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B1G 2018: Michigan Cocktail Party Season Preview

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Unlike last season, when Michigan turned over the majority of its roster, the Wolverines bring almost everyone back this year. But will another year of seasoning result in more success?

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

About Last Season

The less said about last season the better. Like the season before, Michigan staggered down the home stretch. Michigan dropped its final three games, capping the season by losing in agonizing fashion to Ohio State and suffering a deflating, come-from-ahead defeat in its bowl game - a game in which the Wolverines squandered a 16-point lead and surrendered the game’s final 23 points in a 26-19 loss. But unlike the season before, when Michigan was loaded with upperclassmen and laden with NFL talent, 2017 was always going to be a challenging season. The Wolverines turned over the majority of their roster and entered the season with the least experienced team in the nation, replacing 17 starters. Expectations were - or should have been - tempered (But when does that ever happen?). So it shouldn’t have been terribly surprising that Michigan struggled, given the number of new faces. Ultimately, that’s what happened, as an offense that was plagued by injury and inefficiency at quarterback proved too much to overcome, even for a team with a defense that once again ranked among the nation’s best, and the Wolverines finished with a disappointing 8-5 record.

Unlike last season, when Michigan turned over the majority of its roster, the Wolverines bring almost everyone back this year. But will another year of seasoning result in more success?

2018: The Offense

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Michigan’s fortunes this season largely hinge on quarterback and offensive line play. If there has been one constant over the past decade of Michigan football, it’s been the Wolverines’ frustratingly inconsistent offensive line play. Regardless of recruiting stars or promising career starts, the Wolverines have had difficulty playing, well, Michigan football. Occasionally Michigan’s offensive line has given its running backs room to run or has been able to keep its quarterback mostly upright, but that hasn’t happened enough, and has rarely happened at the same time. For Michigan to truly turn the corner, that has to change. But will it change this season?

With Cesar Ruiz at center and Ben Bredeson at guard, Michigan has two all-conference-caliber players around which to build its line. So the interior should be strong. But after that, there are more questions up front than answers, particularly with respect to pass protection, where the Wolverines ranked #106 in the country last season. Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan Jr. have the inside track on securing the starting tackle positions, but neither has done much yet to differentiate themselves. Michigan’s ability to find the right starting five, and that group’s ability to protect the quarterback, will go a long way in determining the Wolverines’ success this season.

Michigan’s Quarterback situation is a little less murky, primarily because Michigan received some good news earlier this year when incoming transfer Shea Patterson was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. While there is no clear-cut starter (in true Harbaugh fashion, it’s being billed as a four-man race for the starting spot), the expectation is that Patterson will get the nod over Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. Patterson played well in limited action for Ole Miss, and should give the Wolverines, at minimum, a competent starting quarterback with game experience. And with the mobility he brings, Patterson is better equipped to survive playing behind Michigan’s offensive line, should it continue to struggle with pass protection. All talk of Heisman trophies and early entrance into the NFL should be shelved (yes, there has been talk to that effect), but Patterson gives Michigan more hope going into the season than the less experienced Peters, McCaffrey or Milton would.

Whoever ends up under center won’t lack for playmakers. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans combined to rush for more than 1,700 yards last season and did so at a gaudy 5.6 yards-per-carry clip. The pair returns this season with designs of [on?] becoming the first Wolverine running back duo to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season since 1975 (Gordon Bell and Rob Lytle were the last to do so, for any Wolverine historians out there). Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Grant Perry all return at receiver, and Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon lead a deep and talented group of tight ends. In short, if given enough time, Patterson (or whoever winds up under center) should be able to make some noise this season.

2018: The Defense

In 2016, Michigan’s defense featured two first team All-Americans and eight players selected in the NFL draft the following spring. Michigan gave up fewer than two touchdowns and just over 250 yards a game and finished the season ranked as the nation’s best defense. Losing so much talent, 2017 looked to be a rebuilding year. Yet despite replacing ten starters, it turned out to be more a reload than a rebuild, as despite its youth and inexperience, Michigan again fielded a top-five defense. That defense was led by senior leaders Maurice Hurst and Mike McCray, but featured young players almost everywhere else. Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson starred at linebacker, Lavert Hill and David Long anchored the secondary and Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich joined Hurst on the defensive line. Hurst and McCray have moved on to the NFL, but virtually everyone else returns, giving Michigan the makings of what could be another special defense.

Gary and Winovich both earned All-Conference accolades and return to head one of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines. Bush and Hudson are the kind of playmakers that seem ideally suited for Defensive Coordinator Don Brown’s attacking defensive schemes. Speedy, explosive and hard-hitting, if undersized, the pair combined for 185 tackles last season, 28 of which were for a loss, and look to do more of the same in their junior seasons. On the back end of the defense, junior cornerbacks Hill and Long, along with safeties Tyree Kinell and Ambry Thomas form one of the best secondaries in the conference.

With all-conference talent at all three positon groups, Michigan should again field one of the nation’s best defenses, and one that the Harbaugh and Wolverines will lean on while its offense finds its footing.

2018: The Special Teams

Kicker Quinn Nordin began his freshman season looking like an All American and finished it looking like … something less. The talent is there, and if Nordin can improve his consistency, Michigan could have its best kicker in … I don’t know how long. Continuing the theme of returning players, Brad Robbins returns to punt and Donovan People-Jones and Thomas to lead a potentially large group of returners.

2018: The Schedule

Michigan faces a difficult schedule in 2018. The Wolverines open the season in South Bend and travel to both East Lansing and Columbus before the season’s over. Michigan also has home games against Penn State and Wisconsin. It’s a schedule that begs the question: Even if Michigan fields a better team in 2017, will that improvement show up in the Wolverines’ record?

When Talking to a Michigan Fan

Do Mention

John Beilein and his back-to-back Big Ten Champion and 2018 West Regional Champion Wolverine basketball team, Jordan Poole’s 35-foot, buzzer-beating, season-saving three-pointer, the 2018 NCAA Final Four, Don Brown and his ever-attacking defense, new offensive line coach Ed Warriner, the Chad Tough campaign and one of the greatest college towns and most educated cities in America.

Don’t Mention

Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo.