We've talked a lot about the Wolverines already and we still have the preview coming tomorrow but we'd be remiss if we didn't bring you some takes on this game from a Michigan point of view. We've already seen that they have some passionate fans...
1. Michigan has faced a similar schedule to CU thus far, with similar results (blowouts). Has Michigan been performing at or near expectations thus far, and if not, what has been underwhelming (or overwhelming)?
Michigan has performed as anticipated through the first two weeks. Neither Hawaii nor UCF was expected to present Michigan with much of a challenge. Last season, the Warriors were 3-10, and the Knights were one of two winless FBS programs. Given that Michigan was a preseason top-10 team with national title hopes, it would have been concerning if Michigan struggled to dispatch either opponent. There has been no need for concern, though, because, in the first 20 minutes, Michigan built a 28-0 lead against Hawaii and a 31-0 lead against UCF en route to blowout wins. Michigan has sampled on only cupcakes thus far but have looked like contenders in doing so.
That does not mean everything has gone according to plan, though. There have been certain unexpected positives and negatives that have surfaced already. One glowing positive has been the play of first-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight. He has completed 35-of-50 passes (70.0%) for 457 yards (9.1 YPA), seven touchdowns, and one interception. Plus, his lone pick came on his first pass of the season as he was shaking out the jitters, so he has been fantastic since then. It's more than just the stats, too. Speight wasn't asked to do much against Hawaii, but, when UCF loaded the box and dared Speight to beat them over the top, he did just that. UCF sent waves of blitzes at him, but he stood tall and firm in the pocket and delivered strikes into the hands of Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt. Speight has exhibited excellent accuracy on throws that travel fewer than 20 yards, and, though his arm strength and precision waver some as his passes get longer, he can still drop them in the right spots. If Speight continues to perform like this as the competition gets tougher, Michigan has an answer for one of its big preseason question marks.
Conversely, some small red flags have been raised. One has been Michigan's injury situation. All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis missed the first two games with a back injury that parlayed into a hamstring strain. His status is unknown for Saturday. Two defensive line starters, Taco Charlton and Bryan Mone, suffered leg injuries in the opener and were absent for last week's game. Charlton could return against Colorado, but the current expectation is that neither will participate. Left guard Ben Braden made his season debut last week after enduring an injury, but he still looked somewhat immobile and was interchanged with true freshman Ben Bredeson. These appear to be minor setbacks more than major injuries, but injuries took their toll on Michigan, particularly along the defensive line, at the end of last season. If the Wolverines want to be in the hunt for a championship, they can't afford to test their depth too much and need to remain relatively healthy.
Another one has been Michigan's trouble with contain on defense. UCF's uptempo spread-to-run offense had success with chunk plays against the Wolverines, tallying 212 rushing yards on five snaps. Two were touchdown runs -- 87- and 34-yarders -- that resulted from free safety Dymonte Thomas taking a poor pursuit angle in run support and MIKE Ben Gedeon vacating the center of the field and allowing the UCF back to burst through the middle gap. The other three were scrambles that resulted from Michigan being too aggressive in rushing the quarterback and losing lane integrity. Michigan must limit the number of busts it has if it wants to be an elite defense.
2. After watching the UCF game, the defensive front seven of the Wolverines absolutely terrifies me. How can Colorado move the ball against this defense?
Colorado's offense contains certain elements that have given Michigan fits in past seasons and even last weekend. The best chance of moving the ball against Michigan is to go uptempo with a dual-threat quarterback. Give Michigan an opportunity to rest and get set before the snap, and you're toast. However, when the opponent quickens the pace, Michigan may be misaligned prior to the snap, which leaves them more exposed to surrendering yards. And opponents have a better chance of doing this on the ground than in the air. Even though Jourdan Lewis has been out, Michigan still has a senior-laden secondary with two very good corners in Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, and the Wolverines are sixth in quarterback rating allowed. Doing it on the ground isn't a guaranteed success either. Led by Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, Michigan's defensive line is a force against the run on a down-to-down basis. Offenses will not be able to run the ball methodically down Michigan's throat. They will need to do it in huge spurts, much like UCF did.
The Buffaloes check off many boxes. They are one of the fastest offenses, ranking third in adjusted pace and sixth in plays per game. They have a dual-threat quarterback in Sefo Liufau that can keep Michigan's defense honest with his feet or make them pay otherwise. However, what Colorado does not appear to have is a ball carrier that can rip off a big one. The Buffs are 124th in Rushing IsoPPP, and their longest run of the season against inferior competition is 21 yards. Instead, Colorado's success on the ground thus far has been of the short and steady nature (first in Rushing Success Rate). Unless the Buffaloes are hiding someone that can edge this Michigan defense and make big plays, I think they will run into the wall that is Michigan's defensive front.
3. Michigan seemed to struggle running the ball against UCF, but that may have been because they loaded the box rather than Michigan's ineptitude. Are you worried about the Wolverines' struggles on the ground?
When sacks and a bobbled punt snap are removed, Michigan gained 142 rushing yards on 38 carries for 3.74 YPC against UCF. So, yes, on the surface, it seems like Michigan struggled to run the ball. However, when I re-watched the film, I noticed that UCF repeatedly put eight, nine, or even 10 defenders in the box, and kept both safeties within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Thus, in many instances, even when Michigan blocked its run as designed, the Knights still had a defender unaccounted for that closed the hole and held the run to minimal yards. This isn't to say that Michigan executed every run perfectly. There were certain miscues as the Wolverines' tight ends and receivers missed blocks and the running backs failed to see open cutback lanes. The left guard spot also is turning into a concern if Ben Braden doesn't return to full strength quickly. Nonetheless, though I had my questions about the offensive line in the preseason and still want to see how the unit handles stingier run defenses, this was more about UCF's defensive approach. If Michigan begins to struggle to run the football when the box isn't loaded, then there is a problem.
4. Who is the player to watch on offense? Defense?
It's difficult to narrow it down to one player on each side of the ball because Michigan is in a fortunate situation where it is stocked with NFL-ready talent. However, if I must, the aptly-named tight end, Jake Butt, is the player to watch on offense. Butt arguably is the best receiving tight end in the country. Last season, he caught 51 passes for 654 yards and three touchdowns and should have been named a Mackey Award finalist. This season, he has hauled in eight throws for 105 yards and already matched 2015's touchdown total (3). Listed at 6-foot-6, Butt has the prototypical size at tight end, but what makes him special is his route running and ability to high point the football. He runs precise routes and executes slick double moves that permit him to separate from his defender whether it be a linebacker or safety. Then, once the ball is thrown in his direction, quarterbacks have learned to fire it high into what Michigan fans have dubbed "The Butt Zone" because Butt will climb the ladder and grab it. His hands also are usually excellent, though he left many perplexed when he dropped two passes against UCF. I'm picking Butt as a player to watch rather than Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh because he won't have to deal with Colorado corner Chidobe Awuzie. Instead, Butt will be Wilton Speight's security blanket and should find the open windows in the middle of the Buffaloes' defense. I think Butt is in for a big game on Saturday.
Defensively, the Wolverine to watch is SAM/nickel Jabrill Peppers. Peppers is a former five-star recruit that exudes world-class athleticism. He shows this off at multiple positions in all three facets of the game -- though it would be a surprise if he played offense this weekend -- but he is at his absolute best when he is a hybrid-space player (a.k.a. SAM/nickel). This is a position that has become extremely important as spread concepts have revolutionized college football offenses. This is the position that needs to be able to defend the slot, contain the edge, provide run support, and cover large areas in a flash. And there are few, if any, who play this position better than Peppers. Not only is he fast, quick, and agile, making him nearly impossible to block in space, he is aggressive and delivers mean hits. It's why he has earned a reputation as a screen destroyer, which may be important on Saturday given how large of a component of Colorado's playbook those are. However, Peppers can be beat in coverage, particularly when he is defending the slot because he has a tougher time jamming receivers that can release right or left. I'm picking Peppers as the player to watch because his versatility and playmaking ability will be essential against Colorado's spread offense. If the Buffs can find ways to neutralize him, they will find ways to move the ball.
5. How do you think the game will play out?
I have somewhat already hinted at what I think will happen on Saturday. Colorado's tempo will give Michigan fits, catching the Wolverines misaligned from time to time and leading to a couple of scoring drives. However, the Buffaloes will not be able to move the ball methodically down the field because Jabrill Peppers will shut down the screens and edge and there will not be much running room in the interior. On the other side, Michigan will feed DeVeon Smith and Chris Evans on the ground, not having as much respect for Colorado's run defense as its secondary. Then, once or if the Buffaloes begin to suck in closer to the line of scrimmage, Jim Harbaugh will begin to dial up the play-action passes that see Jake Butt sprinting open across the middle. Ultimately, Colorado appears to be a resurgent program that will provide an intriguing challenge for Michigan -- definitely its biggest one of this young season -- but the Wolverines will be too much for them in the end.
Michigan 38, Colorado 14
6. For a Colorado fan like myself that is heading to the Big House, what can we expect the welcoming to be like? Any suggestions for food and drink?
The welcoming will be just like any other welcoming of fans of a program that executed a historic Hail Mary in their home stadium, so you should have nothing to worry about (ha). In all seriousness, Michigan fans are a respectful lot, though that may not be as much of the case if you walk by where the students are tailgating near State and Packard. They likely will have had a few more beverages than the average Michigan fan. As long as you are not obnoxious, you'll be fine.
I reside in Los Angeles and haven't been back to Ann Arbor since 2012, so I'm not entirely sure what has changed in the past four years. Nonetheless, when people ask me for Ann Arbor restaurant and bar recommendations, I always direct them to this guide constructed by MGoBlog's Brian Cook. It wonderfully breaks down your options based on the type of meal you want or the bar you want to frequent. However, I do think Brian is too harsh on the restaurants on Main Street, such as Chop House. They are pricey, but I do not find them as overrated as he does. And Brian omits my favorite "spot" in Ann Arbor: Mr. Spots. It is located on State and Hill and known for its Philly cheesesteaks, but their hot wings are the best I have ever had. Oh, and if you want to try the ever-popular Zingerman's, call in your order ahead of time and pick it up. Otherwise, have fun standing in a line around the corner for up to an hour. Or just go to Maize & Blue Deli. It's better.
To those of you making the trip to Ann Arbor, have a wonderful time!