Eight weeks after the first college football game of 2020, on Saturday, it will finally be Michigan’s turn to take the field.
This team will look very different than it did the last time we saw it. The Wolverines are breaking in a new quarterback, four new offensive linemen and several new players in the secondary.
The atmosphere will feel different, too. There won’t be fans at any game this season — save for 1,000 or so family members of players and staff. Marching bands, cheerleaders, dance teams and mascots won’t be allowed either. Instead, teams will be able to pipe in crowd noise at levels that can be adjusted based on the game situation.
Because of all that, it’s hard to predict how this game will go. Minnesota finished 11-2 last year in the Big Ten West with wins over Penn State and Auburn and losses to Wisconsin and Iowa. The Las Vegas betting line favors Michigan by three, while ESPN’s SP+ gives the Golden Gophers the edge by the same margin.
Once we’ve seen the Wolverines in action, though, it will likely be much easier to predict the rest of the season. Here are five things to watch for in Michigan’s opener.
How does Joe Milton look?
We’ve heard all kinds of things about Milton. We’ve heard he can throw the ball so hard he dislocates receivers’ fingers. We’ve heard he’s “lights out” and the best he’s ever been. We’ve heard that he’s stepped up as a leader. But Milton’s never been particularly accurate, and although coaches have said he’s improved in that area, we have yet to see it. There was no spring game this year. Media members aren’t allowed to watch practice. And last year doesn’t give us much of a hint either.
In 2019, Milton appeared in four games, all in garbage time. He attempted seven passes and completed three of them, with one touchdown and one interception, while rushing for 16 yards and a touchdown. Most of that production was against Rutgers, a game the Wolverines won so decisively that the Scarlet Knights fired their coach the next day.
Even if those snaps had been against a better team, that’s such a small sample that it’s essentially meaningless. Which is to say: We’ve heard the hype. But we have no idea how Joe Milton will look until he actually takes the field Saturday.
If he’s as good as we’ve heard, it could lift Michigan and help it finally realize Josh Gattis’s “speed in space” philosophy. But if not, fans may be left pining for J.J. McCarthy.
Is Minnesota at full strength?
As far as we know, the Wolverines will be able to put all their starters on the field on Saturday. When Jim Harbaugh spoke with the media Monday, he said that nobody was currently out due to COVID-19 or injury. While that could still change, Michigan has done a good job following protocols and has kept its case numbers low within the program.
Minnesota may be a different story. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck implied that multiple players would not be able to play due to COVID-19. We don’t know how many players are out, or whether these players are starters. All we know is that they have not (yet, at least) met the threshold for canceling a game: a 5% test positivity rate and 7.5% of team personnel infected within a seven-day period.
If Michigan is able to get its best players on the field while Minnesota is not, that could significantly swing the matchup between two teams that are otherwise pretty evenly matched.
Can anyone stop Rashod Bateman?
The Gophers’ top wide receiver hauled in 1,219 yards last year. He was an All-American, the Big Ten Receiver of the Year, Minnesota’s team MVP and a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s top wide receiver. So, yeah, this guy is pretty good.
Bateman originally opted out of the season but decided to opt back in. On the field, he could be Michigan’s biggest problem Saturday, especially after cornerback Ambry Thomas opted out and declared for the draft, leaving the Wolverines with several inexperienced options at corner. According to senior safety Brad Hawkins, the task of stopping Bateman will fall on junior Vincent Gray — who has one career start.
“Rashod Bateman jumps out immediately,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s so strong, he’s made so many strong, contested catches. Think he averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2019. He’s terrific. A real alpha type of guy and football player. Got a great challenge for us in the secondary.”
Can the offensive line come out strong?
Unfortunately for Michigan, the year it had to replace four of its five starting offensive linemen was also the year the entire spring season was called off and players couldn’t get in pads until Sept. 30. Ed Warinner has proven himself through over 30 years as an offensive line coach at seven different schools, but he’s never faced anything quite like this.
Warinner detailed Wednesday how he coached the line through the non-contact period; specifically, he had the players focus on footwork and hand and eye placement. But technique practice isn’t a substitute for the real thing, and the Wolverines’ line has had just three weeks of padded practice to get up to speed. On top of that, Michigan’s sole returning lineman, Jalen Mayfield, originally opted out in August before opting back in, therefore missing about a month of practice.
On Monday, Harbaugh listed his starters on the offensive line: junior Ryan Hayes and Mayfield at tackle, seniors Chuck Filiaga and Andrew Stueber at guard and fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis at center. The good news is that all five of these players have been with the program for several years, giving them experience working with Warinner and knowledge of the Wolverines’ playbook.
Still, offensive line play requires chemistry, and it remains to be seen if Michigan’s new-look line has that.
“I like where we’re at right now,” Warinner said Wednesday. “ … I’m hoping that we can hit our stride pretty quickly because we’ve had a long buildup and a lot of time together but we’ll just have to see. I am not thinking about down the road as much as just, how do we help these guys play through this game with confidence and how do we get them to play fast and I think we have a great game plan and great thought process on how to do that so I’m excited to see us do it cause you can feel the energy at practice.”
Do Michigan’s road woes continue without fans?
The narrative that Harbaugh’s Michigan teams can’t beat ranked teams on the road has persisted since he took over the program in 2015, and the criticism has merit. The main contenders for Harbaugh’s biggest road win were a 2018 win over a Michigan State team that finished 7-6 and last year’s victory over Indiana, which finished 8-5 and didn’t beat a single team with a winning record. Look at the Wolverines’ records against Wisconsin and Penn State and it’s clear that this is a team with a history of playing much worse on the road than it does at home.
But this year, with no fans anywhere, does that trend change?
There are a lot of reasons a team might be bad on the road. Fan noise is certainly one of them — Michigan seemed clearly flustered during last year’s whiteout at Penn State. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only reason. Travel fatigue, playing in an unfamiliar stadium, differences in weather or altitude, a mental block against playing on the road or even referee bias can come into play, and not all of those go away when the fans do.
But a FiveThirtyEight study found that home teams in college football are winning less and that road favorites — like Michigan will be on Saturday — are performing better than even home favorites. And that’s including a lot of games where there were some fans allowed.
This gives the Wolverines as good a chance as ever to change the narrative.
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