ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It has been about nine months since the Wolverines played a game in Michigan Stadium. This weekend, the Wolverines will hit the field against Central Michigan and begin their month of nonconference opponents that they hope will prepare them for the Big Ten slate.
The Wolverines’ schedule this season is favorable for a chance to get to the Big Ten title game, but before they can even get to conference play, they need to answer a few questions.
1. Will Michigan actually be challenged?
I’m not going to say that they won’t be challenged by any of these teams. Notre Dame is always a challenge, and that’s an opportunity for one of those signature wins that teams look for in the nonconference schedule. Michigan might not be challenged hugely by the other three teams (at least, not like it was against Alabama last season), but, the Wolverines will be challenged by themselves. These games allow the Wolverines to iron out the kinks in their offense and defense while building depth at positions. Michigan’s interior offensive line will be entirely new and their defensive front has a new look, too. The Wolverines’ secondary features new faces and guys at entirely new positions (here’s looking at you, free safety Courtney Avery). So while Central Michigan, Akron and Connecticut might not provide the drama or build-up (hello, MACtion), it will help Michigan prepare for the Big Ten season as it develops an identity.
2. Can the defensive line get a four-man rush?
This was a question that was consistently asked last season. According to Greg Mattison the defensive line is vastly improved and is getting to the quarterback. Frank Clark has been heralded as a top rush end, but can he be a Brandon Graham-like game changer? Three of the four teams Michigan faces in the nonconference schedule feature transitioning O-lines, which will obviously aid Michigan in looking like it has a solid four-man rush. CMU lost tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Notre Dame and Akron are both replacing two starters on their offensive lines. UConn actually returns all five of its starters on the offensive line, but last season the Huskies only averaged 318 yards of offense per game, so how effective that experience will be remains up in the air. But if the Wolverines are going to be successful in the Big Ten, their defensive front must be stout. With the absence of linebacker Jake Ryan until at least October, Michigan will be better off if it doesn’t have to blitz every other play in order to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.
3. How tricky is Al Borges going to get?
Don’t expect Borges to unload his playbook, but I do think we’ll see a few wrinkles in the season opener just to make sure Brian Kelly and Notre Dame are on their toes coming in to the Big House the following weekend. Borges and the rest of the offense will probably have a bit of a chip on their shoulders after their performance last season against the Irish. But the Wolverines will probably use their games against Akron and Connecticut to shore up the aspects of their offense not firing on all cylinders at that time. For example, they might run more toward Michael Schofield and Kyle Kalis’ side as Taylor Lewan doesn’t need quite as much work, or maybe Joe Reynolds or younger receivers will be targeted more. And without Denard Robinson, how does Borges’ level of trickery and wrinkles change with Devin Gardner?
That brings us to our next question…
4. How good is Gardner?
Gardner stepped in last season and finished out the season in an impressive fashion. With spring ball and the full offseason to gain chemistry with receivers and the offensive line, he should show major strides. Obviously, losing sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh for the season is a blow, but Gardner can use the nonconference schedule (and the lack of elite defensive backs he’ll face) to build chemistry with other guys. Brady Hoke said Reynolds, Jehu Chesson and Jeremy Jackson were the three receivers stepping forward in Darboh’s absence.
Assuming Michigan can be effective in the run game, it should open up things in the air for Gardner. He was recruited as a dual-threat QB, and he has those skills. but Michigan might be a bit more conservative with him -- especially in the nonconference schedule -- just because if he goes down, the Wolverines are looking at a true freshman and then a walk-on, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a championship season. But with Gardner being Gardner, don’t be too surprised if he tests the waters a bit. He’s not afraid to run, and if the opportunity presents itself, he’ll be looking to make plays by any means necessary.
5. Can Michigan stay healthy heading into the Big Ten schedule?
It’s no secret that Michigan is not deep at a few key positions at this point. If Gardner goes down, Michigan will scramble. If Fitzgerald Toussaint goes down, will Michigan will turn to Thomas Rawls? Justice Hayes? Drake Johnson? Derrick Green? Green came in highly touted but hasn’t impressed in fall camp the way most thought he would. Darboh’s injury leaves snaps open for wide receivers, but with any more injuries, the Wolverines could be working with a third-string receiver.
Defensively, Michigan is in a better place with depth, considering a lot of young players got experience last season, and Mattison has built depth at each position through recruiting. Jibreel Black missed some time during fall camp, which is likely why Frank Clark played some at three-technique. But having D-linemen with experience at multiple positions will only help. These four games can help Michigan to build that kind of experience.