Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Michigan Wolverines: 5 Matchups to Watch
Big Ten football has returned, and we already get a big time matchup on Saturday featuring two teams looking to contend for a conference title. They just took different paths to get here. Michigan has been an underachiever in the Jim Harbaugh tenure, and they're hoping to turn things around and fix that narrative. Minnesota broke through last year, including a bowl game win over Auburn, and now hopes to take the next step in winning the West. Both teams feature a number of future NFL players and current stars, and today we take a look at specific matchups that will affect the outcome of the game. A rivalry game that Michigan has dominated as of late, and the Gophers are sick of losing.
Joe Milton vs. Tanner Morgan
Michigan needs a quarterback. Where have we heard that before? After the departure of Shea Patterson to the NFL and Dylan McCaffrey's decision to opt out and transfer, the Wolverines were left with Milton as their starter. Comparisons to Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes have been thrown his way, and we'll see if they are true. He'll have to prove himself not only because Minnesota won't feel sorry that he's new, but he'll have to live up to Michigan fans' expectations.
On the other side is one of the most underrated players in the country. Tanner Morgan played like one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, but didn't get treated like that. After throwing for over 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, Morgan still has to prove his worth to the country. He's a smart football player capable of making almost any throw, and can do it under pressure as well. He'll get back one of the best receivers in all of college football in Rashod Bateman, and that combination was lethal last year. Morgan shouldn't be challenged too much by Milton given the history of Michigan quarterbacks, but that doesn't mean he'll sit back and get comfortable. Morgan has something to prove this year as well.
Boye Mafe vs. Jalen Mayfield
When the Big Ten canceled its season originally, Mayfield decided to opt out and focus on the NFL Draft. When news of the season returning surfaced, he changed course and returned to the team. The NCAA granted him a waiver to return, and his first test is an underrated defender who's looking to make a name for himself. With Carter Coughlin taking most of the attention at defensive end, Mafe didn't see the field as much. Mafe shined at times in his limited reps, and many believe he can be a star for the Gophers. We will learn how good he can be going against a future NFL tackle, and his impact could go a long way in limiting the Michigan offense that needs to find four new starters on the line.
Daniel Faalele vs. Kwity Paye/Aidan Hutchinson
The heavyweight matchup of the weekend, and not just because of their size. Faalele caught everyone's attention even before he chose to play for Minnesota. The Australian who attended IMG Academy in Florida chose to head to the Midwest to play for the Gophers and PJ Fleck, and that decision along with his size made some noise. At 400 pounds, the former four star recruit found his way into the lineup quickly. Despite his size, Faalele's quite athletic and nimble, showing off his athleticism in the spring game last year. With no spring game this year, we weren't treated to the same excitement. With NFL teams watching him closely this year, he'll get a chance to send a message early.
Michigan's defense should once again be stout thanks to defensive coordinator Don Brown. His defenses continue to keep Michigan in contention in the Big Ten, and he'll have two of the best defensive ends in college football this season. Paye and Hutchinson are future NFL players, giving Faalele a tough test in Week 1. Paye has great speed around the edge, and has the potential to play himself into a Day 1 pick. Hutchinson was destined to be a Wolverine. His dad, Chris, was a two-time All-American for a Michigan program that won championships when he was there. Aidan's following in dad's footsteps, and is still developing as a defensive end, but his ceiling is high to the point where NFL teams can't help but notice him.
Ronnie Bell vs. Benjamin St. Juste
Despite the excitement surrounding Nico Collins (who remained opted out for next year's NFL Draft), Bell actually led the Wolverines in receiving last year. With Collins gone, he now becomes the leader of that group along with tight end Nick Eubanks. Bell's a smaller receiver who has an underdog mentality, which is a big reason why he had 758 yards last year. His ability to get open without having elite physical traits makes him dangerous against anyone, and he'll line up against a former Wolverine who has an underdog story of his own.
St. Juste's career was deemed to be over after a number of injuries, but a transfer from Michigan to Minnesota gave him a new chance to continue his career. Now he's looking to get drafted. At 6'3", 205 pounds, St. Juste has size that NFL teams covet, and he'll get a chance to show that he can be a shut down corner. It would have been nice to cover a big, physical receiver like Collins, but Bell presents a unique challenge himself. If Michigan wants to move the ball, they'll need to find a connection between Milton and Bell (or one of the pass catchers), and St. Juste or Coney Durr can negate those efforts.
Vincent Gray vs. Rashod Bateman
Minnesota receivers in the past have been solid, but Michigan's rarely seen talent like Rashod Bateman coming from the Gophers. Bateman's coming off a season where he averaged 20.3 yards per catch, but now he's the leader of the receivers with Tyler Johnson out of eligibility. His decision to opt in gives the Gophers an elite threat who will join Johnson in the NFL next year. Michigan won't have Ambry Thomas returning, but it appears that they're putting Gray on an island against Bateman. I don't know if that says more about the staff's belief in their cornerback or a lack of respect for the guy they're guarding. Either way, this should be a fun matchup to watch.