A new season of college football is upon us all.
Finally, talk about the Michigan football team can be more than hypotheticals and speculations. And it’s time to see if the preseason hype is warranted for the Wolverines — even though it almost never is.
For Michigan, this season is poised to be an inflection point. Do the Wolverines continue their upward trajectory after a successful 2021 campaign, solidifying themselves as perennial contenders? Or do they fall back to earth and prove that last season was merely an aberration, not the norm?
These questions will probably not be answered for many weeks, as Michigan — quite frankly — has a shockingly easy non-conference schedule. But there is still excitement to be found, so here’s what to watch for as the Wolverines take on Colorado State.
This one’s a bit obvious, but it’s also probably the most intriguing. Last weekend, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh decided to spice up the already drawn-out quarterback competition by announcing that senior Cade McNamara would start the opener and sophomore J.J. McCarthy would start the following game.
“It’s a process,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “We’re not going to withhold any good thing. Both have been tremendous quarterbacks. We think that both can, or are capable of, leading our team to a championship.”
Instead of that process being settled by Week One, it will now take a minimum of three weeks to choose the starter — maybe even longer. But, honestly, what else would you expect from Harbaugh?
McNamara came into the season as an incumbent, Big Ten Championship-winning quarterback who led his team to its best season in a decade. But, given the passing offense was far from the biggest strength of last year’s team, it wasn’t enough to simply be handed the starting job.
No, McNamara has to earn it, and this game against Colorado State is his chance to show everyone that he’s still the best option.
“I feel like the level of play I’m playing at is very high right now in terms of where I’ve been in my career,” McNamara said last week. “I have gotten much better than I was this time last year or even at the end of the season last year. And I’ve recognized that and obviously, my teammates have as well.”
But it doesn’t matter what he did last year, how fierce of a competitor he is or even that he was voted a team captain by his peers last week. The only thing that matters is how he looks on Saturday. It’s for that reason that the Wolverines’ seemingly innocuous game against the Rams is a must-watch.
The defensive line:
Now, onto one of the other major questions for Michigan:
What is this defensive line going to look like in the wake of losing Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Chris Hinton?
While Colorado State isn’t exactly the type of team that can be duly measured against, if the Rams are able to get a consistent push on the offensive line or if the Wolverines struggle to generate pressure, it will be very telling.
Outside of senior defensive tackle and captain, Mazi Smith, there are more questions on the defensive line than answers. There are two new starting edge rushers in junior Kris Jenkins and senior Mike Morris. Not to mention true freshman Mason Graham starting alongside Smith in the base defensive package at defensive tackle.
There are many unknowns in the trenches. The Wolverines, though, seem quite confident.
“Defensive line has made big strides, and I said we were gonna have to,” Smith said last week. “As long as we keep getting better, anybody can play — anybody and everybody. I told the room that we’re gonna need that whole room if (we) want to win games. Everybody in that room can play winning football.”
It’s easy before the season for Smith to say that his unit is looking good — but it can’t really be known until they actually play a game.
Yeah, it’s a cop-out and probably a bit obvious, but the Wolverines are going to need their newcomers to pull their own weight this season.
For example, on the defensive line graduate transfer, Eyabi Anoma was brought in just weeks ago and has hardly practiced with the team. Based on the fact Michigan brought in a new player last minute, it tells you exactly how the team feels about its defensive line depth. If he plays, Anoma will certainly be someone to keep a close eye on and see how he looks in the scheme and from a physical standpoint — this is a former five-star recruit after all.
“He’s been a great teammate, and I look forward to seeing what he can do this coming season,” Harbaugh said of Anoma on Monday. “He’ll be hopefully playing right away in the first game, he’s shown some outstanding assets that he can bring to the team.”
Then there’s the most important newcomer, graduate-transfer center Olusegun Oluwatimi. He has large shoes to fill with the graduation of Andrew Vastardis, but by all accounts, if there’s someone fit to step into the hole, it’s Oluwatimi. Looking at only last year, Oluwatimi received numerous honors, a Rimington award finalist, second-team All-American and second-team All-ACC, to name a few.
Oluwatimi has gained the respect of his teammates in the few short months he’s been here, but now it is finally time to see how he fits into last year’s top offensive line.
“We had a great O-line last year, but I think we got a chance to be even better this year,” junior offensive lineman Zak Zinter said.
“No disrespect to (Vastardis)… but physically (Oluwatimi) is just a step up. He’s got all the attributes that you’d want in a center and I’m really excited to be able to play next to him this year.”
Once again though, it’s easy to say this type of thing when the only football you are playing is behind closed doors. Oluwatimi’s debut on Saturday has tremendous expectations, and Ayabi could just come out and surprise people. The offensive and defensive lines were major strengths for the 2021 Wolverines, and whether these units can maintain their dominance is critical for determining the ceiling of the team this season. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The bottom line:
Come about four in the afternoon on Saturday, will we really know all that much about this year’s Michigan team? Probably not. Barring some sort of monumental upset — which has never happened opening week in the Big House (I’m pretty sure) — people won’t feel much differently about the Wolverines than they did during the offseason.
But hey, football is football, and while it may take weeks or even months to answer the questions hanging over the Wolverines, Week One will at least allow the first draft to start being written.