At long last, college football is back in Big Ten Country, with the Gophers and Michigan getting the ABC national game treatment and a visit from ESPN’s “College GameDay.” At stake is the Little Brown Jug, a trophy the Wolverines have won in 43 of the past 47 meetings. Minnesota bucks that trend.
Prediction: Gophers 27, Michigan 24.
THREE BIG STORY LINES
Coping with COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the sports world, and this game won’t be an exception. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has hinted some players might not be available but hasn’t said who or how many. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh reported no COVID-19 issues Monday, though non-sports undergrads in Ann Arbor are under stay-at-home orders.
All hands on deck
The NCAA gave all players a mulligan on eligibility this season, which works well for the Gophers. Expect to see redshirt freshmen and true freshmen in prominent roles, especially on a defense that lost seven starters. COVID-19 losses and opt-outs could create holes, too.
Harbaugh’s hot seat
Entering his sixth season as Wolverines coach, Jim Harbaugh hasn’t been the conquering hero that Michigan expected. He fell to 0-5 against Ohio State and closed a 9-4 season with a 35-16 loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. Losing the opener to the Gophers would further increase the pressure in Ann Arbor.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Rashod Bateman vs. Michigan’s cornerbacks
The Wolverines, usually stout vs. the pass, no longer have CBs Lavert Hill (Kansas City Chiefs) and Ambry Thomas (opting out for NFL). That puts the pressure on junior Vincent Gray and sophomore DJ Turner to battle one of the nation’s best receivers in Bateman.
Joe Milton vs. Gophers defensive ends
Fleck calls the 6-5, 243-pound Milton a “once-in-a-decade type talent,’’ and the Wolverines QB can make things happen with his feet as well as his arm. That put the onus on Gophers athletic defensive ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo keep Milton contained.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
1-7 That’s Harbaugh’s road record against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at Michigan, and those losses came against Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame. The Gophers can join that elite company if they beat the Wolverines in Minneapolis for the first time since 1977.
THE GOPHERS WILL WIN IF …
they jump out to an early lead, ride Mohamed Ibrahim’s strong legs and employ the ball-control offense that’s served them so well in the Fleck era in wins over Wisconsin in 2018 (35:06 time of possession) and Auburn in last season’s Outback Bowl (37:35).
MICHIGAN WILL WIN IF …
Milton proves too much to handle for a young Gophers defense, defensive linemen Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson give Tanner Morgan little time to throw, and the Wolverines ground game plays keep-away to limit the time Minnesota’s offense is on the field.