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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

College football preview: Michigan State, Michigan back with full schedules and fans in the stands

Spartan Stadium
Ed Schipul

College football is back.

Michigan State opens on the road against Northwestern Friday at 9 p.m. Michigan will face Western Michigan in Ann Arbor Saturday at noon.

Last season started late and was shortened because of the COVID-19. This year, there's a full schedule and any Big Ten teams that have to miss a game because of a COVID outbreak will automatically forfeit.

Spartans head coach Mel Tucker has said about 95% of his team is vaccinated. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh says the Wolverines are at 99%.

There are no capacity limits for fans at the Big House or Spartan Stadium. Masks are required in indoor areas, but are only recommended when fans are in their seats.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to preview the season and discuss the ways the COVID delta variant could affect it.

Doug Tribou: Let's start with Michigan State. This is head coach Mel Tucker's second season in East Lansing. Last fall, you told me that Tucker should - and would - get a pass for his first year for all the reasons:  COVID, inheriting a roster mostly recruited by his predecessor, Mark Dantonio, and so on. The Spartans went 2-5 last season. How much higher are the expectations now?

John U. Bacon: Well, not that much higher because he still basically gets a pass this year. Dantonio set the record for wins at Michigan State and beat Michigan eight out of 10 times. Nobody in Spartan history has done that. But the last four years [of Dantonio's tenure] at Michigan State, they were 27 and 24 overall and 17-19, a losing record, in the Big Ten.

So, you're already taking over a program that needed to be rebuilt and yet they got two wins [in 2020] that they had, frankly, no business winning. They gave Northwestern their only loss in seven games. And Michigan on paper has got twice as much talent, but Michigan State outcoached, outworked, and outplayed them. Those are two significant wins.

DT: The Wolverines had just about the same results last season, finishing 2-4. Coach Jim Harbaugh's contract has been extended and reworked to lower his base salary and provide incentives for some of the things he hasn't done yet, like winning a Big Ten title. What has Harbaugh changed about his team to try to do those things this season?

JUB: The biggest changes are not on the field, but on the sidelines. He replaced six of his 10 assistant coaches. This almost never happens. That is the biggest change right there, off the field.

DT: It wouldn't be fall in Ann Arbor without a quarterback competition. The Wolverines have a highly touted true freshman on the roster in J.J. McCarthy, but Jim Harbaugh has announced that redshirt sophomore Kade McNamara will be the starter. What can fans expect to see from McNamara?

JUB: I've got to tell you I was a little surprised by this. McNamara is considered good to very good, but not lights-out. And J.J. McCarthy [is a] big-time recruit. You've also got Alan Bowman, a transfer from Texas Tech coming in, who had a good season last year. So, McNamara, why would they pick him? Because he is very solid, very consistent. He makes very good reads of the defense, and on the fun side, he can make throws from very weird angles, sidearm throws around guys, and so on. Fans like that, probably more than the coaches do. But I think you'll find a solid B+, A- quarterback at Michigan.

DT: John, normally we end these previews with absurdly early predictions about the end of the season. But the toughest prediction this season will be how the COVID-19 Delta variant affects things. There are no restrictions on crowd sizes in Ann Arbor or East Lansing. How do you expect COVID to factor in this season?

JUB: You had to ask me this one, didn't you, Doug? 

DT: [laughs] I can't let you off easy here. 

JUB: In some ways, it is more of a wild card than last year because the other variable is, is what teams are doing. Oregon and Oregon State have both required vaccination cards to get into their stadiums this year. But here's the shocker, Doug. LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is requiring vaccination cards. We'll see if those help in those cases. But this year, you expect to play a full season and expect our fans there. So in some ways, the stakes are higher.

The Big Ten rule this year is if your team misses a game because of COVID cases, you not only cancel the game, but that counts as a loss for your team. You forfeit the game. So, on the one hand, OK, this breeds accountability. The flip side is this: this gives more incentive, sadly, for teams to lie about their COVID levels. Who has really got it? Who tested positive? The question is, will they be honorable and taking a defeat when the stakes are much higher than just canceling the game?

And all I can say about that is stay tuned.

Lauren Talley contributed to this story.

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation near the top of this page. 

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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