Jim Harbaugh has returned to college football as the new head coach at Michigan, but he has a tough opening game at a difficult venue visiting Utah on Thursday of Week 1.
A familiar face coaching at a new place has a tough assignment on the opening night of the college football season on Thursday, September 3rd, when the Michigan Wolverines and their new head coach Jim Harbaugh venture into Pac-12 country to visit the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, UT at 8:30 ET in a game televised nationally on FOX Sports 1.
The point spread at Pinnacle Sports has Utah as a moderate home favorite for this contest with the current line at -5½ with odds of -109.
Looking to Turn Things Around at Ann Arbor
Michigan comes off of a dismal 5-7 season, and that will simply not do in Ann Arbor so the Wolverines fired former head coach Brady Hoke and hired Harbaugh away from the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL. The sportsbooks are apparently impressed with this move as they have set the Michigan win total at 8½ for this season, but we are not quite so bullish, especially given this tough opening game and unsettles quarterback situation.
Utah on the other hand is a legitimate program on the rise after going 8-4 during the regular season while going undefeated outside of the Pac-12 Conference last year before being the emphatic winning college football pick by a 45-10 score over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl to finish at 9-4. And the Utes’ 5-4 record in Pac-12 play was their first winning conference mark since taking the leap to a Power 5 conference from the Mountain West Conference in 2011.
Utah Returns 16 starters
Now, Utah should be ready for even more improvement with eight returning starters on each side of the ball including an All-Conference running back in senior Devontae Booker. And remember that a younger Utes’ team than this one went into Ann Arbor last season and beat Michigan convincingly 26-10 in a game that set the tones for the respective seasons that each of these teams was about to have.
And the Utes won that game handily despite Booker rushing for only 34 yards, as quarterback Travis Wilson, who is also among the returnees, was very efficient completing 14-of-20 passes for 172 yards (8.6 yards per attempt) and the Utah defense did its job. That defense has always been tough under Coach Kyle Whittingham, and now the offense could be even better with an experience offensive line that returns four of the five starters from last year.
Who Starts Under Center?
Now, Harbaugh does have a proven track record of improving teams at every stop he has made as a head coach, both in college (San Diego, Stanford) and in the NFL (49ers). But that improvement has not always come in his first year and the Wolverines still do not know who their starting quarterback is a little more than one week before this opener, and frankly the options under center do not strike fear in opposing defenses.
Shane Morris saw action vs. Utah in Ann Arbor last year and was underwhelming completing 4-of-13 passes for 42 yards. The former blue-chop prospect completed a woeful 14-of-40, 35.0 percent of his passes last year for a mere 128 yards (3.2 yards per attempt!) with three interceptions, and he is still seeking his first collegiate touchdown pass.
The competition at quarterbacks comes from Iowa transfer Jake Rudock, who had a mediocre ratio of 34 touchdown passes vs. 18 interceptions in his two seasons with the Hawkeyes. Neither of those options seems enticing and Harbaugh may have a tough time just hanging within a touchdown – never mind winning – in his first game at the Michigan helm without at least some decent production at the most important position of all in a hostile environment.
Intimidating Non-Conference Foes at Home
In fact, Utah is a downright intimidating venue for non-conference opponents as the Utes are currently riding a 15-game non-conference home winning steak while winning those games by an average of +22.4 points and going 9-4, 69.2 percent ATS!
Thus, there are few more difficult stadiums in which Harbaugh could have made his Michigan coaching debut, so we recommend laying the moderate points at home with Utah on opening night, Thursday, September 3rd.
College Football Pick: Utah -5½ (-109)