Date & Time: August. 30, 2008, 1:30 MST
Radio: Kall 700
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan
All-time series: Michigan leads 1-0
Last meeting: 2002 (Michigan 10, Utah 7)
And so it begins, the Utes will kick off their 2008 season Saturday against Michigan in the Big House. A place they've only visited once, a 10-7 loss six years ago. This time, though, they hope the outcome is different and the victory begins another improbable run for Utah football.
It will be tough, though, as Michigan is no slouch of a team. In fact, they will be the most talented one Utah faces this season. The fact it's on the road makes it even more difficult, but not impossible, to win.
For Utah to leave Ann Arbor with a victory, things will need to happen and they will probably need a little luck on their side. I say this because Michigan is going to be fired up for this game. Not because they lost to Appalachian State last year, not because they have something to prove, but because it's a new era for Michigan football. As they transition from Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez, the anticipation and excitement following this team is pretty massive. These players are going to be invested and pumped to start anew. They want to write a new chapter of tradition in the vast book known as Michigan football. This day, this new era, unfortunately, begins against Utah.
That force is powerful and should not be underestimated. Because of this, Utah needs to be ready. That means they have to come out fighting and not as passive as they were in the past two season openers on the road against BCS teams. The first 10 minutes will set the tone for the game and if Utah comes out flat, regardless of whether Michigan is as well, I think they will struggle and most likely lose. However, if they strike first, show aggressive play on offense and on defense, they will have the wind at their backs and that very well could be enough to push them toward victory. That, in my mind, is the most important factor of this game, whether Utah can start strong and set the tone early.
The advantage Utah faces in this game is the fact not only will Michigan be replacing an offense that loses a lot of its firepower from last year, they will be reworking an offense that most likely has gone through some radical changes. What Rodriguez brings to the Wolverines is something similar to what Urban Meyer brought to Utah in 2003, a total overhaul of the offensive style many fans had become familiar with over the years. Michigan will develop into a far more aggressive, option oriented offense and that adjustment and learning curve will not be fluid after one quarter or even one game. But there are haunting similarities to a past season opener that Utah can't ignore.
In 2006, the Utes were looking good in fall camp, expectations were high and they were about to open the season against a BCS team that was rebuilding. In fact, not only rebuilding, but retooling, as well. Of course, I'm talking about the UCLA Bruins, who were introducing a new offensive coordinator prior to the season, albeit one elevated from the then current staff. The Utes had a slight cockiness to their preparations and I think that played a major role in what turned out to be an embarrassing 31-10 loss to kickoff that season. If the Utes are to take anything away from that game, players and coaches alike, they can't take the losses Michigan faced for granted. Because even if the opposition's talent is young and yours is experienced, the game still needs to be played and Utah has had a strikingly devastating ability to get well ahead of themselves prior to major games. That troubling trend has to end now, or Utah will be run out of Ann Arbor, regardless of how young and inexperienced the Wolverines' talent is.
The Utes come into this game as underdogs and I'm happy for that. They must not get cocky and instead play this game knowing that in years past they have lost winnable road games against BCS teams for whatever reason. This game will not be easy, this game could be war, but if Utah keeps their composure, strikes first and plays to its talent, they have a chance and that is all I really want to see from this team. Michigan won't roll over and Michigan is not going to expect victory, so that means Utah is going to have to play like they want to win if they expect to win. Just trying to win by default, which I believe was exactly what they did against UCLA two seasons ago, will not work here.
Beyond their mindset, Utah has the weapons. Brian Johnson is healthy, there are are solid receivers to throw to and what could be the best ground game in a very long time. The offense has the tools necessary for a victory and the defense is solid enough where it should not be run over by an inexperienced Wolverine offense. That means this will probably come down to a couple of big plays sprinkled throughout the game and that is where Utah will need to step up.
Utah wins if...Their offense performs to expectations and Brian Johnson is 100%. Utah needs his arm, because it's going to be difficult finding a sustained running game throughout. The spread option is also an important factor in their offense. Johnson has run the spread option with some hesitation since his injury against Oregon State, but that was a year ago and he needs to understand there will be some tough hits and not tighten up or slow down when he sees a hit coming. If Utah can get movement on offense, they will be in good position to steal this one.
Michigan wins if...They halt Utah's offense and find a running game. Michigan is probably going to keep it more conservative than Rodriguez would like, but that's to be expected with a new offense and inexperienced players.
What will happen... Expect a low scoring game that probably will be close throughout. Because Michigan is at home and I'm still wary of season openers on the road against BCS teams, I'm going with the safe choice and picking Michigan in a close one. Wolverines win 24-21.