I've been reading a lot lately on the potential for Utah to beat Michigan on opening day of the college football season, and I agree with many pundits and bloggers alike that Utah probably has the best chance to beat Michigan of any of their non-conference opponents*.
Utah returns a great deal of the talent that took them to a 9-4 record and a victory over Navy in their bowl game last year. This includes top talent at QB and RB with Brent Johnson and Darrell Mack, respectively, coming back. Although Johnson has been hurt the last two years, he still managed to throw for 1,800 yards last season, including 226 in the bowl game.
Their defense returns six starters, but their front seven is inexperienced. If Michigan can use that inexperience against them with confusing looks in Rodriguez's version of the spread offense, then we could have an interesting game on our hands.
The real reason that this game has the potential to be a real heartbreaker for both the Rodriguez era and the Michigan fan base are the intangibles and unknowns that surround the team heading into the fall. Here are some simple questions that we Michigan faithful are allowing to swirl inside our minds at dangerously high speeds.
Q1: Who exactly are you? After four years of with Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Jake Long, many Michigan fans will be looking at the names on the backs of the new Adidas jerseys with inquisitive looks.
The leading passer, rusher, and one of (if not the) best linemen in Michigan history are all gone in one crushing blow. Throw on top of that the loss of the top two receivers in the stable, and you've got a serious lack of experience on offense.
A1: While there are a lot of questions on the offense, one of them shouldn't be, "Are these guys any good?" Inexperienced, yes. Bad football players, no. Michigan hasn't been recruiting two-stars and walk-ons the last four years. The skill will be there. Will that skill transition to the field? That remains to be seen.
Gary Matthews and Darryl Stonum will have to be huge on the outsides of the offense, as this year's spread offense looks to be heading towards a more traditional style with no stud mobile QBs in the fold.
Several pint-sized but spectacularly fast slot receivers are on the team as well, so look for Michael Shaw and Terrence Robinson to have a huge impact on the offense and special teams this year.
Michigan is stacked at RB with Kevin Grady, Brandon Minor, and Carlos Brown all returning and a herd of incoming freshmen standing by. The real question will be whether they hold onto the ball as well as Mike Hart. The answer will be a resounding no.
Q2: How good will Ryan Mallet be?
A2: Who cares—he's at Arkansas now.
Q3: What? Ryan Mallet is gone? Oh holy crap, what ever will we do?
A3: The answer to that one is actually the scariest part of this section. The QB position is an absolutely troubling spot with walk-on Nick Sheridan and redshirt freshman Steven Threet battling for the top spot. Threet will probably win the job based on talent alone, but don't be surprised if Sheridan gets some time.
Also battling once he gets on campus will be incoming freshman and sleeper extraordinary Justin Feagin. Can this three-star dual-threat QB come in and win some playing time or the starting job? I think the answers are yes and no. I doubt he'll start, at least not right away. But he'll definitely see the field.
Q4: Will the defense be able to handle a dual-threat QB like Brent Johnson this year?
A4: The defense is going to have to be the strong point of this 2008 team until (if ever) the offense finds its groove. There are returning starters all over the field, especially on the D-line and at the corners.
Terrance Taylor returned after there was speculation that he'd be heading to the pros and looks to be a stalwart in the middle. Brandon Graham has the talent to be Lamarr Woodley-dominant, but needs to utilize it more often.
The corners are set with Donovan Warren and Morgan Trent returning, and Boubacar Cissoko coming in to join them. The linebackers are relatively untested but the talent is there, especially in the incoming freshman class.
The defense will be seeing a dual-threat type QB in practice every day from here on out, so you'd think that they'd be better at figuring out how to stop one.
There should be plenty of experience on that side of the ball, so the hope is that they'll be able to step up and be a strong unit until the offense finds its pace and starts putting up the mega points that Rich Rodriguez's offenses normally do. Hopefully that doesn't start in 2009 though.
Overall, in my normally pessimistic Michigan fan view of the world, Utah scares me. They have a lot of skill and we have a lot of unknowns. I'm not entirely convinced that Utah beating us would be an upset. On a neutral field it wouldn't be, but since it is at Michigan Stadium and it is RichRod's first game, then we'll call it that.
Nevertheless, I think that we find a way to pound it out against Utah, and hopefully get to the meat of the Big Ten schedule without any blemishes on the record. For a team that many predict will go 7-5 or worse, that'd be a great way to start off the year, and the new era of Michigan Football.
*Until ND proves that it isn't full of suck, I'm not going to give them the satisfaction of saying that their team scares me.