1. Can the offensive line finally improve?
With all five starters returning from 2014, the general sense was that this season would be the one when Michigan’s offensive line returned to the program’s bruising ways of old. That was half-true in Thursday’s loss to Utah.
The Wolverines kept the nation’s leader in sacks last season from getting to Rudock, but still failed to create holes in the running game. It didn’t matter if it was up the middle or to the outside or whether it was De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green or Ty Isaac. The junior backs only earned 2.6 yards per carry, far from a victorious formula.
“Of course we want to be better at rushing the football,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “And that comes with the interior line, and the interior line has got to play as an entire unit. We talked about it a little earlier, (the key is all 11 players) playing together and not one guy having a breakdown or missed block.”
The answer to the offensive line woes may have taken a hit early Thursday afternoon, when junior offensive tackle Logan Tuley-Tillman was dismissed from the team for what Harbaugh called “conduct unacceptable for a Michigan student athlete” in a statement. Though Tuley-Tillman was on the line’s second unit, the dismissal puts a large dent in the offensive line’s depth. Those still with the team will look to live up to their big expectations against another Pac-12 defensive front.
2. How will Michigan win the turnover battle?
Sometimes, even free sweatshirts in exchange for interceptions aren’t enough to get Michigan to win the turnover battle.
Last season, Michigan was 124th out of 128 teams in the country in turnover margin, handing the ball over 16 more times than it took it. With eight defensive starters returning and (previously) turnover-proof gradute transfer quarterback Jake Rudock taking control of the offense, many expected the team to turn the tables and table the turnovers.
Instead, a Rudock pick-six — his third interception of the game — turned what could have been a Michigan game-tying drive into a dagger by Utah, while the defense mustered a meaningless Hail Mary interception at the end of the first half. Though Rudock threw just five interceptions in 345 attempts last season, it took him just 31 throws to reach three for the Wolverines.
“I would like to see more aggressiveness in terms of the ball,” Harbaugh said. “Clubbing it, ripping it, getting it out, getting it over to our side. Be more handsy. Getting our hands on balls, whether they’re tips or (pass break-ups) or interceptions.”
Fortunately for Michigan, Utah had the 18th-best turnover margin among Power Five conference teams last season, and the Beavers didn’t. With less defensive pressure from Oregon State and a true freshman starting for the Beavers, the Wolverines will have a great chance to win the turnover battle for just the second time since 2013.
3. Can Michigan contain a spread offense?
Michigan’s defensive problems against the spread date all the way back to the Lloyd Carr era, but until they go away, no game is a cupcake for the Wolverines. Against Utah, Michigan allowed quarterback Travis Wilson, who didn’t earn the starting job until days before the game, to scramble for 53 yards on the ground — more than any Wolverine in the game.
Things don’t look much easier this week. True freshman quarterback Seth Collins scampered for 153 yards on 17 carries in the Beavers’ 26-7 win over Weber State on Saturday. Michigan provides a much tougher test for Collins, but as Michigan fans know all too well, mobile quarterbacks from Ohio State to Appalachian State can wreak havoc in the Big House if given room to run.
“We’ve got to start playing more aggressively and stop waving and start going to attack the offenses,” said defensive backs coach Greg Jackson. “I don’t think we did that enough as a secondary last week.”
4. Will Michigan Stadium explode from Harbaugh fever?
This is the safest bet of all. You can be sure the biggest cheer of the game will be when the former quarterback officially returns to the Big House sidelines as a coach. ESPN’s SportsCenter has even traveled to Ann Arbor to broadcast live from the scene.
Though the coaches — including Harbaugh — have largely downplayed the homecoming event, Harbaugh’s son, tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh, admitted that after hearing about Michigan Stadium so much as a kid, his first game in Ann Arbor will be one to remember.
“I’m excited for it, I’m really excited for it,” Jay Harbaugh said. “I tell all these recruits about it, and I haven’t even experienced yet. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience from what I’ve heard.”