Big Ten play gets underway on Saturday night with a pair of contenders facing off in Minneapolis
After a tumultuous offseason in which Big Ten football was going to happen, got indefinitely postponed, and is now back on again, we finally have games this weekend with the Michigan Wolverines opening up against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Expectations are down on the Wolverines entering 2020 since there has been plenty of roster turnover during the offseason, losing 12 starters from a year ago, including star receiver Nico Collins who has decided to opt out of the season. Michigan will also be breaking in a new starting quarterback and has to replace four starters along the offensive line. There may be some growing pains for the offense, but the defense should remain strong as per usual under defensive coordinator Don Brown.
There is far more stability on offense for the Gophers with many of the key pieces back from last year, including star receiver Rashod Bateman who was cleared just last week to return to action after previously opting out. He will be joined by junior quarterback Tanner Morgan, all five starters along the offensive line, and former 1,100-yard rusher Mohamed Ibrahim, who should form one of the better offensive attacks in the country. If the defense can manage to replace six lost starters from last season, the Gophers will be squarely in the Big Ten West hunt once again for a conference title.
Michigan at Minnesota
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Michigan -3.5
When Michigan Has the Ball
When the Michigan offense takes the field for the first time, all eyes will be on junior quarterback Joe Milton who "likely" won the starting job, though head coach Jim Harbaugh did not officially name him the starter in his weekly presser. "(He) showed a lot of great things," Harbaugh said to the media on Monday. "Joe's been running with the ones and really — he's made a lot of strides, getting a lot of reps, as well as Cade McNamara, who's closed all gaps as well. He's playing extremely well.
Milton has played only sparingly in his two seasons in Ann Arbor, but the physical attributes have Wolverines fans envisioning a quarterback that they haven't seen in quite some time under center. Standing at 6-foot-5, 243 pounds, Milton has one of the strongest arms in all of college football and has already been compared Cam Newton by FOX Sports analysts Matt Leinart and Urban Meyer. Looking the part is one thing, but Milton needs to show it on the field with just 11 career passing attempts entering Saturday's matchup with the Gophers.
Milton won't be the only player making his first start this weekend with a number of fresh faces on the Michigan offensive two-deep. The Wolverines have four new starters on the offensive line, but they did get a boost with future NFL draft pick Jalen Mayfield opting back into the season. At wideout, there's no Nico Collins, but last year's leading receiver Ronnie Bell is back, along with a pair of speedsters in Giles Jackson and Mike Sainristil, who are expected to have a major impact. In the backfield, Michigan brings back its two-headed monster of Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins, who combined for 1,348 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground in 2019.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The Gophers have star-power galore offense with arguably the top offensive trio in the conference in Morgan, Ibrahim, and Bateman. How this group comes together with a new play-caller in offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will be just one of many storylines for the Gophers in their season-opener against the Wolverines.
Starting with Morgan, the junior quarterback had a breakout year in 2019, completing 66.0 percent of his passes for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns. All the more impressive that those numbers have led to the most important stat of them all — wins — as Minnesota is 15-4 with Morgan as the starter. Bateman steps into the WR1 role after putting up 60 receptions for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago, but the Gophers will need to uncover a secondary option next to him with Tyler Johnson now in the NFL. Junior Chris Autman-Bell emerged as a complementary piece last year, but the 6-foot-1 receiver will be counted on heavily to take attention away from Bateman.
Ibrahim took a step back in 2019 as the Gophers utilized a committee approach, rushing for just 604 yards after topping 1,100 yards the year prior as a freshman. Now that both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have since graduated, Ibrahim will be counted on to lead a very inexperienced running back room. If there is a matchup to take advantage of on Saturday, it could be with Ibrahim and five returning starters along the offensive line against a Michigan defensive front that is talented but undersized up the middle.
If we were predicting this game based on recruiting rankings, Michigan would have the clear edge. But experience matters here, and the Gophers have a distinct advantage in that department, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. If Milton ends up being the real deal, that changes the dynamic. But Minnesota should be able to exploit the Wolverines defense, specifically the secondary, where Michigan is the greenest. Morgan and Bateman are the difference in what ends up being a narrow victory for the Gophers in primetime.
Prediction: Minnesota 27, Michigan 26
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.