The Great Debate – Who Will Win, Utah or Michigan?

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Juan Jose Negrette – Harbaugh’s Coaching Experience Will Lead Michigan to Victory

9/7/13 Steven M Ross at FBL vs. Notre Dame.

9/7/13 Steven M Ross at FBL vs. Notre Dame.

Back in 2012, when coach Jim Harbaugh benched former Ute Alex Smith for the young Colin Kaepernick, everybody thought he was crazy. He then proceeded to take the San Francisco 49ers all the way to Super Bowl XLVII, facing off against the Baltimore Ravens, with Kaepernick at the helm.

The game was a close one, but Harbaugh’s team came out on the wrong end, losing to his brother John Harbaugh. Still, taking a team with an inexperienced quarterback to the Super Bowl really highlighted Harbaugh’s coaching prowess. It seemed, at the time, that Harbaugh and the 49ers were headed toward a long and healthy future with him as the head coach taking the team to multiple Super Bowls.

Yet here we are today, talking about Harbaugh as the head coach of Michigan, who will come to Salt Lake City on Thursday. A couple of years ago, this would have seemed crazy, but a downfall with the front office led to a quick split with the 49ers, and Harbaugh became the biggest free agent name in the NFL. Still, he chose to come back to the college ranks and coach his alma mater, and there, he will show he is one of the best coaches of his generation.

Michigan has always been seen as a top-tier football program, but the results haven’t backed that up lately. Harbaugh was brought in to not only show results but to completely overhaul the team’s mentality. Harbaugh is one of the reasons I believe Michigan will come out on top Thursday night in Rice-Eccles Stadium, as much as it pains me to say that.

Harbaugh comes in with a chip on his shoulder, wanting nothing more than to prove the 49ers’ front office wrong, as well as all the critics out there who say it was his defensive and offensive superstars in San Francisco that made him look like a top head coach. Never underestimate the power of having a chip on your shoulder, or something to prove. Harbaugh seems to get the best out of his players in those situations. He will have the team motivated, and he will force them to play their best football yet.

Harbaugh will really have to use his coaching magic on the Michigan roster, at least on the offensive side, where transfer Jake Rudock and junior Shane Morris are facing off in a quarterback battle. Still, I believe the winner of the battle will firmly understand that Harbaugh mostly wants them to take care of the football and run a controlled offense instead of try to do too much, as we saw in his quarterbacks in San Francisco. The two quarterbacks have been around football programs for a while and at this point they understand the game and what they have to do. They should be able to do just enough Thursday night to get the job done.

The current starter on the depth chart at running back is junior De’Veon Smith who had a productive 2014 campaign, running for 519 yards on 108 carries, scoring six touchdowns on the ground. That means that whoever the quarterback is will get some help, allowing Smith to run the ball and extend drives against Utah’s defense.

The other side of the ball is what truly convinced me that Michigan will leave Salt Lake City triumphantly. In last year’s loss to Utah, the defense controlled Utes star running back Devontae Booker, keeping him at just 34 yards on 11 carries, which other defenses would have only dreamed of doing. If the Wolverines can contain Booker and force Travis Wilson to throw in order to win, I like Michigan’s chances.

There are numerous signs pointing to a Michigan victory. Harbaugh wants the victory badly, and he knows how to get the best out of a roster, especially when expectations are high. The offense could control the tempo and extend drive via a stable running game and turnover-free quarterback play. And the defense knows what it has to do, and it has last year’s success against Booker to lean on and build on.

However, an important thing to note is that the game is being played in Salt Lake City and Michigan is the visiting team. The margin for error is so small, and Michigan must be at its best right from the start.

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Tyler Crum – Michigan Will Need More Than Hype to Beat the Utes

Photo credit: File photo of the Utah Chronicle

Photo credit: File photo of the Utah Chronicle

Many fans are aware of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the Utah-Michigan game, from thousand-dollar ticket prices to a khaki-covered bus that’s been touring the country to hype up Michigan’s new head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

Looking ahead, the anticipation of the match-up has spiraled out of control, and the atmosphere surrounding this would make any fan wonder if they bought tickets to a football game or a circus. However, when we toss all the hoopla aside and just look at football, there are several compelling reasons to believe the Utes will come out on top Thursday night.

Three years ago, when Utah and Michigan announced a home-and-home series would be played between the two teams, there was a good deal of buzz generated by the future match-up. The Utes were excited to use their relatively new status as a Power-5 program to secure a game against one of the country’s most storied programs, and Michigan was more than grateful to get the chance to assert their dominance over the struggling Utes. However, this is no longer the case.

Sack Lake City will prove to be too much for Michigan’s offense. Utah’s defensive line and linebacker corps are a veteran group that will be a challenge for a Wolverine O-line that has been struck with injuries in the past few seasons. The Wolverines will have to either try their luck with the ground game against one of the stiffest front sevens in college football, or rely on an untested quarterback to air it out. Look for Hunter Dimick, Jared Norris, Gionni Paul and Co. to get after Michigan early and often on passing downs and capitalize on Michigan’s lack of deep threats.

A supercharged Utah offense will bring the intensity. The Utes will be bringing in a high-powered offense bolstered by talented seniors Travis Wilson, Kenneth Scott, and Devontae Booker, who all have a lot to prove this season. Even if the Wolverines are able to defend the run game, as Harbaugh’s teams are known to do, the Utes have enough weapons to finish the job.

Utah also has an unrivaled home-field advantage. After eight months of dormancy, the magic that is game day will be back, and football-deprived Utah fans will be ready. The intimate stadium’s compact size, 6,000 fervent members of the MUSS, high-season ticket retention and the previously-mentioned exorbitant ticket prices are all conspiring against any Michigan fans who were hoping to cheer on their team in Salt Lake. An already-tough stadium to compete, Rice-Eccles, packed to the brim with crimson- and white-clad Ute fans eager to watch their team put an end to all the hype surrounding UM, will make it difficult for the Wolverines to christen their new season on the road.

While both teams lost key pieces from their 2014 squads, the Utes and Wolverines still feature a lot of veterans on both sides of the ball. The difference is that Utah’s players are more confident and battle-tested, coming off a 9-4 season where they played in arguably the best division in college football last year, the Pac-12 South.

While hiring Harbaugh bolstered the morale of the Maize and Blue faithful, their khaki-clad messiah and his stellar coaching staff won’t be the ones lining up against the Utes. These are more or less the same Wolverines that went 5-7 last season, with their only road win coming from a one-point squeaker against conference bottom-dweller Northwestern. They may have a great coach, but it doesn’t mean UM is suddenly loaded with talent. Utah has a depth advantage in basically every position group and will take advantage of this.

Ultimately, I predict Thursday’s game will look a lot like it did last year in Ann Arbor, with only two major differences. The Utes will perform better on offense in their home environment, and the weather will be merciful enough to allow a speedy conclusion to the day’s action.

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