With the season only eight days (!) away, it’s time to start breaking down the schedule game by game. Today, I’ll be looking at Michigan’s first three games, all at home, against Western Michigan, Notre Dame, and Eastern Michigan.
Game One — Sept. 5: Western Michigan
Western Michigan is the type of game that is almost a no-win for Michigan. Beat them, and fans say, “Well, of course you won, you played Western.” Lose, and it’s a complete disaster, despite the fact that WMU was bowl team last season, going 9-4, and they return seven starters from an offense that ranked 11th in the nation in passing offense. Quarterback Tim Hiller passed for 3,725 yards and 36 touchdowns (against 10 interceptions) as a junior, but loses three of his top four receivers from last season. The Broncos also return a 1,000 yard rusher in senior Brandon West, who rushed for 1,026 yards and eight touchdowns on only 204 attempts last year. The good news for Michigan: the defense, which allowed 24.9 points per game in 2008, returns only four starters.
Key Matchup: The Michigan secondary vs. Tim Hiller and Co. — The Wolverines will be breaking in three new starters in the secondary, and face one of the most prolific passers in the country. Michigan should be able to score some points against an inexperienced Bronco defense, and it will be critical for the defense to not give up big plays, especially through the air.
Prediction: The offense starts clicking in the second half, and the Wolverines come up with just enough stops to get off to a 1-0 start. Michigan 27, Western Michigan 21.
Game Two — Sept. 12: Notre Dame
Charlie Weis will be looking to save his job this season after losing 15 games the past two seasons (the most in Irish history), and he has the talent to make a run at a BCS bowl game with 18 returning starters. The much-hyped Jimmy Clausen enters his junior season after becoming the second ND quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in a season in 2008. He’s got plenty of weapons to throw to, with Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Duval Kamara all returning at receiver and three tailbacks (Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, and Jonas Gray) fighting for the starting spot. If there was ever a season for Notre Dame to return to glory, it’s 2009.
Key Matchup: Michigan’s pass rush vs. Notre Dame’s O-Line — Notre Dame returns every single starter from a much-improved 2008 offensive line, while Michigan will rely on Brandon Graham to anchor the defensive line while breaking in Mike Martin (although Martin should be very good) and Ryan Van Bergen as new starters. Last season Michigan was gashed by huge plays to Golden Tate, who finished with four receptions for 127 yards and a 40-yard touchdown reception. If Graham and Co. can get to Clausen it will take a lot of the pressure off of the defensive backs to stop the big play.
Prediction: Michigan should have a quarterback step up and take the starting job by this point (I hope), and Notre Dame has only one returning linebacker, so the Wolverines should be able to move the ball with the run and the pass. This one will be close, but I have no confidence in Charlie Weis’ ability to coach a team up to their full potential. Michigan 34, Notre Dame 28.
Game Three — Sept. 19: Eastern Michigan
Michigan fans will recognize the guy manning the headset for EMU, as former UM defensive coordinator Ron English enters his first season as the Eagles’ head coach. Unfortunately for English, he takes over a perennial doormat who finished 3-9 last season. In 2008, Eastern was able to move the ball though the air, finishing 20th nationally in passing offense, and they return eight starters on offense, including senior QB Andy Schmitt and top receiver Jacory Stone. However, their defense, which also returns eight starters, was downright abysmal, finishing 109th in scoring defense (35.6 points allowed per game), 103rd in rushing defense (196.3 yards per game), and 116th in passing efficiency defense (156.0 rating against). English is a young coach on the rise, but he’s going to have a very tough time pulling this team out of the MAC cellar this season.
Key Matchup: Michigan vs. Disappointment — This one is very simple. There is simply no reason for Michigan not to win this game. If the team is coming off a victory over Notre Dame, the team will have to make sure not to overlook the Eagles and put forward 100% effort. A loss against the Eagles would fall squarely on the shoulders of Rich Rodriguez for not having his team prepared and focused.
Prediction: As strange as this sounds, this game could be a jumping-off point for Michigan if they go on to have a successful season. There’s nothing like having a team click on all cylinders and tee off on a hapless opponent to help raise a team’s confidence. Michigan 42, Eastern Michigan 16.
There you have it. I see Michigan going 3-0 to start the year, and confidence should by flying high going into the Big Ten schedule. I’ll be continuing by predictions over the weekend, so make sure to check back here, and also make sure to head over to The Wolverine for more on the upcoming season.