Michigan Wolverines at Utah Utes (-6)
Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as the Michigan head coach won’t have an easy start as the Wolverines visit the Utah Utes in Week 1 of the NCAA football season (8:30 PM Eastern on Thursday, September 3, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City).
This game, which will be aired on Fox Sports 1, should garner big ratings as curious fans tune in to see how the polarizing Harbaugh fares in his first week with the storied school. Harbaugh is a Michigan alum who had great success in the college ranks at Stanford and in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers. With the Wolverines struggling under Brady Hoke the last couple seasons, expectations are high that the fiery coach will have a quick impact and return the once-dominant football program back to respectability – if not immediate glory.
But that will be a tall order for the coach, as Michigan had just the 112th-ranked offense last season, averaging a shade over 20 PPG. The passing game was particularly bad at 170 YPG (also 112th in the country). Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno have three QBs battling for the right to start in Week 1: sophomore Shane Morris, true freshman Alex Malzone, and redshirt freshman Wilton Speight. As of April, the job was Morris’ to lose.
“If I looked at it over all of spring ball, Shane would be ahead,” said Harbaugh to Michigan Live in April. “The competition will rage on, though, starting tomorrow. Through April, into May, June, July, and August.”
Whichever QB wins out, he’ll have to soldier on without last year’s top receiver Devin Funchess, who has moved to the NFL. The team will be hoping senior WR Amara Darboh (473 yards, two TDs in 2014) can take over as the number one receiver.
Utah will also be looking for more offensive production in 2015, especially from the QB position, where Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson both saw time as the starter due to the other’s inconsistent play.
Wilson, now a senior, should begin the year as the starter – just like last season. “Travis is coming off a very good spring and has the inside track as a three-year starter,” said Utes coach Kyle Whittingham.
But he’ll need to improve his play against good programs if the Utes are going to go from Pac-12 also-rans to legitimate Power Conference contenders. Last year, Wilson threw for 2,170 yards, 18 TDs, and just 5 INTs, but he padded his stats against the likes of Idaho State and Oregon (whose defense, we remind you, was nothing special) while struggling mightily against Arizona and Arizona State.
Before going all-in betting on Utah, keep in mind that Michigan had one of the most underrated defensive units in 2014, and the team will have 24 of 29 players back on that side of the ball, led by senior LB Joe Bolden who had 102 tackles a season ago. While the Utes should pick up the win SU, expect Harbaugh to figure out a way to keep it close and cover.
Pick: Michigan +6.
(Photo credit: Eric Upchurch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)