It’s not how we saw it happening. But the football season is here.
On Saturday night, the Michigan football team will play its first of eight regular season games at Minnesota. Whether it will get through all eight without cancellations due to COVID-19, nobody can say, but the opener seems to be a go. And even with an abbreviated season, we’re excited for kickoff.
The Daily football beat predicts the season:
Daniel Dash: Jalen Mayfield. The junior offensive tackle’s decision to opt back in when the Big Ten reversed its decision to postpone the football season last month was as important as any other offseason roster development. As the lone returner from a group that sent four players to the NFL last spring, Mayfield will anchor a unit that enters 2020 as one of Michigan’s most uncertain. After a sophomore season that drew NFL attention last fall, expect him to dominate the line of scrimmage this season.
Aria Gerson: Joe Milton. If Michigan’s offense is going to work this year, it will be because Milton stepped up, and if what we’re hearing about him is anywhere close to how he actually performs, he could be the most exciting quarterback the Wolverines have had in years. I’m still skeptical — the most we’ve seen of him in the past year has been in garbage time — but I think the fact that he beat out Dylan McCaffrey decisively enough that the latter entered the transfer portal says a lot.
Theo Mackie: Zach Charbonnet. When you think about it, there are two real options here. Jalen Mayfield is Michigan’s best offensive player and the wide receivers group is deep and talented. But if any wide receiver performs well enough to earn this award, it’ll mean Joe Milton’s the Wolverines’ offensive player of the year. I’ll bank on Charbonnet, who ran for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman last season.
Ethan Sears: Zach Charbonnet. The sophomore seems most likely to emerge as a workhorse out of the three-man committee at running back, and it would be a good sign for Michigan if he could do so. After playing through injuries last season, Charbonnet is healthy now and should get every chance to prove himself.
Dash: Aidan Hutchinson. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end is coming off a big sophomore year, and it should come as no shock when he puts up even bigger numbers as a junior. I’d give Hutchinson the nod over Paye and linebacker Cam McGrone, though all three will play a major role in everything the Wolverines do on defense. In what may be his final season at Michigan, Hutchinson could post monstrous numbers over the shortened schedule.
Gerson: Cam McGrone. Devin Bush in 2018 showed just how much of a difference a game-changing MIKE linebacker could be. McGrone isn’t Bush, but he’s pretty damn good himself and with a year of experience under his belt, he has the potential to be even better.
Mackie: Cam McGrone. Much like Devin Bush in 2017, McGrone burst onto the scene last year. He came into the Wisconsin game as an injury replacement for Josh Ross and never looked back, commanding the heart of Michigan’s defense. If he takes a junior year leap, he could be not only the Wolverines’ best defensive player, but one of the best linebackers in the country.
Sears: Cam McGrone. Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye will put up the biggest numbers, Dax Hill will turn a lot of heads, but McGrone emerged as one of the best players on the defense last year and might be the best player of the group. His sideline-to-sideline speed isn’t quite Devin Bush-level, but it can alter the run game in a way few other middle linebackers can.
Dash: Daxton Hill. The consensus crown jewel of Michigan’s 2019 recruiting class could emerge as one of the best defensive backs in the Big Ten this fall, if not the country. Last month, defensive coordinator Don Brown told reporters he’s “not sure (Hill) is not the best cover guy in the Big Ten.” Whether he’s playing safety or nickel, Hill is a good bet to emerge as a dominant piece of the Wolverines’ defense this fall.
Gerson: Giles Jackson showed in 2019 that he was a perfect fit for Josh Gattis’s speed in space offense. He’s versatile — he can play as a traditional receiver, an H-back or line up in the backfield — he’s quick and he made plays when given the opportunity. Jackson is also key on special teams as the kick returner, a position at which he showed a lot of promise in 2019.
Mackie: Daxton Hill. Hill played sporadically as a true freshman a year ago, but he still flashed the talent that made him a five-star recruit in 2019. This year, he’ll have every opportunity to make the secondary his own with the departures of three starting defensive backs. If you don’t believe me, just take it from Jim Harbaugh, who called Hill “maybe the most talented player on the team” on Monday.
Sears: Giles Jackson. Every time he touched the ball last year, Jackson made something happen, and it’s hard not to see him as an integral part of this year’s offense with so much turnover at receiver. He’ll also be returning kicks again. If I was Josh Gattis, I’d be doing everything I could to get the ball in Jackson’s hands as much as possible.
Dash: Offensive linemen not named Jalen Mayfield. Converted tight end Ryan Hayes showed promise at tackle last fall, but the Wolverines’ three interior linemen — Chuck Filiaga, Andrew Vastardis and Andrew Stueber — could hold the key to the offense’s success. Stueber is the only one of the trio who’s started games in the past, but he’s returning from a torn ACL. Much of Michigan’s offensive success rides on how well they play.
Gerson: The secondary. This group is very young and inexperienced with Ambry Thomas opting out. In fact, the corners on Michigan’s roster have a combined total of one college start. That’s a tough ask for anyone, but especially for a team with a disrupted offseason, it remains to be seen if the secondary will be able to stop the Big Ten’s top receivers.
Mackie: COVID. In any other year, a starting quarterback who we’ve seen throw 11 career passes would be the biggest X-factor. This year, it’s not even close. While the Big Ten has the strictest COVID protocol of any conference, it also has the least leeway. There are no bye weeks or spare time built into the conference’s calendar. For this season to work, everything needs to go absolutely perfectly. Milton might be the difference between whether Michigan can win eight games or four, but COVID’s the difference between whether it can play nine or zero.
Sears: Joe Milton. It’s a bit obvious, sure, but if Milton comes out firing and can harness the arm talent we’ve been hearing about for the last two seasons, then Michigan has a chance to really do something. If he’s erratic and completes under 50 percent of his passes on a team that’s dealing with a lot of turnover already, this season could get painful fast.
Michigan wins the Big Ten if …
Dash: Milton posts video game numbers and the hype around the Wolverines’ young receivers is real. If Michigan is going to win the conference, it will have to do it through the air. That means relying on the blazing speed of Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, Roman Wilson and A.J. Henning. If offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ unit can’t rack up points at will, the Wolverines’ defense will need to find a way to hold Ohio State under 30 points for the first time since 2012.
Gerson: Michigan’s new starters are able to turn talent into production. Its three-headed rushing attack is more effective than in previous years and “speed in space” finally shows up consistently. The Wolverines will also need to avoid COVID, which has the potential to derail any season, and get some luck to go its way.
Mackie: Milton is the best version of all the hype we’ve heard for two-plus years. The Wolverines will also need the new-look offensive line to gel immediately and the defensive stars (Paye, Hutchinson, McGrone, Hill) to play perfectly. And even that might only be good enough for second place unless Justin Fields and Ohio State fall wildly short of expectations.
Sears: Milton blows expectations away, the offensive line gels quickly and one of the receivers can become a stud. Paye, Hutchinson, McGrone, Hill and Carlo Kemp provide enough star power to cover up any issues on defense. Michigan goes into Columbus undefeated and The Game falls its way.
Michigan doesn’t win the Big Ten if …
Dash: Reality hits. A Big Ten title feels out of reach this year, but with a young foundation in place and a strong 2021 recruiting class set to arrive on campus next fall, Harbaugh may not be far from getting over the hump.
Gerson: Anything goes wrong, at all. Michigan has a lot of uncertainty at various units — quarterback, wide receiver, secondary and offensive line all have major questions, and if they aren’t all firing on all cylinders, a conference championship isn’t in the cards this year. In a tough conference like the Big Ten, even if the Wolverines are better than we think, a bit of bad luck could derail everything.
Mackie: Pigs don’t fly. If Joe Milton is anything short of awe inspiring. If the offensive line plays like a unit with four new starters. If Ohio State avoids its worst season since 2011. If three new starters in the secondary take time to get up to speed. You get the idea.
Sears: Things don’t go all but perfectly. A lot has to happen for Michigan to win the Big Ten. Ohio State is much better than everyone else on paper. That doesn’t really look like a reasonable goal this year.
Michigan season prediction
Dash: 5-3, third in Big Ten East.
Gerson: 5-3, third in Big Ten East.
Mackie: 5-3, third in the Big Ten East.
Sears: 4-4, third in Big Ten East.
Big Ten champion
Dash: Rutgers. All hail Greg Schiano. Just kidding, Ohio State won’t even drop a game.
Gerson: Ohio State.
Mackie: Ohio State.
Sears: Ohio State.
CFP final four
Dash: Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia
Gerson: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, BYU
Mackie: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma State
Sears: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oregon