When the Michigan football team opens its season on Saturday night, it will do so against a program that has grown accustomed to the big stage for all the wrong reasons.
Middle Tennessee State will make the trip to Ann Arbor to play its 12th Power Five opponent over the last half-decade, with just two wins against such programs in that span. The Blue Raiders may know what it’s like to play in the spotlight as heavy underdogs, but that doesn’t mean it’s done them any favors. The team’s fifth-year seniors took a 37-10 loss against Alabama in 2015 before a 49-7 drubbing against Georgia last year. Both games were on the road, so the Wolverines will look to add another blowout to the class’ resume away from home.
Nonetheless, Middle Tennessee State has appeared in five bowl games over the last six years. Under the tutelage of six-time Conference USA Coach of the Year Rick Stockstill, who played quarterback for Florida State in the early 1980s, the Blue Raiders haven’t posted a losing season since 2011.
So, what does Michigan have to do to batter Middle Tennessee State?
Take care of the football
The Blue Raiders were 7-0 last year in the regular season when they forced two or more turnovers. It’s a matchup of ball security versus ball hawking, as the Wolverines posted the fewest turnovers in the Big Ten in 2018. To dispatch Middle Tennessee State without any trouble, it’ll be important for last year’s emphasis on avoiding turnovers to spill into week one.
If there’s one place where that ball security will be put to the test, it’ll be on Michigan’s run-pass option. The RPO appears to be a pillar of first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense, and the burden of good decision making falls on senior quarterback Shea Patterson. The Blue Raiders don’t have an overwhelming defensive line, but they love including their strong linebacking corps in blitz packages to force turnovers.
If Patterson can take care of the football, the Wolverines will stay out of hot water. If Middle Tennessee State forces a few early turnovers and takes a quick lead, a perceived blowout-to-be takes on an entirely new complexion.
Keep the ball out of Ty Lee’s hands
If there’s one Blue Raider on Don Brown’s radar ahead of this matchup, it’s senior slot receiver Ty Lee. Despite being just 5-foot-9, Lee is the NCAA’s active leader in career receptions. As a junior, he led Middle Tennessee State in receptions (71), receiving yards (883) and touchdowns (7). His yardage total was over 300 yards higher than the team’s next best receiver, and Stockstill will attempt to put the ball in his hands early and often after replacing three starting offensive linemen from a unit that ranked outside the top-100 in sack rate last season.
Schematically, the Wolverines have two realistic options when it comes to locking down Lee. Brown can either glue senior defensive back Lavert Hill to him for the entire game, which could leave the second cornerback position vulnerable — especially with Ambry Thomas still sidelined with colitis — or rotate a safety down to cover Lee. Michigan loves man-to-man defense, so expect Josh Metellus or Brad Hawkins to step up and cover Lee in the latter scenario.
If Hawkins is sidelined with his minor injury, freshman phenom Daxton Hill could find himself lining up across from Lee. You can’t ask for a much better debut matchup for a freshman safety who excels in press coverage.
The Wolverines will use the primetime matchup to start the Gattis era with a bang, silencing any remaining critics of the offense. Even if the game is over by halftime, Michigan will keep its foot on the pedal with Dylan McCaffrey in the second half and the defense won’t give an inch.
Final score: Michigan: 42, Middle Tennessee State: 14