Much has been made in the last eight months of the Michigan football team’s debut with Jim Harbaugh at the helm. What hasn’t been talked about as much is the Wolverines’ opponent in Thursday’s opener. Utah finished 9-4 last season, including a 26-10 drubbing of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
In Salt Lake City, the team returns half of its starters from last season and has its eyes set on a division title. That doesn’t mean the Utes steered clear of Harbuagh fever, though.
To get the scoop from Utah’s perspective, the Daily spoke with Griffin Adams, the Managing Sports Editor and football writer for the Daily Utah Chronicle.
The Michigan Daily: It’s not every year you open the college football season with a Thursday night game against Michigan. What’s the excitement level like in Salt Lake City?
Daily Utah Chronicle: This is my fourth year living here in Salt Lake City, and I can confidently say that there hasn’t been a more anticipated game than the one that will happen on Thursday night. The funny thing is the Utes have taken on much more meaningful games in that time (2014 USC, 2012 Stanford, etc.) yet none of them had the mystique to the contest that new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh brings to the table to kick off the 2015 campaign.
Are the Wolverines a top-ranked squad? No, but because Harbaugh is who he is, all eyes will be on Rice-Eccles Stadium come Thursday night. Utah is in prime position to make a national statement with nearly an entire country watching, and it hasn't really been able to do that to start a season since joining the Pac-12, so this game really sets the tone for the rest of the season. Students and fans alike are counting the days down until the game day, and for them, it couldn't come any sooner.
TMD: What’s the perception of Jim Harbaugh at Utah?
DUC: If you didn't know anything about Jim Harbaugh heading into this game, one thing that would be made clear immediately is that he wears khakis. The student union here at the U even hid a pair of khaki pants somewhere in the building and tweeted out clues to its followers as a contest to see who would find the pants first. I fully expect a great deal of Utah fans will be mocking that tradition and following suit by wearing some khakis of their own.
On a serious note, everyone in Salt Lake City understands just how good of a coach Harbaugh can be. He led multiples teams at a number of levels to success within their respective leagues, and if one person can turn around the depleted Michigan program, it's him. That said, he is coming off of rough final season with the 49ers, and his brash attitude has been rumored to brush the wrong shoulders already in Ann Arbor. Ute fans understand how great he can be, but also take it with a grain of salt, and won't be intimidated by him.
TMD: On the field, Utah lost a few key pieces from last season. What type of team will the Utes be this year?
DUC: It’s true that the Utes have lost a few key pieces such as Nate Orchard and Eric Rowe, but I expect this team to be much of the same it was last season — a hard-nosed, defensive-minded squad. Utah has always been known as being a team that can do some damage if taken lightly, yet hasn’t made that jump to becoming a consistent contender in the Pac-12 South.
I don’t expect the Utes to make that jump this season, but if any team takes them lightly, especially Michigan, that team will go home with a loss. “Sack Lack City” returns most of its citizens, including Jared Norris, Gionni Paul and Hunter Dimick, and the team that led the nation in total sacks last season will look to rattle opposing quarterbacks early and often when the Wolverines come to town. The offense still has questions outside of running back Devontae Booker, but you can always count on the Utes being tough defensively.
TMD: What advantages might Michigan have over Utah?
DUC: This is a tough question to answer, as no one truly knows what Michigan will throw on to the field come Thursday night. But I think the clear answer has to be that the Wolverines are led by Harbaugh. Even though Utah fans won’t admit it, and many would still stay true to the program and say that Kyle Whittingham is a better coach, Harbaugh has proven himself over the years to be an excellent coach.
Harbaugh has been in much bigger games than the one that will happen on Thursday evening. Whittingham has too, but his rival coach to open the season may hold the edge when it comes to comparing résumés.
TMD: With its submarine, Michigan seems to be milking the element of surprise for all it’s worth. How can Utah overcome that and get a win on Thursday?
DUC: People always say, “plan for the unexpected,” and the Utes are doing just that. Because Harbaugh and company have been so secretive about their depth chart, Utah has decided to not just study film of Michigan, but also of Stanford (Harbaugh’s former collegiate team) and even the 49ers to get a gauge of what Harbaugh might throw at it.
This strategy may come back to bite Utah, however, as Ute linebacker Jared Norris has admittedly said he’s not 100 percent sure what to expect when they walk onto that field on Thursday. It could be something completely different than what a majority of this Utah squad was expecting, and if that's the case, the secrecy tactic will have worked for Michigan.
But all in all, Whittingham and his coaching staff typically are good at doing their homework, and the Utes should be prepared for anything that may appear in the season-opening contest.