NCAA Saturday Night Football: Michigan/Minnesota Preview

by Big Al Staff

The Saturday night game on ABC features the battle for the Little Brown Jug, which is the oldest trophy game in College Football.  The rivalry dates back to 1892, and Michigan leads the series 75-25-3.  This year's game could be one of the best in the series, as both teams are nationally ranked.

Michigan returns nine starters from the team that finished 9-4 last year. The Wolverines were 9-2 with losses at Wisconsin and Penn State when they hosted Ohio State to end their regular season. A 56-27 loss to the Buckeyes followed by a 35-16 loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl left their fans once again disappointed in the Jim Harbaugh era.

It has been a tumultuous offseason for Michigan when it comes to their offensive personnel. Dylan McCaffrey decided to transfer from the program last month, despite the redshirt junior (and brother of Carolina Panthers' star running back Christian) being the presumed quarterback for the Wolverines once Shea Patterson completed his collegiate career. Instead, McCaffrey will be taking his talents to another FBS program. Reports emerged that Joe Milton won the job in the offseason while working with wide receivers since April when things shut down because of COVID. The redshirt junior has drawn comparisons with his strong arm along with his 6’5, 245-lb frame to Cam Newton. The ceiling regarding his talent may be higher than McCaffrey’s high-end range. However, McCaffrey has been the primary backup for the last two seasons. A fallout with Harbaugh and second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis could explain McCaffrey’s exit. To further complicate matters, wide receiver Nico Collins then decided to opt-out this season by signing with an agent to prepare for the NFL draft. Is Collins' departure connected with McCaffrey's departure? Does Collins bypass his senior year if Milton had definitively won the starting quarterback job? Perhaps speculating as to why a future NFL draft pick decided to not play during this unusual season is foolhardy. Without a spring game, there is a wide range of possibilities regarding what Michigan will get from the quarterback position on Saturday with Milton making his first career collegiate start.

The Wolverines replace four starters on the offensive line, who were all drafted into the NFL in the spring. Milton will have the team’s leading wide receiver back from last year in Ronnie Bell. Michigan also returns Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins, who combined to rush for 1348 yards with 15 touchdowns last year. The Wolverines’ defense returns six starters from a group that was eleventh in the nation by allowing only 307.2 yards per game. This unit should once again be a strength under defensive coordinator Don Brown who rotates his players to ensure a depth of experience.

Minnesota has 13 starters back from the team that finished 11-2 last year after defeating Auburn in the Outback Bowl by a 31-24 score. The Golden Gophers started the season 9-0 after defeating Penn State at home under the lights by a 31-26 score in a battle of unbeaten teams. Minnesota’s bubble burst the next week in a loss at Iowa City to the Hawkeyes, before they lost to Wisconsin in their final regular-season game.

The Golden Gophers scored 34.1 points per game last year, and they could exceed that mark this season. Quarterback Tanner Morgan returns for his senior season after completing 66.0% of his passes for 3253 yards with 30 touchdowns. The third-year starter has a 15-4 record in his 19 career starts. He will have wide receiver Rashod Bateman back, who caught 60 passes for 1219 yards with 11 touchdowns last season. Mohamed Ibrahim has also returned after rushing for 604 yards in a three-player committee. Ibrahim can handle the lead-back role after rushing for over 1000 yards two seasons ago. Morgan also has all five starters back from his offensive line last year that was one of the biggest in the nation.

Minnesota has questions on defense after losing five of its top six tacklers from last season. Four starters are back from a group that was ranked tenth in the nation by allowing 304.6 yards per game. The Golden Gophers did benefit from a charmed-start to the season where they faced two first-year starting quarterbacks before playing six straight teams that were relying on backup QBs. The Nittany Lions exposed their defense by accumulating 518 yards against them. The Badgers later gained 453 yards against this unit. Minnesota did close their season by holding Auburn to just 232 yards while outgaining them by 262 yards. Head coach P.J. Fleck has this program moving in the right direction in his fourth year with the program.

The Golden Gophers host this game at their TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota had the fourth largest increase in home attendance last season, so it is a shame that fans are prohibited given COVID precautions. Michigan begins their season ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll, with Minnesota ranked three slots below them. ESPN College GameDay will make their headquarters inside the empty stadium on Saturday. BookMaker lists the Wolverines as a 3.5-point favorite with the total set at 52.5. The ABC broadcast for the game starts at 7:30 PM ET.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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