Are you ready for the return of Big Ten football?
The No. 21-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers will open the 2020 season in a primetime matchup against the No. 18-ranked Michigan Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 24, at 6:30 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on ABC.
It’s been three years since these two programs have shared a field, and the Little Brown Jug has languished in Ann Arbor since then. We have some catching up to do!
Can Michigan score on offense?
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who previously served as the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Alabama, was hired last season to develop a more dynamic Wolverine offense, pivoting from the traditional ground-and-pound approach that was their bread-and-butter not too long ago under Lloyd Carr but has perhaps become antiquated in today’s college football.
Now the Michigan offense never huddles and operates out of a variety of spread formations, with a play-calling emphasis on being aggressive and taking shots down field (the Wolverines ranked 16th in the country last season in yards per completion). That makes it clear why junior quarterback Joe Milton has been tapped as the ideal replacement for two-year starter Shea Patterson. Milton stands tall at 6’5” and has elite arm strength, but accuracy and decision-making were both issues at times when he saw limited action last season. As a high school senior, he completed only 47.4 percent of his passes and threw 19 interceptions.
Milton is not what I’d call a dual-threat quarterback, but he does possess the speed and athleticism to extend plays and pick up yards — and even touchdowns — with his legs.
As much as he likes to chuck the ball down the field, Milton may not have that luxury this season without Nico Collins (6’4”) and Tarik Black (6’3”). Collins, who led the team in receiving touchdowns last year, opted out of the 2020 season, and Black transferred to Texas in the offseason. Leading receiver Ronnie Bell is back, but he is 6’0” and top passing game targets Giles Jackson and Mike Sainristil are 5’9” and 5’10”, respectively. That said, Gattis likes to preach “speed in space” and Jackson leads a crop of underclassmen receivers who are burners.
Much like former Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, Gattis is fond of the Run Pass Option (RPO), often utilizing RPO plays to open up the run game by equating numbers and running into a favorable box. And the Wolverines have plenty of talent at running back, with leading rusher Zach Charbonnet returning, fifth-year senior Chris Evans returning from a season-long suspension, and Hassan Haskins back after a solid sophomore campaign.
On the offensive line, Michigan needs to replace four starters from a season ago. They nearly had to replace all five, but starting right tackle Jalen Mayfield reversed his decision to forego the 2020 season and opted instead to return once the Big Ten decided to play.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Don Brown enters his fifth season as Michigan’s defensive coordinator — after Harbaugh hired him ahead of the 2016 season following a conversation with Bill Belichick — and he has thus far lived up to his reputation for creativity. That is, except for when it comes to defending Ohio State, as the Buckeyes have racked up a combined 118 points in their last two meetings.
But outside of “The Game,” Brown has experienced quite a bit of success with the Wolverines. Last season, the Michigan defense ranked 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game (121.7 ypg), 10th in passing yards allowed per game (185.5 ypg), and 25th in scoring defense (20.7 ppg). Brown’s preferred style of defense? In a word: Aggressive. This is especially apparent in the secondary, where he employs an extensive amount of press man-to-man coverage. His creativity is showcased in how he deploys a variety of defensive alignments and never-ending blitz packages to keep offenses off-balance. Brown’s goal against Minnesota will almost certainly be to smother the short and intermediate passing game over the middle of the field and keep quarterback Tanner Morgan from getting into a rhythm.
Up front, the Wolverines are well equipped to apply pressure to Morgan. Defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye are both formidable as pass rushers and run stoppers. Hutchinson racked up 68 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, six pass break-ups, four quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles last season. On the opposite end of the defensive line, Paye totaled 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries, and one fumble recovery. The Wolverines were a bit soft up the middle last year, but starting defensive tackle Carlo Kemp returns to lead a rotation that may need some time to figure out a pecking order.
Khaleke Hudson, who racked up single-game career highs in total tackles (15), solo tackles (12), tackles for loss (8), and sacks (3) against Minnesota in 2017, is gone — thank God — along with the Wolverines’ other two starting linebackers from a season ago. But senior Josh Ross and junior Cam McGrone are both experienced players who will be stepping into starting roles, and expectations are high for the pair of linebackers. McGrone, specifically, will be looked to as the field general of the Wolverine defense as starting middle linebacker.
One name to watch for: Daxton Hill. The sophomore defensive back was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and pushed for playing time as a true freshman, even with the Wolverines already loaded in the secondary. But with Michigan having to replace All-Big Ten safety Josh Metellus and All-Big Ten cornerbacks Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, the time is now for Hill. There have been rumors that the freakishly athletic safety — who has drawn comparisons to Jabrill Peppers — would be moving to cornerback, but it seems the Wolverines will look elsewhere for a cornerback to pair with starter Vincent Gray. Gray played in all 13 games as a sophomore last season, but only made one start, so cornerback is an area of concern for Michigan.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
I imagine there are some Gopher fans feeling confident after assessing the Wolverines’ losses on both sides of the ball. But I would remind them that Michigan is still Michigan, and regardless of whether they can beat Ohio State, they have elite talent at every position. How much has the talent gap between Minnesota and Michigan closed since these two teams last met in 2017? We’ll find out on Saturday. The Gophers are also replacing seven starters on defense, and this will be P.J. Fleck’s first Big Ten game as a head coach without Kirk Ciarrocca calling offensive plays.
On top of the known unknowns for both teams, there is the question of how much this unprecedented offseason will have impacted each team and whether either team will have key contributors unavailable due to COVID testing and contact tracing. With so many variables in play, I hesitate to classify this as anything other than a toss-up, in which case I have no choice but to go with the homer pick. Minnesota 24, Michigan 21.