So here we are, the bye week is over, bumps and bruises are healed, and the Utes head to Ann Arbor to play a game that most likely will determine the trajectory of their season.
Three weeks ago just about everyone picked Kyle Whittingham's Utes to get bowl eligible and build momentum for next season. As we sit here today, the expectations are vastly different. With the diminished play of USC and UCLA, coupled with the injuries to Brett Hundley and ASU's Taylor Kelly, the south division is not as daunting as it was once thought to be. If Utah can stay healthy and continue to build on the success' of their first two games, this season could be special. However, none of that is possible without a win at one of the most storied stadiums in college football.
Here are some key matchups to watch for on Saturday:
Utah's Run Game vs. Michigan's Front Seven
Michigan's D-line is athletic and powerful. While they don't pressure the quarterback a ton, they are technically sound. They do a great job at filling gaps and peeling off blocks. The linebacking core is disciplined and athletic. They are very good at scraping the line of scrimmage and stopping the run at the line. If Utah is going to have any success testing their young secondary, it will start with the run game. Look for Kyle Whittingham to try and establish the run game early. I would not be surprised to see running plays called on the first 4-5 series. If Devontae Booker and Bubba Poole gain traction on the ground early, it could be a very nice day for Utah offensively.
Anderson and Scott vs the Wolverine Secondary
The Wolverine defensive backfield may be without their starting safety and a starting corner for a second week in a row. This didn't hurt them much last week against Miami (OH); however, against athletic and capable receivers like Scott and Anderson, this could give Utah a huge advantage. Two weeks ago, Notre Dame found success throwing against the Wolverines. Look for Utah to test this secondary early and often.
Hackett and Phillips
Special teams is and will always be the great equalizer in college football. Brady Hoke's offense is slow and deliberate. In fact, Michigan is currently the second slowest FBS team in the nation between plays. If Hackett can pin the Wolverines deep in their own territory, it will give Kalani Sitake opportunities to orchestrate stops and give the Utah offense some short fields to work with.
Let's not forget Andy Phillips. In a close game, he's the guy the team will look to. Michigan's kicker has already missed some clutch field goals this year and may be lacking confidence. Utah most definitely has the edge here.
The Wolverine's have been giving the ball away through the first three weeks of the season. They currently have eight turnovers through three games. Utah, as we know, has had a hard time with getting take-a-ways. This could be the opportunity the Utah defense has been waiting for. Devin Gardner has thrown four interceptions thus far, accounting for half of Michigan's turnovers. If Nate Orchard and company can pressure Gardner, there is a very good chance that he will make a mistake. If that happens, Utah must be ready to capitalize and put points on the board.
What the Funchess?
Michigan's most dangerous weapon, Devin Funchess, will be a game-time decision. If he is anywhere near capable of playing, he will. Funchess is a 6-5, 230-pound matchup nightmare. Along with his size, he boasts decent speed and great hands. Brady Hoke will line him up all over the field. The worst spot for him to be on Saturday is in the slot where he can take advantage of slower, smaller linebackers and undersized nickel backs.
If Utah can establish enough of a run to keep the Wolverines hesitant, they will have a very good Saturday in Ann Arbor. This game will be won or lost at the line of scrimmage, and on the heels of the run game. Utah has an opportunity on national TV to make a statement, and it couldn't have come at a better time.