After jumping into the top five of the Associated Press poll for the first time since before the 2007 season, the No. 5 Michigan football team will be a heavy favorite for the second straight week at Michigan Stadium, this time taking on Central Florida.
The Knights (1-0) did pick up a 38-0 win over South Carolina State in their season opener, but they are coming off a winless 2015 campaign with an average margin of defeat of 23.8 points. If all goes well for the Wolverines, this weekend should be just another chance to experiment in preparation for the Big Ten season, as well as another opportunity to give plenty of freshmen and backups playing time.
Even if Michigan pulls off another blowout, here are a few things to watch for on Saturday.
1. Who’s still hurt, who’s not and who fills in?
The one downside to the Wolverines’ 63-3 rout of Hawaii last week was the growing number of injuries the team suffered, both before the game and during it. Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ben Braden and redshirt junior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst all could return this week after being held out by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh as a precaution last week, and senior running back De’Veon Smith should be back in the starting lineup after leaving the Hawaii game with banged-up ribs.
However, the Wolverines will likely be missing fifth-year senior running back Drake Johnson, redshirt sophomore linebacker Noah Furbush, senior defensive end Taco Charlton and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone. Johnson and Furbush didn’t dress last week, and Charlton and Mone both left the game with lower body injuries and aren’t expected to return Saturday.
Keep an eye on freshman defensive linemen like Rashan Gary, Michael Dwumfour and even offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (who played both sides of the ball last week). All three might be called upon to help fill out defensive line coach Greg Mattison’s typical eight-man rotation. As for the linebackers, expect the Wolverines to get creative behind their locked-in starters (seniors Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray and redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers) — even redshirt sophomore cornerback Brandon Watson has been mentioned as a potential fill-in at the position.
2. Which quarterback will emerge as the more deserving backup?
Redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight pretty much controlled Michigan’s quarterback competition from start to finish, but his backups have come a long way as well. Redshirt juniors John O’Korn and Shane Morris each entered the game and led touchdown drives last week after the score got out of hand, and neither threw an incomplete pass in his limited time on the field.
O’Korn figures to have the edge for backup duty right now, especially given his proven mobility in the pocket, but Morris showed some athleticism as well with a 14-yard red-zone scramble last week. Harbaugh has hinted that the backup competition was still ongoing, so the two quarterbacks will want to be ready to show what they can do with another inferior opponent on deck.
3. Can the Wolverines’ secondary keep catching the ball?
When senior safety Delano Hill and senior cornerback Channing Stribling both returned interceptions for touchdowns against the Rainbow Warriors, they made history as just the fourth duo in Michigan history to accomplish the feat in the same game. This week may provide more gifts for the experienced Wolverines’ secondary, as UCF had the third-highest interception rate in the country last year.
Add in the fact that Lewis, Michigan’s best all-around cover man, should be back this week and that fifth-year senior cornerback Jeremy Clark missed out on the fun last week after leading the team in interceptions last year, and one might expect the Wolverines to pull off some more mid-air robberies on Saturday.
4. Will any 1997 drama resurface?
In the days leading up to the game, much has been made of the fact that new UCF coach Scott Frost was once the starting quarterback at Nebraska — a team that infamously split the national championship with Michigan in 1997. After both teams finished the season undefeated and didn’t play each other in a bowl game, Frost was extremely vocal in persuading voters to choose the Cornhuskers, going so far as to say, “I can’t see how any coach outside the Big Ten or the Pac-10 would vote for Michigan.”
Frost has since insisted that the past is in the past, and that his players will not care at all about any lingering conflict between him and the Wolverines. Harbaugh has been known to, as he puts it, “fire shots over the bow” of coaches who have a bone to pick with Michigan, but he was already playing in the NFL in 1997, and none of the current Wolverines were older than 4 when the controversy took place. Still, don’t be surprised if that narrative is played up numerous times during and after the game.