With the season just three (!) days away, it’s time to start breaking down the schedule game by game. Today, I’ll be looking at Michigan’s first four games, against Connecticut, Notre Dame, Massachusetts, and Bowling Green:
Game One — Sept. 4: Connecticut
Blog of Note: Sox and Dawgs
2009: 8-5 overall, 3-4 Big East, beat South Carolina 20-7 in Papajohns.com Bowl
Returning Starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Breakdown: Michigan will face a formidable foe to open the season when UConn visits the Big House on Saturday. On offense, the Huskies will be led by junior running back Jordan Todman, one of two UConn backs to break the 1,000-yard mark last season, who will see his role increase after the graduation of Andre Dixon. With Todman running behind four returning starters on the offensive line, the Huskies should be able to move the ball on the ground. The question for UConn’s offense will be how their passing game fares after their top two receivers from 2009 graduated and backup quarterback Cody Endres, who split the starting job with redshirt senior Zach Frazer last year, was suspended indefinitely by the team. Frazer will need to step up his game after completing just 53.2% of his passes and posting a 10:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year — he did look strong down the stretch, throwing eight of his touchdowns in his final five starts, but will have to be more consistent this season.
The Husky defense will be led by their strong linebacking corps, where they feature three former All-Big East players — fifth-year seniors Lawrence Wilson (140 tackles in 2009) and Scott Lutrus (69 tackles in just eight games) and senior Greg Lloyd (91 tackles). Lloyd was expected by most to redshirt this season after tearing his ACL and MCL late last season, but he has made a very quick recovery and will be in the lineup on Saturday. UConn also returns three starters along the defensive line, but they lost junior defensive end Marcus Campbell for the season with a torn ACL in fall camp — replacing him will be 6-1, 225-pound sophomore Trevardo Williams. The defensive backfield returns just two starters from a unit responsible for finishing 85th in the country in pass efficiency defense, and much like Michigan, they only have one safety on the roster with game experience.
Kicker Dave Teggart returns, but he converted just 14-of-23 field goal attempts in 2009, and the Huskies will be breaking in a new punter in redshirt freshman Cole Wagner.
Key Matchup: Denard Robinson and the running backs vs. UConn’s defensive ends — If Robinson starts as expected against UConn, Michigan will look to utilize Robinson’s game-breaking speed on the edge against the Huskies’ relatively-light defensive ends. If the Wolverines can for UConn to commit to stopping the run, that should open up the passing game for Robinson — is he is as improved as advertised in the passing game, he should have no problem picking apart UConn’s secondary.
Prediction: Connecticut’s offense should put up some points on the Michigan defense, but the Husky defense has some major holes to exploit as well. This should be a high-scoring affair and a close game, but I give the slight edge to the home team — Michigan 37, UConn 31
Breakdown: Notre Dame has to replace some big names in quarterback Jimmy Clausen and Biletnikoff Award-winner Golden Tate, but with offensive whiz Brian Kelly taking over as head coach from Charlie Weis and several blue-chip players in place, this is still a very dangerous team. Junior Dane Crist is coming off a torn ACL that cost him most of last fall and all of the spring, but the former five-star prospect should be an able replacement for Clausen. He’ll have the weapons around him to succeed, with junior Michael Floyd (who may be even better than Tate), freshman sensation Tai-ler Jones, and senior Duval Karmara at receiver, Mackey Award contender Kyle Rudolph at tight end, and senior Armando Allen returning at running back. The offensive line must replace three starters, and the Irish will have to make a successful transition to Kelly’s spread offense, but the pieces are in place for this to be an explosive unit.
On defense, Notre Dame will transition from the 4-3 to a 3-4 look as they hope to improve on a unit that finished 86th in the country in total defense in 2009. The front seven returns six starters, including nose tackle Ian Williams, who enters his fourth year as a starter, and former five-star linebacker recruit Manti Te’o, who tallied 63 tackles as a freshman last season. The Irish will have to be strong up front as the secondary breaks in two new starting safeties (although one, senior Harrison Smith, has starting experience at the strong safety but played linebacker last season) and looks to find some consistency from their experienced cornerbacks after finishing just 82nd in the country in pass efficiency defense.
The kicking game should be solid, as Notre Dame returns kicker Nick Tausch, who went 14-for-17 on field goals last year, and punter Ben Turk, who placed nine of his 26 attempts inside the opponent 20 while only kicking two touchbacks.
Key Matchup: J.T. Floyd vs. Michael Floyd — Michigan’s newly-anointed number one corner will have his hands full with 6-3, 220-pound Michael Floyd, who toasted the Wolverines to the tune of 7 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown in last season’s matchup before leaving the game early with a leg injury. J.T. Floyd should get plenty of safety help against one of the nation’s best receivers, but he will have to win some one-on-one battles if the Wolverines want to keep Michael Floyd from reproducing his 2009 stat line. That’s a tall task for a player who struggled mightily as a redshirt freshman last fall, even if he has made marked improvements this season.
Prediction: When it comes down to it, Notre Dame’s front seven is stronger than Michigan’s, and I have a tough time seeing how the Wolverines will slow down the Irish passing game. Taking this game in South Bend would be a big upset — Notre Dame 34, Michigan 24
Game Three — Sept. 18: Massachusetts
Blog of Note: UMass Football Blog (!)
2009: 5-6 overall, 3-5 CAA
Returning Starters: 8 (4 offense, 4 defense)
Breakdown: No offense to the Minutemen, but this will be short and sweet — UMass is an FBS program coming off a losing season that needs to replace almost two-thirds of its starters. If Michigan loses this game, I will quit watching football and take up a hobby that doesn’t involve the risk of experiencing a soul-crushing defeat of that magnitude. I will also throw a variety of living room furniture through the front window of my house and spend the following night drinking malt liquor on the street while screaming “Why?” Nancy Kerrigan-style. Luckily, this will not happen.
Key Matchup: Michigan vs. themselves — Seriously, a 5-6 Colonial Athletic Association team that returns just eight starters. The key will be successfully transporting the team to Michigan Stadium on time.
Prediction: Like the Delaware State game last season, you will spend the majority of the game wondering why these two teams are allowed to play each other — Michigan 63, UMass 13
Game Four — Sept. 25: Bowling Green
Blog of Note: FalconBlog
2009: 7-6 overall, 6-2 MAC, lost to Idaho 43-42 in Humanitarian Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 (3 offense, 4 defense)
Breakdown: Bowling Green will be in rebuilding mode after first-year coach Dave Clawson led the team to a surprising 7-6 record last season, spearheaded by the nation’s No. 6 passing offense. Gone are quarterback Taylor Sheehan, record-breaking receiver Freddie Barnes (who caught 155 passes in 2009, an NCAA record), fellow starting receiver Chris Wright, tight end Jimmy Sheidler, and three starters on the offensive line. While there is some upperclassmen talent remaining at receiver, for the most part the Falcons will have to turn to inexperienced youth, and there will likely be a significant drop-off in production. Redshirt freshman Matt Schilz is the projected starter at quarterback, but he has never attempted a collegiate pass; the team will likely rely on senior tailback Willie Geter, who rushed for over 700 yards last season in 13 starts, to keep the offense moving while the passing game finds its footing.
The defense will also have to replace more than half their starters, and the back seven for the Falcons was left decimated by graduation after 2009 — only cornerback Adrien Spencer remains from last year’s starters. Bowling Green does return three starters along the defensive line, but after finishing 103rd in the country in rushing defense last year, the Falcons will need much better play up front. With no returning linebackers and three starters gone in the secondary, Bowling Green would do well just to better last year’s mark of 398 total yards allowed per game.
The Falcons do return kicker Jerry Phillips, who made 8-of-13 field goals in 2009, but he will likely have to start at punter as well for the first time this season.
Key Matchup: Michigan’s secondary vs. Bowling Green’s passing game — This is somewhat of a cop-out, as the performance of the Wolverine secondary could easily be the key to every game this season, but it’s especially true against the Falcons. Despite the losses at quarterback and receiver, Bowling Green will still come out passing the ball — that’s Dave Clawson’s style, and I’d be very surprised if he changed it. The only way the Falcons stay in this game is if the secondary turns in a truly awful performance, which, unfortunately, is very much within the realm of possibility. Still, against a brand-new quarterback playing behind a relatively inexperienced line, Michigan should be able to slow down Bowling Green’s offense enough to keep this game comfortably in the Wolverines’ favor.
Prediction: Bowling Green might put up a few more points than Michigan fans would like to see, but this should still be an easy victory against a team that must completely rebuild on both sides of the ball — Michigan 45, Bowling Green 20