Michigan will be making a first-ever trip to Salt Lake City to face Utah in the 2015 season opener for both teams. Both teams enter the game looking to make a statement about their respective football programs.
After finishing last season with a 9-4 record, Las Vegas Bowl victory and Top 25 ranking, the Utes are hungry to prove they are no one-year wonder in the Pac-12. The Wolverines are hoping new head coach Jim Harbaugh can help erase the failures of the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras and make Michigan into a consistent Big Ten title winner once again.
Utah enters the game having won seven consecutive season openers dating back to 2008. A 25-23 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor started the streak. That win helped launch the Utes to a 13-0 record, a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama and a No. 2 final AP ranking.
Utah and Michigan have clashed three previous times – all in the Big House. The Utes own a 2-1 advantage in the series after beating Michigan 26-10 a year ago. The Wolverines’ lone victory, a 10-7 result, came in 2002 during Ron McBride’s final season at Utah.
Podcast: Week 1 Preview w/ Rece Davis
Michigan at Utah
Kickoff: 8:30 PM ET (Thursday)
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1
Spread: Utah -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Return of Sack Lake City
Utah’s defense earned the nickname “Sack Lake City” a year ago after leading the nation with 55 sacks. Michigan saw firsthand what sort of damage the Utes can do on that side of the ball. The Wolverines did not score an offensive touchdown in their 26-10 loss last September and turned the ball over four times.
What can Utah do for a defensive encore? Michigan might not like the answer. The Utes return nine defensive players who saw action in four or more games last season and accounted for 34.5 of the team’s 55 sacks. Utah’s biggest strength is up front. Nate Orchard, the FBS leader in sacks per game (1.42) in 2014, is now with the Cleveland Browns, but the defensive line remains deep and talented in his absence. Hunter Dimick, Jason Fanaika and Lowell Lotulelei will all test Michigan’s offensive line early and often.
2. Harbaugh Era Begins
How will Jim Harbaugh fare in his return to college football? Michigan fans are optimistic after seeing how well the former Wolverine quarterback did in resurrecting the Stanford program a few years ago. Harbaugh posted a 29-21 record in four seasons in Palo Alto. During his final year there in 2010, he led the Cardinal to a 12-1 record, an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech and a No. 4 final AP ranking.
Harbaugh inherits a defense loaded with experienced linebackers and defensive backs. It should help smooth the transition while he gets his patented power coast offense in place. Michigan’s defense wasn't a chaotic mess like the offense a season ago. It showed an ability to limit big plays and make stops in the red zone. The biggest issue, a year ago, ended up being turnover margin. Michigan had a minus-16 turnover margin after producing just 10 takeaways — fewer than all but two FBS teams — in 2014.
3. Which offense shows improvement?
Neither Michigan nor Utah inspired much confidence in their ability to move the chains last fall. Will things be different in 2015? Offenses for both teams should be improved this season, though it might not show in week one with the Wolverines and the Utes both boasting strong defenses.
Michigan's fortunes rest on how much progress it can make in the trenches and at quarterback. The offensive line got manhandled by stronger opponents a year ago, but a year of experience should help returning starters like Mason Cole, Graham Glasgow and Ben Braden take steps forward with blocking and protecting the quarterback.
If the Wolverines settle on the right quarterback, that will also help the offense. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock and Shane Morris battled for the job throughout fall camp and Harbaugh has played coy about who will start at Utah. Rudock will likely get the nod over Morris, given the struggles and injuries that have characterized Morris' first two seasons in Ann Arbor.
Utah comes into the season with senior quarterback Travis Wilson once again at the reins. Wilson was benched for a time last season in favor of Kendal Thompson and has struggled with confidence issues and erratic play during his collegiate career. Utah will need some consistency from Wilson and a group of inexperienced receivers to take some pressure away from Devontae Booker. The senior is a one-man wrecking crew who can get it done in the backfield. He rushed for 1,512 yards a year ago and led the Pac-12 with 815 yards after contact.
Building a winner at Michigan should not take long for Harbaugh. He has a roster stacked with talent and has a track record for pulling off big upsets from his time at Stanford. Still, it’s a little too much to expect the Wolverines to march into Salt Lake City and take down the same Utah team that manhandled them a year ago. Utah is stout enough on defense to make even an average performance from its offense good enough to win. Expect Michigan to keep it close, but not close enough down the stretch.
Prediction: Utah 20, Michigan 13
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.