, but when.
“It’s been a heck of a fall training camp with these guys and I think everyone’s fired up to get to Utah and play our first game,” Morgan said. “I think we’re ready to start hitting someone else for the first time, because I know going against each other every day kind of gets a little bit old.”
For Utah, nothing about the game is getting old, but as the less-talked about opponent, the gimmicks around the game sure are.
“For me, really, it’s getting annoying,” said Utah running back Devontae Booker. “They can have all the hype. We love being underdogs and proving teams wrong. Honestly, I feel like it’s overhyped. I don’t care if it was Michael Jackson or somebody. We’re just going to go out there and play hard and not worry about any celebrity stuff.”
Added Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: “That’s not for us to worry about. What we’re concerned about is we have to cover all our bases about all the possibilities and we’ve done our homework as best we can.”
But the offseason spectacle that has stretched across the nation, to the Supreme Court, France and even Peru will soon come to an end.
Come Thursday evening, the HarBus will make its final stop and position battles will be put to rest. Desmond Morgan will finally get to hit other people, and the other people will happily hit back.
Come Thursday evening, the only thing on everyone’s mind will be the only thing Harbaugh wants on everyone’s mind — football.
“It’s what we all signed up for,” Harbaugh said. “I hope that’s what everybody signed up for, because it’s here. This game has been on the schedule a long time. We knew it was coming.”