As the cool air nipped at me when I walked out the door this morning—and if it wasn't already apparent—I knew one thing was certain.
College football season is upon us.
Just two weeks from today, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit will usher in a new season on ESPN's College Gameday with bold predictions, while collegiate athletes across the nation will anxiously suit up and run onto the field.
It will be no different in Ann Arbor where Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan will face off in the season's opener at the Big House. Just like every season, the first game is always months in the making as spring and summer practices all lead up to the very first moment the ball is kicked in the first game.
Both squads have reason to look forward to that moment.
The Rich Rodriguez regime is in its second season in Ann Arbor and looking for a big rebound after a dismal first season that had many questioning if letting Lloyd Carr go was a monumental mistake.
The excitement is no different in Kalamazoo where head coach Bill Cubit has instilled a winning attitude and the team looks to follow-up a bowl trip in 2008 with another one in 2009.
What will decide the outcome in the first meeting between the two teams since 2002—when Michigan won 35-12—is anyone's guess, but I have a few ideas of what could play a role. I also have a neat perspective of the first game as I covered Western Michigan football for the WMU's student newspaper last season and have pretty much eaten Michigan football for breakfast my entire life.
Let's take a look at five key match-ups:
1. Western Michigan's wide receivers versus Michigan's defensive backs
WMU lost its two top receivers from a year ago—Jamarko Simmons and Schneider Julian—but still has deep threat Juan Nunez. The junior will be asked to step up in a big way in 2009 and should be senior quarterback Tim Hiller's top target. Converted quarterback and sophomore Robert Arnheim also should see plenty of time in the slot as a possession receiver for the Broncos. Junior Jordan White is returning from injury and needs to also step up to provide some depth for the group.
Michigan's defensive backfield is talented with Donovan Warren, Troy Woolfork and Boubacar Cissoko leading the charge. The unit should be ready to help lead the defense in 2009. Speed won't be an issue on this side of the ball.
Prediction: It's no secret that WMU will be throwing the ball. If Michigan shuts down the passing game early and Hiller can't find a groove, it could be a long day for the Broncos. Someone has to step up and help Nunez right away.
2. Michigan's running backs versus Western Michigan's linebackers
With a deep and talented group, Michigan has the ability to pound the ball and repeatedly. If they can get on a roll, they could wear down WMU's defense quickly. Should they get up a couple of scores, the plethora of backs could put it on cruise control, controlling the clock and the game.
The defense is young for WMU, but linebacker is probably their most experienced position. Senior Austin Pritchard leads the way for the Broncos and is joined by Harrison Porter and Mitch Zajac. The sophomore, Zajac, saw an increased role in the second half of last season and the valuable playing time in meaningful games should be instrumental for this season. The coaching staff showed incredible faith in the young players last season and Zajac perhaps benefited the most.
Prediction: Michigan could steamroll any opponent with Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw jetting through the lines, but don't count out the linebackers from WMU who helped limit the Illinois squad to low yardage totals in 2008's victory. That being said, Michigan could get up early playing at home and hand the reigns to the tailbacks.
3. Western Michigan's Tim Hiller versus Michigan's defense
If Western Michigan is going beat Michigan, one thing is certain.
Tim Hiller will have to play a large role.
Hiller was very important—as was departed wide out Simmons—in the victory over Illinois last season and he will have to be again this season. This is even more true now that he is missing several of his top targets. While his offensive line is still intact and probably one of the best in the Mid-American Conference, he'll have to survive countless blitzes from the Wolverine defense.
Michigan should blitz WMU's best player on offense countless times all day, and, with Hiller coming off a knee injury, they should try and test his durability. Defensive end Brandon Graham could give Hiller fits all afternoon.
Prediction: Hiller is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, but that won't matter if he is on his back all the time. He isn't one of the best for nothing, so expect him to make some plays most wouldn't make. I expect his knee to be fully healed, as well, which should give him a boost. He will keep WMU in the game, no matter what the score is.
Advantage: Western Michigan
4. Western Michigan's Brandon West versus Michigan's linebackers/special teams
Already the Western Michigan all-time leader in all purpose yards—passing Greg Jennings last season, senior Brandon West (in the picture above) has been a solid contributor every season for the Broncos. While a small player, he has started at tailback the past two seasons and has returned kicks since his freshman season and has showcased good durability.
His versatility is vital for the Brown and Gold and he has the ability—along with fellow running back Aaron Winchester—to break the big one on a kick return. West needs to help Hiller and the offense out and give them a solid contribution if WMU is going to pull off another MAC upset in the Big House.
Michigan's linebackers are experienced, led by seniors Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh. Both are among the best in the Big Ten and they could stuff the holes opened for West all day. If they are able to contain him, the Wolverines could force Western Michigan to become one-dimensional and force Hiller to throw into tight coverage.
Prediction: West returns one or more kicks to mid-field but doesn't break any long runs as Michigan's linebackers and line helps stuff the run. Michigan helps shut down the running game forcing Western Michigan to pass just about every play—which they did several times last season.
5. Michigan's wide receivers versus Western Michigan's secondary
Western Michigan's secondary is one of the most inexperienced, perhaps, in the whole nation. All four starters—including NFL draft picks Louis Delmas and E.J. Biggers—are gone from last season leaving a gaping hole where they stood. Just one experienced player returns—Mario Armstrong—but the other spots are filled with players that have little collegiate playing experience.
Michigan's wide receiver corps has some very versatile and athletic players. Greg Mathews, Junior Hemingway and Martavious Odoms are all different in their own right, but talented nonetheless. With Western Michigan's young and inexperience secondary, this could be the knockout punch, in Michigan's favor. If freshman Tate Forcier can effectively get the ball down the field in his first start, look for WMU to be in trouble.
Prediction: Screens and short slant routes give Forcier confidence early and one or more of these plays goes for 40 yards or more. I wouldn't put two touchdowns for Forcier out of the picture at all. It could easily be a "learning day" for the defensive backfield of WMU.
While there are many other match-ups that could prove to be the deciding factor, I believe that these five are some of the most important. Michigan has four out of the five going in its favor, matching the favorite role they have going into the game against WMU.
Don't count out the Broncos, who are full of suprises, however. They have the innate ability to find young talent and put it to good use.
Just ask the Fighting Illini.
Either way, college football is upon us and in the state of Michigan there is no bigger game in the first weekend than the game taking place in Ann Arbor between the Broncos and Wolverines.
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