Michigan's recent past has been well documented. A decade-plus of struggles, highlighted, or perhaps lowlighted would be a more appropriate term, by dismal records against its rivals and three coaching changes in eight years. Indeed, Michigan appeared to be doing little more than spinning its wheels until James Hackett replaced David Brandon as athletic director and in short order orchestrated the return of Ann Arbor's favorite son, Jim Harbaugh, to revive the football program. As a member one of Michigan's prior coaching staffs noted, Michigan got its man.
Not surprisingly, Harbaugh's hire was met with great fanfare and excitement. There was little question, among the Wolverine faithful and beyond, whether Michigan would improve under Harbaugh, but rather how much would the Wolverines improve and how long would it take for that improvement to show.
Harbaugh's opening act did nothing to dispel such optimism, as he led to Wolverines to ten wins in his inaugural season, exceeding all but the loftiest of expectations and setting the bar high for season two. As that season approaches, Michigan is near the top of most preseason polls and is even among the betting favorites to win the national championship. But do the Wolverines belong in this conversation? Or, in more straightforward terms, should you believe the hype?
Michigan enters the season with an extremely talented and experienced team, so talk of competing for a conference championship is not unwarranted. Yes, the Wolverines have to replace two of their most important players from last season, as both quarterback Jake Rudock and center Graham Glasgow have moved down the road to play for the Detroit Lions, but beyond that, there aren't a lot of question marks for this team.
Michigan returns virtually its entire offensive line and offensive skill position players, so whoever emerges as the starting quarterback will have the luxury of having an experienced offensive unit surrounding him. Michigan will start one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation, De'Veon Smith returns to spearhead the running game and the combination of Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt make up one of the top receiving corps in the nation.
Yet, despite all of this returning offensive firepower, Michigan's defense looks to be even stronger than its offense. Led by first-year defensive coordinator Don Brown, Michigan's defense begins with its defensive front. Headed by upperclassmen Ryan Glasgow, Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst and Taco Charlton, Michigan will likely rotate at least six players, including precocious incoming freshman Rashan Gary. Michigan's strength and depth up front should make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and running backs alike, while easing the transition of what will be an entirely new linebacking corps. The Wolverines look to be stout on the back end of the defense as well, led by All-American candidates Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers (when Peppers isn't lining up at linebacker, that is). With so much returning talent, the Wolverines could be special on defense this year.
What we've learned so far:
|Central Florida||Ann Arbor||09/10/16|
|Penn State||Ann Arbor||09/24/16|
|Michigan State||East Lansing||10/29/16|
Michigan is not only talented and experienced, but also motivated. Jake Butt said during the Big Ten media days that he came to Michigan to win - and win big - and neither he nor his teammates have done that yet. Jourdan Lewis echoed similar sentiments, adding that he wanted to win - almost felt a responsibility to win - for those who came in the classes before him that never got the chance to experience that kind of success. Each added that the opportunity to go out on a high note was a large part of why they spurned the NFL and returned to Ann Arbor for their senior seasons. Michigan's players know this is their year.
There's also the Harbaugh factor. And not his program-building or quarterback-whispering or attacking-the-day-with-enthusiasm-unknown-to-mankind impact, but a more tangible impact - his impact on the offense. More specifically, his impact on play-calling. With Harbaugh's near omnipresence in the sports pages over the past year or so, it's sometimes easy to forget that he is a brilliant offensive coach. Together with assistants Tim Drevno and Jedd Finch, Harbaugh is known for implementing a dizzying array of offensive plays and schemes to get the best out of his players, something that was apparent as early as last season's opener. So even with a new, untested battery, don't expect the Wolverines to struggle on the offensive side of the ball.
But as is the case with all teams, Michigan is not without its concerns. The Wolverines may return virtually their entire offensive line, but they will be plugging in a new starter in sophomore Grant Newsome. And beyond Newsome there is precious little depth. If Newsome struggles or Michigan suffers an injury or two up front, it could spell serious trouble for the Wolverines. In truth, offensive line depth is a more troubling concern for the Wolverines than quarterback, where Wilton Speight and John O'Korn continue their battle into fall practice (despite Speight's slight edge coming in to fall camp, most believe that O'Korn will be the one under center when the Wolverines open their season September 3 against Hawaii).
And finally, there is the schedule, which while not daunting in its entirety, is back-loaded, as Michigan travels to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State over the season's final six games. Can a team that hasn't won a big road game in ... I don't know how long, win at least two of those three games, something that's likely needed to secure a spot in the conference title game?
Michigan is as talented and experienced as anyone in the conference, and providing its offensive line stays healthy and performs to expectations, the Wolverines should be in the mix for the conference championship. But regardless of how Michigan starts the season, its fate will ultimately be decided by how it navigates its back-loaded, road-heavy schedule. Harbaugh may not be daunted by playing both of Michigan's biggest rivals on the road, saying that he'd hate to deprive his team of the opportunity to beat someone in their own back yard, but running that gauntlet will be a tall order, to say the least. One thing is certain, if the Wolverines do emerge from the Big Ten East to play for the conference championship, they will have earned it.
How the OTE Staff Sees It
|Mr. Alnamias IV||10-2||7-2|
|Go For Three||11-1||8-1|
The OTE staff is bullish - and consistent - with its views on Michigan, more or less mirroring the national pundits, placing Michigan just behind Ohio State and Michigan State as conference favorite. To secure a place in the Big Ten championship game, the Wolverines will likely have to win two of three in Iowa City, East Lansing and Columbus. A tall order to be sure, but not out of the question, it would seem, in the eyes of our esteemed staff.