On the eve of our big opener against Michigan, I thought I'd show you what many around the sporting world are saying about tomorrow's game.
MICHIGAN – After last year's disastrous loss in the opener to Appalachian State, Michigan had an equally embarrassing season so the thought here is that Utah is in trouble against much better athletes who are "very motivated." Michigan, with new coaches and an untested quarterback, is a 3-point favorite but the Utes have neither the speed nor the brawn to match a program so eager to rise back to stardom. My Pick? Michigan, 24-13.
Utah at Michigan: A new coach at Michigan creates excitement and the Wolverines roll 27-20.
Utah at Michigan (minus 3.5)
This will be the second time Michigan and Utah have played each other. In 2002, Michigan won 10-7 at home.
What may surprise many people is that the team with the best offense in this game might belong to Utah.
Oft injured senior quarterback, Brian Johnson, hopes to start this season better than 2007. Johnson injured himself in last season’s first game and the Utes started ‘07 with a 1-3 record.
When Johnson returned Utah was able to win eight of the final nine games.
If Johnson is healthy and tailbacks Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata find running room the Utes should be able to compete.
Michigan fans are not sure what to expect from this year’s team. Even the most loyal Michigan fan would be hard pressed to name the new starters at quarterback and tailback.
To the fans defense, first year coach Rich Rodriguez is still struggling to find a starter at both positions.
Neither Nick Sheridan nor Steven Threet has separated himself to claim the quarterback job.
At running back Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, Michael Shaw and Sam McGuffie are still jockeying for playing time.
Michigan fans leave the stands with their heads shaking again. However, this time they leave with a victory.
Michigan 24, Utah 21
#1 - Utah
What I like: After a 9-4 season, the Utes return 14 starters from a team that was up and down all season long last year. After a dreadful start, the Utes put it together after week four, reeling off seven straight wins before a heartbreaking 10-17 loss to BYU. On offense, QB Brian Johnson is back with a solid o-line, his leading rusher (Darrell Mack had 1204 yds and 12 TDs last year), and two of three starters at WR (plus a third with starting experience). On defense, 6 starters return, though that number is deceptive since a bevy of players with significant game experience before being lost to injury last season return.
What I don't: A lot of their success last season was due to a +11 turnover margin, and repeating those kind of numbers is often difficult. Relying on players returning from injury is also an iffy prospect, as at least a few of them probably won't be back to their pre-injury form early (or maybe at all).
Where will they land?: The Utes are being pegged as this year's BCS busters by a lot of folks, and a BCS bowl isn't entirely out of the question if they can handle the schedule. OOC tilts include a trip to Ann Arbor against Michigan, a Thursday night game against Oregon State (who bested the Utes 24-7 in the opener last year), and a pair of cupcakes in Utah State and 1AA Weber State. An upset of Michigan is all but taken for granted by a lot of people, but the Wolverines still have a ferocious D and all the elements they need to grind out a power run snoozer for the win. If the Utes can split Michigan and Oregon State, they should be at 8-1 by the time they welcome TCU on 11/6. TCU, at San Diego State, and BYU finish off the schedule, and even though they could beat both TCU and BYU, a split between those two seems more likely. A 10-2 regular season finish with a better than average shot at the MWC title and a Las Vegas Bowl berth isn't unreasonable, and they also have plenty of reason to hope for a shot at a BCS bowl.
Utah at Michigan: This one is intriguing, and not just for the reason that the image of a Ute taking on a Wolverine is like something straight out of James Fenimore Cooper, or maybe the Dave Cockrum/Chris Claremont-era "X-Men." This is one of those games that I’m picking differently from the way I otherwise would have because of when it occurs. Does anybody else remember Jim Donnan’s debut game against Southern Miss in 1996, when the Bulldogs appeared utterly bewildered about what they were trying to do offensively? I think you’re looking at a replay of that game in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Utah will carry a winged scalp back to the Beehive State.
The Big House: Utah is presented with a golden opportunity this weekend to pick off Michigan while the Wolverines are still trying to get their bearings. A win at Michigan would bump the Utes up in the eyes of pollsters and maybe drop them in the Top 25 next week.
Utah at Michigan
Utah is another trendy upset pick, and they are also a popular pick for a BCS bid. The Utes are led by a senior QB, RB, WRs, and a fairly experienced O-line. Michigan is going through a transition with a new coach and new system, and they lost a number of leaders to graduation and the draft. Don’t forget what happened to Michigan last season in the opener.
Michigan's departed senior class - Jake Long, Mike Hart, Chad Henne and Mario Manningham just to scratch the surface - would have made this a rebuilding year in any event. Add in new coach Rich Rodriguez installing a radical (by UM standards) offense that presently has mostly ill-fitting parts and we're looking at a seven-win season, tops.
Don't misunderstand. Rodriguez is a good coach and his system, while not exactly a mystery to the Big Ten, will further revolutionize the league. The Wolverines will win and win big. But Pat White is still in Morgantown and Terrelle Pryor ended up in Columbus, so it isn't going to happen in 2008.
Would Utah beating Michigan be an upset? Maybe not. The Utes would like to think they have a shot at crashing the BCS party this season.
Rodriguez acknowledges his new offense is a "mystery," and Wolverines fans don't even know the identity of the starting quarterback or tailback.
Add the fact the opponent runs a spread offense (like, say, that of Appalachian State) and the Utes won eight of their final nine games in 2007—and it should be a close game.
Michigan is favored by 31/2 points, although Sports Illustrated ranks Utah 25th and Michigan 54th to start the season.
If Martin could have predicted all this, you wonder if he wishes he had broken bread with the coach at Utah State, which SI ranks 119th.
Utah over Michigan
We’re going along with the pack here. The Wolverines are 3-point favorites, but we all know what happened in this spot last year. Utah in 2008 is better than Appalachian State in 2007, and this Michigan team is going through a transition phase under new coach Rich Rodriguez. The problem with backing the Utes strongly is they haven’t been good in openers against major BCS schools under coach Kyle Whittingham, beating Arizona in 2005 and getting thumped at UCLA and Oregon State the last two seasons. Other upset special possibilities: East Carolina over Virginia Tech in Charlotte and Florida Atlantic keeping it close at Texas.
Forty miles north of BYU's home in Provo, the Utah campus in Salt lake City is also enjoying the fruits of a long climb from irrelevance. Unlike BYU, the Utes didn't have a tradition of success to entice recruits. When Chris Hill, Utah's athletic director, arrived in 1987, the Utes hadn't been to a bowl game since 1964, hadn't won a conference title outright since 1957 and had an outdated stadium that sat just 32,500.
The school's football program got a boost from the 2002 Winter Olympics. The stadium underwent a $52 million expansion and renovation starting in 1997. As football games began to generate more revenue, Utah saw the makings of a strategy -- using the revenue and donations it might have allotted to paying a coach to building a football infrastructure. The school opened a new indoor practice facility in 2004 that cost $6 million and was financed by private donations. The new building became a recruiting drawing card and improved practices by allowing the entire team to spread out over two indoor fields. "For us, the formula has been our facilities," Mr. Hill says.
By the time the buildings were going up, Mr. Hill had already shown a knack for hiring up-and-coming coaches. One of his first hires in 1989 was basketball coach Rick Majerus, who would lead the team to the 1998 NCAA title game. In 2002, he made one of the best hires of the decade -- Bowling Green football coach Urban Meyer. Though Mr. Meyer's salary was only $500,000 in 2004, his last season before taking a lucrative deal at Florida, his Utes went undefeated and finished the season with a No. 4 ranking.
To win over its current coach, Mr. Whittingham, Utah offered him about $680,000 -- nearly $200,000 more than it had been paying Mr. Meyer. But because Mr. Whittingham was a defensive coordinator who'd never been a head coach, his compensation is still well below the national average. While he got off to a rough start with two five-loss seasons, Mr. Whittingham's 2007 team finished 9-4 and won its bowl game. "We want people who want to make their mark here," Mr. Hill says, "and then we'll try to keep them."
Rich Rodriguez makes his Big House debut as Michigan hosts Utah in what might prove to be another tricky opening-day test. The Utes, after all, are another spread team just like the Appalachian State squad that caused the Wolverines so much grief a year ago. But Michigan has seen that kind of attack in action in practice, and NT Terrance Taylor will be hard to move off the front line. Nevertheless, Utah has QB Brian Johnson, TB Matt Asiata and WR Brent Casteel back from injury-shortened campaigns eager to show what they can do, and TB Darrell Mack is also back to add power. The big question on Michigan is who will run the Rodriguez version of the spread? Expect both quarterbacks, Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet, to play, and Brandon Minor, the most experienced of four tailbacks, is also likely to share carries. Utah's best bet to disrupt things could be DE Paul Kruger.
Tomorrow we'll see who was right and who was wrong.