ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Michigan football team is one of the nation’s top programs in preseason rankings, but college football will find out Michigan’s true colors — and not just the maize and blue of their uniforms — when the Wolverines open Saturday against Hawaii.
The Rainbow Warriors got an early start to the season with a 51-31 loss to California last week in Sydney, Australia, but, like the rest of the college football world, have nothing tangible to review on Michigan. On paper, the Wolverines look solid, but Saturday will reveal as much about Michigan as it does about Hawaii, a 41-point underdog.
When Michigan has the ball
When the Wolverines take their first snaps of the 2016 season, the rest of the world will finally know who their starting quarterback will be. Regardless of who’s under center — either Wilton Speight or John O’Korn — Michigan first has to set an offensive tone with the play of its running backs.
The ground game has been of some concern for Michigan in recent years, first with the scattered play of the offensive line, and then with the low production of its running backs last season. The offensive line opens holes for its running backs, and Michigan’s running backs need to find yardage.
Like its quarterbacks, though, Michigan needs someone to step in and take hold of the top running back job, whether it’s De’Veon Smith (180 carries for 753 yards rushing in 2015), Drake Johnson (54 for 271) or Ty Isaac (30 for 205).
Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt are Michigan’s top returning receivers, and they’ll make life easier for whichever quarterback starts. All are tall, rangy and have speed, and Butt can both block and catch. And they’ll look to capitalize against Hawaii, which gave up 441 yards passing to Cal.
When Hawaii has the ball
Anticipate a Michigan defensive line that won’t be weary and won’t get tired, as it will open the season with an eight-man rotation. All-America safety Jourdan Lewis leads a defensive backfield that looks to smother Hawaii’s receivers — seven Hawaii receivers totaled 234 yards last week.
The middle? Jabrill Peppers will play in a hybrid linebacker/pass-rusher role, but this is where Michigan must overcome inexperience. Michigan lost its top three linebackers — Joe Bolden, James Ross III and Desmond Morgan — who combined for 189 tackles last season, and need Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray to step in immediately and make an impact against Hawaii, led by Diocemy Saint Juste (118 yards on 14 carries, 1 touchdown).
Hawaii has to score points and score more points to keep this close. Last week against Cal, the Rainbow Warriors trailed by only three after the first quarter before the Golden Bears broke open the game with 17 points in the second quarter.
Hawaii opened the college football season with a flop: a failed onside kick that set up Cal’s first touchdown less than 90 seconds into the game.
Michigan emphasizes precision in its special teams, but will open with some uncertainty at punter following the departure of Blake O’Neill. Michigan could also use Peppers and Lewis on special teams; Lewis averaged 25.2 yards per kickoff return in 2015 and Peppers 27.9.
Jim Harbaugh is easily one of the highest-profile coaches in the nation, and surrounded by NFL-trained minds on his staff. As a result, Michigan’s program has the professional mentality that Saturdays are for work. Nick Rolovich is in his first season at Hawaii and has to settle a program that has had three head coaches since 2011 and finished 3-10 last season.
This isn’t just a must-win for Michigan. It’s a must-rout. Michigan needs an emphatic win to reiterate that it is a contender.
Prediction: Michigan 37, Hawaii 14
Rachel Lenzi covers Michigan sports for Landof10.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @RLenziAJC