After back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances, Michigan is dreaming bigger. The Wolverines, though, will have to navigate the non-conference portion of their season without head coach Jim Harbaugh, starting Saturday at home against East Carolina.
Harbaugh was suspended for three games by the school on Aug. 21 for alleged violations committed during the COVID-19 dead period. The move is seen as a preemptive one intended to avoid a potentially larger penalty handed down by the NCAA as Michigan begins the season ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Harbaugh, who is allowed to coach the team during the week at practice, will also miss home games against UNLV and Bowling Green before returning to the sidelines for Michigan’s Big Ten opener versus Rutgers on Sept. 23.
He will not be the only member of the coaching staff unavailable for this contest, as offensive coordinator Sherron Moore is serving a one-game ban for a violation of undisclosed NCAA rules. Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter will be serving as head coach against the Pirates while quarterbacks coach Kirk Campbell will be calling plays on offense for the Wolverines.
The Wolverines went unbeaten during the 2022 regular season and pounded Purdue in the Big Ten title game before coming undone versus TCU in the CFP semifinals, as the two interceptions J.J. McCarthy threw were returned for touchdowns in a 51-45 defeat.
McCarthy a Heisman threat under center
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) August 28, 2023
Michigan, a +850 option to win the CFP at FanDuel and Caesars Sports, is counting on McCarthy to bounce back from that TCU loss, which capped a season in which he threw for 2,719 yards and 22 touchdowns. McCarthy, who can be grabbed at +1800 at DraftKings and FanDuel to win the Heisman Trophy, is hoping Cornelius Johnson will become his top receiving option after totaling 32 catches for 499 yards last season.
The Wolverines, however, will be a smash-mouth football team powered by their running game. Both Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards return after combining for 2,454 rushing yards and 25 touchowns last season. Corum, who is a +5000 Heisman play at FanDuel, had 1,463 yards and 18 TDs before his season was cut short due to a torn MCL. Edwards, a +10000 option at BetMGM, PointsBet, and FanDuel, averaged 7.1 yards per carry and finished nine yards shy of 1,000.
Michigan also has the potential to be an elite defensive team after ranking third in the nation in yards allowed per game (277.1) and fifth in points allowed per contest (13.4) last season. The Wolverines have to replace Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Mike Morris, but there is quality at each level of the defense with interior linemen Mason Graham and Kris Jenkins, linebacker Junior Colson, and cornerback Will Johnson.
Scouting East Carolina
Game 1 loading…. ⏳ pic.twitter.com/HMV0cDr5N0
— ECU Football (@ECUPiratesFB) August 30, 2023
Though East Carolina went 8-5 last season and defeated Coastal Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl, Mike Houston’s team will look much different — especially on offense. Gone are the Pirates’ four biggest playmakers from last season: quarterback Holton Ahlers, who threw for 3,708 yards and 28 touchdowns; running back Keaton Mitchell, who was 48 yards shy of 1,500; and 1,000-yard receivers Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson.
Mason Garcia, the highest-rated recruit in school history, is expected to start at quarterback, though Houston has not officially named a starter. Rahjai Harris will get his first crack at RB1 after rushing for 238 yards in five games prior to suffering a torn ACL in 2022. Jaylen Johnson, a transfer from Georgia, is likely the top receiving threat and looking to build on last season’s totals of 26 catches for 340 yards and 4 TDs.
Oddsmakers sense a big rout, but will bettors be brave?
Despite the absences of Harbaugh and Moore, oddsmakers are convinced Michigan will win big. The question is whether bettors have the stomach to ride a spread of more than five touchdowns. The preseason lines were more favorable for Michigan bettors, who could have grabbed the Wolverines at -33.5 points in late July.
That number is long gone, as the best available is currently Michigan -35.5 points at FanDuel at -115. Those willing to climb half a point higher can get the Wolverines -36 for -110 at Caesars and DraftKings. Those all in on a rout can grab the Wolverines -36.5 at -108 at PointsBet and -109 at BetRivers.
Most books have settled on 51.5 points as the total, with only PointsBet straying to 52. DraftKings and Caesars are the best option for the over at -110, while PointsBet has that value taking the under at 52.
One option perhaps worth playing is the first-half spread. While -176 is a steep price, FanDuel is offering Michigan -19.5, the lowest number by one full point compared to other books. The most popular offering for that market is Michigan -21.5, with PointsBet the top option at -108.
Though a spread of five-plus touchdowns is imposing, Michigan backers will recall that Harbaugh’s team won last season’s non-conference matchups versus Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn by a combined 166-17 score, rolling up 50 or more points in each contest while winning all three by 44 or more.
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