For a closer look at Saturday's matchup, Megan Ryan and Aaron McMann, Michigan beat writer for the Ann Arbor News, traded questions and answers. For a look at Megan's Gophers breakdown, click here, and here is Aaron on the Wolverines:
What do you know about this new Michigan QB and offensive line? What are the potential strengths and weaknesses of this Josh Gattis’ offense?
We don't know a ton. Joe Milton (photo from Associated Press), a redshirt sophomore, is expected to start at quarterback and he's only played in eight games, all in mop-up duty. He's got a strong arm and can be slippery to take down, but that arm strength can work against him, too. He often misses receivers, or throws the football so hard it gets tipped into the air. Of his 11 career pass attempts, two of them have been intercepted. Michigan spent a considerable amount of time last season working with him on his touch, which they say has improved.
The offensive line, while a new group, includes several players who've been on the team for a couple of years. Michigan just had so many experienced upperclassmen last year (they had four drafted into the NFL) that they had to wait their turn. Right tackle Jalen Mayfield is another NFL prospect, and the Michigan coaches consider left tackle Ryan Hayes someone with a bright future. But the inside remains a big question mark. Starting center Andrew Vastardis is a former walk-on, while left guard Chuck Filiaga is a guy who's been around a while but never saw much playing time. Right guard Andrew Stueber is a former starter but tore his ACL last year and missed the entire season. So, as you can imagine, there's some worry here. Especially with a new QB.
As for the offense, Gattis likes to spread the football around. And I'd expect him to do so. Michigan has a deep stable of running backs, including one (Chris Evans, a fifth-year senior) with the ability to break long runs and catch the ball out of the backfield. Look for them to get the ball, along with tight end Nick Eubanks.
The receivers are intriguing. Another group of young, inexperienced players, but they fit the scheme Gattis wants to run. In the past, Michigan featured a more post-route, throw-the-ball-up-and-get-it style passing game. This year, they don't have the length at the receiver position. Look for more slants and crossing routes.
With some big changes on offense, is the defense ready to lend some consistency? What are some bright spots on that side of the ball?
Michigan's front-7 has the potential to be very good. Three returning starters along the defensive line, including all-Big Ten selections Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye at end, a fifth-year senior at tackle (Carlo Kemp) -- and that's not even including the linebackers. Cam McGrone has the potential to be one of the best middle linebackers in the Big Ten. If not this year, then next. Josh Ross next to him has played a ton of college ball.
Where fans are most concerned about, and rightfully so, is the backfield. The team's starting corners from a year ago, Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, are both gone. Thomas was expected back but opted out due to COVID-19 concerns, leaving Michigan with a bunch of young guys with no experience to fill the gap. Vincent Gray, now Michigan's No. 1 corner, was a rotational guy last season. He'll have to try to matchup with Rashod Bateman, which won't be easy. Michigan does have two returning starters at safety, including Dax Hill who might be its best defender, but I believe the defensive backfield might be Minnesota's best mismatch.
How do you think the team has handled the past several months? From COVID-19 to season uncertainty to racial injustice to player’s using their voices, curious how you think the program has navigated all that. Changed for the better? Tenuous hold on reality? Kind of a broad one so take it where you will.
I think they've handled it well. Jim Harbaugh came out early and knocked the police response to the George Floyd murder, and was universally praised for it. He took part in a social justice march in Ann Arbor over the summer, then joined players and their parents for a march in September to protest the Big Ten's decision to postpone the football season. So, the players are fully on board with him and his actions.
On the field, the team never really stopped practicing. They continued without pads, even after the Big Ten postponed things. He planned combine-like event (ironically for this Saturday, Oct. 24) to help keep his players engaged and motivated. A desire to play will not be lacking this Saturday, that's for sure.
Will Jim Harbaugh finally beat Ohio State this year? How much is his job in question if he goes 0-6 against the Buckeyes and continues to be the forever bridesmaid of the East?
No. Ohio State is just too good and too polished for it to happen this year. Even when we thought Michigan stood a real chance (like 2018), the Buckeyes showed they were the superior team.
As for Jim's job status, it's a common question that I get a lot. I'm on record as saying Harbaugh will stick around Ann Arbor for as long as he wants to. He grew up here, he played at Michigan and is very popular in town. The program has won a lot of games and business, at least up until the pandemic, was very good. Now, with that said, Harbaugh only has about 14 months left on his original contract, an odd situation for a college football coach who, by all accounts, is well-liked by school officials and has said he wants to stay at Michigan.
So, we'll see. There's always the NFL, where Jim was successful and would have opportunities. But like most events in his life, he will have the final say.
What’s your prediction for the season opener?
This is a tough one, and for me comes down to the unknowns. There's too many on the offensive side of the ball for Michigan. New QB, new offensive line, unproven players in the secondary. I think the Minnesota offense wins out here. Final score: Minnesota 31, Michigan 27.