It was busy in Ann Arbor on Wednesday.
The morning began with an announcement from the Big Ten that the college football season would begin Oct. 24, with teams playing a nine-game schedule that includes a special cross-division matchup during championship week.
Then the shakeup really began.
News began trickling out that quarterback Dylan McCaffrey — who was competing for the starting job — planned to opt out of the season and transfer. Around that time, offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield’s father, Brian, reiterated to the Free Press that his son had no plans to backtrack on his decision to opt out and declare for the 2021 NFL draft. And hours later, Sports Illustrated reported that star receiver Nico Collins had signed with Drew Rosenhaus — news that, in all likelihood, means Collins will not be joining his teammates Oct. 24.
Take some time to catch your breath.
There’s a lot to process.
The main takeaway is this: College football is back. It’s going to look very, very different. And Michigan, one of the most visible programs in the country, looks like Example A for how the Big Ten’s long layoff and early postponement can impact a roster.
And that’s for a team that entered the spring ranked No. 125 in returning production, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. Which means, an uncertain team just became more uncertain.
Collins was the star receiver who returned to Ann Arbor for his senior season and seemed poised to have a big year in the offense. Mayfield, as a junior, was the most promising draft prospect on the team.Ambry Thomas was the team’s No. 1 cornerback, but now is headed to the NFL draft. And McCaffrey was the program’s most experienced and productive returning quarterback.
Michigan’s not the only Big Ten team dealing with departures. Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Penn State’s Micah Parsons and Purdue’s Rondale Moore — three of the best players in the conference — all opted out during the Big Ten’s delay. And just last week, Ohio State’s Shaun Wade joined them in declaring for the NFL draft.
But no other Big Ten program has had as many players declare for the draft and sign with agents as Michigan, with three players who fit that category in Mayfield, Thomas and now Collins, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer.
As it stands, Michigan will be one of the least experienced teams in the conference. And it will have significantly less star power than it had in February.
The Wolverines have to replace two of their top three receivers. They have to rebuild an offensive line that loses four NFL draft picks, in addition to Mayfield. They have to develop two new starting cornerbacks. And they have to find a new starter at the most important position of all: Quarterback.
Every team runs into depth chart issues at some point or another (Michigan underwent a similar rebuild under Jim Harbaugh in 2017). The big question, though, is what might constitute a rebuild during COVID-19. Already, the team has lost significant developmental time, with the cancellation of spring football (the Wolverines were one of the teams that didn’t get to have a single spring practice) and the pause in all athletic activities through mid-June.
Michigan will get just over a month to prepare for the nine-game season. But can that make up for the lost time? Or lessen the steep learning curve for younger players?
And will Michigan be able to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak?. Any athlete who tests positive for COVID-19 is out 21 days, according to the Big Ten’s new protocols. And practice and/or competition could be shut down if a COVID-19 outbreak sweeps through the program and the community at rates of 5% and 7.5%, respectively.
For a team that already lacks depth at key positions, it can’t afford any losses to COVID-19, which could amount to a player missing 37.5% of the season because of a positive diagnosis. Already, teams such as Oklahoma have struggled through COVID-19 outbreaks, with coach Lincoln Riley telling reporters that his team’s season opener against Missouri State had been in doubt; other teams such as TCU, SMU and Arkansas State have not been so lucky, with games canceled due to outbreaks.
Of course, these issues were not front of mind Wednesday.
Michigan players welcomed the return of college football with open arms, taking to social media to express their excitement.
Harbaugh perhaps summed it up mo succinctly: “Stay positive. Test negative. Let’s play football,” he said in a news release.
Those words surely resonated with Michigan fans who have anxiously waited for college football’s return. Now, they’ll just have to wait and see how much of the team they can recognize.
Contact Orion Sang at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.