It’s hard to predict how any of this will play out.
What started as a normal offseason, one that was shaping up to be a pivotal one for the Michigan football team entering its sixth season under Jim Harbaugh, turned into a prolonged summer and concern over whether there was actually going to be a season.
Then the Big Ten ruled and said no. Football games would be pushed back to January, at the earliest, while the United States grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic brought on by a virus that’s killed nearly 220,000 Americans and infected nearly 40 million people worldwide.
But a late push to reverse course proved successful, paving the way for a truncated Big Ten season that begins this weekend. Michigan will travel to Minnesota to play an up-and-coming Golden Gophers team on Saturday (7:30 p.m ET, ABC) that oozes talent on offense, has a successful head coach and came a game away from playing for a Big Ten championship.
But before we get there, it’s time to go over what Michigan has returning, its strengths and its weaknesses, and players to keep an eye on this fall. Time for MLive’s ultimate guide to Michigan football in 2020: Pandemic edition.
First things first …
A Michigan football primer would not be complete without some type of discussion about its head coach, right? Jim Harbaugh is in Year 6 of his original seven-year contract, with no clear answers as to when, or if, he’s going to be extended. Which makes things super awkward for both parties at the moment, even as they grapple with trying to keep their own organizations afloat.
To his credit, Harbaugh addressed the elephant in the room over the summer, saying a new contract was being discussed between him and athletic director Warde Manuel in February, before the virus pandemic hit. Now, Harbaugh said aptly, “there’s bigger fish to fry.” And there are, for Harbaugh and for Manuel. But the longer this drags on, the more you start to wonder about Harbaugh’s future at Michigan. Especially if he continues to post third-place finishes and losses to Ohio State.
More: Elephant in the room: Jim Harbaugh’s contract at Michigan
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s turn to everyone’s favorite part of a football team: The offense. You can’t win games if you don’t score points, and Michigan will look to improve upon its 44th ranking nationally in scoring offense in 2019 (31.7 points per game). That’s not a bad number place to be, per se, but in an arms-race era where teams are moving the football faster than ever and scoring 40 and 50 points with regularity, it’s time Michigan got caught up. The good news is that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is in Year 2 of his spread-style scheme. Many of the players Michigan will count on this season have been in the system for a good 18 months.
The bad news is that the Wolverines are lacking a lot of experience. They lost a two-year starter at quarterback, their best wide receiver and four starters along the offensive line. That’s six first-year starters this year, at least, that needed a lot of teaching that needed to happen in only about two months. And even then, knowledge and film work can’t replicate actual game reps, against opponents from another team. While Joe Milton is expected to be the guy at quarterback, will he get enough time in the pocket to show off that arm? Will the young trio of sophomore receivers be able to get open and catch the ball with regularity?
Michigan’s offense has the potential to be very good. Gattis wants to push tempo and run as many plays as possible. To do that, the machine needs to be well-oiled and able to execute. Last year, the Big Ten’s best offense, Ohio State, averaged 43.9 points on 529.9 yards per game, good for fourth in the nation. The league’s next highest? Wisconsin, a team known for its running backs and power game, at 38. For the Wolverines to give the best of the best in the Big Ten a run for their money, they need to pick up the production and cut down on turnovers, an area that plagued them in 2019.
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While Harbaugh has not yet publicly announced a starting quarterback for the opener, the heavy favorite at the moment is Joe Milton, the redshirt sophomore from Florida with an intriguing frame and even more intriguing arm. Milton’s arm has been the talk of receivers (and defensive backs) for the better part of the last three years, with practice anecdote after anecdote about his ability to throw a football. Which is great on the playground or for a skills competition, but games require the quarterback to hit his receivers on a wide variety of throws. In eight games at Michigan, Milton has thrown 11 passes — one of them was for a touchdown and two were intercepted. Not the most promising ratio, and certainly not one that would fly as the starting quarterback at Michigan.
Which is a big reason as to why Milton spent the last 12 months fine-tuning his touch. Michigan’s coaches dedicated time to it last fall, and you saw some of that work pay off last season. He really kicked it up a notch this offseason in anticipation of a widely-expected quarterback competition with Dylan McCaffrey. But McCaffrey has decided not to play this season and will look to transfer, giving Milton an opportunity to show everyone what he can do. With five-star prospect J.J. McCarthy expected to arrive on campus in January, it may not be long before Harbaugh (who could be on the final year of his contract) hands over the keys. It’s do or die time for the 6-foot-5, 243-pound Milton, who’s already generating comparisons to Cam Newton.
More: Film review of Joe Milton’s first 2 seasons at Michigan (subscriber exclusive)
Other than Milton, Michigan’s running back depth and usage may be the most intriguing aspect of the offense. The Wolverines get their two leading rushers from a year ago back, Zach Charbonnet (726Y/4.9YPC) and Hassan Haskins (622/5.1YPC), plus fifth-year senior Chris Evans who amassed 1,722 yards and 14 touchdowns from 2016 to 2018. Not only does Evans pose a big-play threat (he averages 57 yards per carry), but he has 40 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns in his career. He’s going to give Michigan’s offense some options in space, and provide much-needed leadership and depth.
The key for both Charbonnet and Haskins will be turning production into larger chunk plays, or “home runs” like position coach Jay Harbaugh described to reporters during the offseason. Efficiency was an issue in Michigan’s passing game, but its running backs averaged just 3.96 yards per carry in 2019 — a figure that ranked it 89th nationally and eighth in the Big Ten. That’s not good enough for a team looking to compete with the Ohio States and Wisconsins of the world.
More: U-M inserts safety Sammy Faustin into CB battle
I’ll have a final say on this later in the week when I release my Depth Chart Projection 2.0, but this is how Michigan’s offensive line is shaping up so far:
Definite starters: Jalen Mayfield (right tackle), Ryan Hayes (left tackle), Andrew Stueber (right guard)
Competitions: Andrew Vastardis and Zach Carpenter (center), Chuck Filiaga and Trevor Keegan (left guard)
Guys to keep an eye on: Karsen Barnhart and Reece Atteberry. Both are on the cusp of earning a regular role, so expect Michigan to work them into the rotation at some point in the season. The tackle situation looks to be in good shape, depth-wise, while the guards still have some figuring out to do. But Ed Warinner has some bodies willing and able to help. The key here will be adjustment time. There’s an expedited timeline this year.
More: Making the case for U-M’s inexperienced offensive line
When we spoke to defensive coordinator Don Brown last month, he dropped this little nugget that I thought was fascinating: Last season, Michigan ran zone coverage on 51 percent of its opponent plays, compared to man coverage 49 percent of the time. Brown did it to show how his scheme has evolved in recent years, when it’s played a more 60/40 man difference. He’s on record as saying that he’s willing and able to change with the personnel at his disposal.
So, where does that leave Michigan this fall? The Wolverines return three full-time starters up front, a fourth with *some* experience and depth, two starters at linebacker and two in the backfield. In other words, the Wolverines should be strong up front and over the middle of the field, but could struggle against teams with lengthy receivers and speed. What Brown does to help his cornerbacks will be interesting to watch. Could a fifth defensive back be deployed on a more regular basis? How will the rotation go with the “viper,” a hybrid linebacker-safety, and nickel?
Michigan should be able to generate some pass-rush up front, and possess a talented linebacker duo in Cam McGrone and Josh Ross. But disguising weaknesses in the back will be important to a unit that dipped out of the top 10 nationally in 2019 for the first time since 2013.
More: Don Brown tweaks Michigan defense to fit strengths
Players to watch
Yes, Michigan will need to rely on all 22 starters to win games this fall, but these players have more pressure on them than anyone to have breakout seasons …
QB Joe Milton: He’s touches the ball every offensive snap and is a good barometer for how the offense is doing. Efficient, clean play from the position is vital now more than ever before.
RB Chris Evans: The most experienced player in the running backs room has also shown the most explosiveness, and can catch the football out of the backfield and make something happen. Sounds like a winner in Josh Gattis’ offenses.
TE Nick Eubanks: Michigan offenses have a history of utilizing the tight end, especially seniors who’ve worked their way into starting situations.
WR Cornelius Johnson: With Nico Collins not expected to return, Johnson is now Michigan’s tallest receiver (and the only one above 6-foot) and best option on the outside.
DEs Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye: Both anchor what should be an explosive and talented defensive line. They also have high NFL prospects, making 2020 a must when it comes to performance.
LB Cameron McGrone: We watched McGrone in front of us in 2019. Now it’s time for him to take the next step and play like he’s one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten.
S Daxton Hill: One of the most important players on defense, Hill, a sophomore, is going to be asked to cover as a slot safety, move to nickel and could wind up at corner if Michigan’s unable to find a reliable option to play opposite Vincent Gray.
More: 5 impact freshmen for U-M football this fall (subscriber exclusive)
One more time, here’s Michigan’s full 2020 schedule, as it stands right now:
— at Minnesota, Oct. 24 (7:30 p.m., ABC)
— vs. Michigan State, Oct. 31
— at Indiana, Nov. 7
— vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 14
— at Rutgers, Nov. 21
— vs. Penn State, Nov. 28
— vs. Maryland, Dec. 5
— at Ohio State, Dec. 12 (noon, FOX)
Michigan plays the usual suspects (Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State) but also has to contend with the two best teams in the Big Ten West last season, making its schedule one of the most difficult in the conference. History is on the Wolverines’ side against Minnesota (24 of the last 26) and Indiana (24 in a row), and all three of their most difficult opponents come at home. But the uncertainty at some of the most important positions make this a difficult season to forecast: The Wolverines could finish anywhere from 3-5 to 7-1 (yes, the losing streak to Ohio State extends another year).