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B1G 2017: Michigan Cocktail Party Season Preview

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Talented but untested, how quickly the young Wolverines acclimate themselves to their new roles will ultimately determine Michigan's success in a competitive Big Ten East.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

About Last Season

Michigan entered the 2016 season loaded and primed for a special season. Blessed with an abundance of talent, depth and experience, the Wolverines dressed 41 seniors and had a school record 11 players selected in April's NFL draft. Guided by first-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight, Michigan was an offensive juggernaut for much of the season, rolling to an 8-0 record while outscoring its opponents by more than five touchdowns a game. But as good as the Wolverines looked on offense, they were even more impressive on defense. Led by a harassing, two-deep defensive line, Michigan's defense finished the season ranked among the nation's best. It was little surprise, then, that the Wolverines spent much of the season near the top of the polls and prominently included in any playoff conversation. Yet, despite the abundance of talent and hot start, Michigan staggered to the finish line, losing three of its last four games, highlighted (lowlighted?) by dropping an overtime heartbreaker-for-the-ages to Ohio State at the 'Shoe. Michigan finished with ten wins for the second consecutive season, and its three losses were by a combined five points in games that weren't decided until the final play, so it's hard to call the season unsuccessful. But for a season that started with such promise, it was certainly disappointing.

2017: The Offense

As would be expected with a team that loses 17 starters, there will be new faces all over the field for Michigan this fall. On the offensive side of the ball, Michigan loses the majority of its offensive line, its entire starting receiving corps and workhorse tailback De'Veon Smith. Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson return to anchor the offensive line, but beyond that there is precious little experience and even less depth. If there is one place the Wolverines can ill-afford an injury, it's up front. With multi-year starters Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson all moving on to the NFL, Michigan faces an even bigger rebuilding project at receiver. Ian Bunting leads a deep group at tight end, but there is not a lot of clarity yet, as far as who will replace Darboh and Chesson on the outside. Sophomore Kekoa Crawford, known mostly for his blocking during his freshman season, looks to be leading the pack, but look for true freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black to also see significant playing time. Slot receiver Eddie McDoom also returns, with the hopes that he'll be involved in more than simply jet sweeps this season. At running back, with the departure of the hard-running Smith, Chris Evans (he of the 7.0 YPC as a freshman last year), a game-breaking threat the likes of which Michigan hasn't seen at tailback in awhile, promises to see an expanded, if not featured, role. The elusive Evans could be one of the team's, if not one of the conference's, breakout offensive players this season, but look for Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and even Kareem Walker to also get touches. Fullback Khalid Hill, who quick-hit his way to ten rushing touchdowns last season, also returns, filling out a deep backfield. One position at which the Wolverines are not breaking in a new starter is at quarterback, where Speight returns to guide the Wolverines. In his first season as starter, Speight connected on 62% of his passes for over 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns before a late-season injury derailed his - and Michigan's - season. If there is a key to Michigan's season, it might very well be Speight, who last year had the luxury of being able to rely on a veteran receiving corps. With a group of such young, inexperienced receivers at his disposal this year, Speight will shoulder more responsibility this season. So, in many ways, as Speight goes, so will go the Wolverines, particularly in late season games against Penn State and Ohio State when Michigan will need a playmaker more than a game manager.

2017: The Defense

As was the case last season, Michigan will be led by its defense. Losing 10 of 11 starters, don't expect a repeat performance of last season, when the Wolverines had a defense that Urban Meyer said was one of the best he'd ever gone against, but the drop off won't be as dramatic as one might think, given the turnover. As was the case last season, Michigan's strength will be up front, with a front four led by Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary. Ultra-productive in limited playing time last year, Hurst turned down the NFL for a leading role with the Wolverines. But if there is one player to watch for Michigan on defense, it's the freakishly talented Gary, a true sophomore primed to have a breakout season. Citing his blend of blend of power, speed and athleticism, Defensive coordinator Don Brown called Gary the best he's ever seen. Senior Mike McCray returns to lead a young linebacking corps, where he'll be joined by hard-hitting Devin Bush, who will be counted on to play a major role in his sophomore season. If there is a concern for the Wolverines defensively, it's on the back end, where Michigan has to completely rebuild what was arguably its best defensive backfield in two decades. With four new starters and not a lot of game experience, the secondary rivals the offensive line as Michigan's most critical area heading into the 2017 season.

2017: The Special Teams

Continuing the trend of roster turnover, Michigan loses its kicker, punter and primary returners from last season in the persons of Kenny Allen, Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis. Quin Nordin and Brad Robbins look to have the upper hand in the kicking and punting battles respectively, and the Wolverines are looking at a number of options in the return game, but whichever direction they go, the losses of Allen, Peppers and Lewis will certainly be felt.

2017: The Schedule

A schedule that saw the Wolverines travel to both Columbus and East Lansing last season flips as the Wolverines get the Buckeyes and Spartans at home, but travel to Penn State and Wisconsin. But before any of that, Michigan kicks off the college football season against Florida in the Kickoff Classic in Dallas Labor Day weekend. With such a young team and so many challenging games, it will be a tall order to repeat last season's ten-win performance.

Michigan 2017 Schedule

Date Opponent Location
Date Opponent Location
Sat, Sep 2 Florida Dallas
Sat, Sep 9 Cincinnati Ann Arbor
Sat, Sep 16 Air Force Ann Arbor
Sat, Sep 23 Purdue West Lafayette
Sat, Sep 30 Off Off
Sat, Oct 7 Michigan State Ann Arbor
Sat, Oct 14 Indiana Bloomington
Sat, Oct 21 Penn State State College
Sat, Oct 28 Rutgers Ann Arbor
Sat, Nov 4 Minnesota Ann Arbor
Sat, Nov 11 Maryland College Park
Sat, Nov 18 Wisconsin Madison
Sat, Nov 15 Ohio State Ann Arbor

When Talking to a Michigan Fan...

Do Mention

Tom Brady (and his five Super Bowl championships), Derrick Walton Jr. and the Big Ten Champion Wolverines, soon-to-be-household name Rashan Gary and one of the greatest college towns and most educated cities in America.

Don't Mention

The three turnovers in last season's Ohio State loss would be a good start. Similarly, the failure to corral a late-game, defensive rebound against Oregon that cost Michigan a trip to the Elite Eight.