As Jim Harbaugh enters his fourth season at Michigan, his critics are growing louder, their chorus more united. You’ve heard the criticism: Under Harbaugh, Michigan has yet to finish higher than third in the Big Ten East, has experienced two consecutive late season swoons, and perhaps most damning, the Wolverines are a dreadful 1-5 against their biggest rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State. Harbaugh’s record against Michigan’s rivals, in particular, was a popular topic of discussion during the Big Ten Media Days last month, and one Harbaugh seemed less excited to discuss each time it was brought up. To hear the questions that Harbaugh fielded, you’d think he’d never done a right thing in his life, or at least since returning to his alma mater.
But is the criticism fair? True, Michigan has yet to play for a conference championship, but the Wolverines did win ten games in each of Harbaugh’s first two seasons, have played in three New Year’s Day bowl games and Harbaugh’s 28 wins through three seasons is more than either Mark Dantonio or Dabo Swinney, two of college football’s top coaches, tallied their first three seasons at Michigan State and Clemson, respectively.
So what is the real story? Is Michigan essentially the same team it was during its previous coaching regimes? Or are Harbaugh’s Wolverines still a work in progress, and capable of achieving greater things? And to what extent will the 2018 season answer any of these questions?
It’s no secret that Michigan struggled last season. After an 8-2 start, Michigan floundered down the stretch, losing its final three games, highlighted (or lowlighted, if you will) by another crushing loss to Ohio State and a second-half collapse in the Outback Bowl. Michigan’s 8-5 record was the worst of Harbaugh’s short tenure at Michigan, and made for an anxious offseason in Ann Arbor. But was the dip in Michigan’s record an indication of the program’s direction? Or was it an aberration, the should-have-been-predictable result of a season of change in Ann Arbor?
Michigan went from being one of the nation’s most experienced teams in 2016 to one of its least experienced in 2017, replacing 17 starters and penciling in underclassmen up and down its two-deep lineup. Factor in that the Wolverines lost two quarterbacks to injury, including losing their starter to a season-ending injury, and it’s little wonder that Michigan struggled.
This season, Michigan flips the script, and returns the majority of its starting line-up. Still young, but more experienced, the Wolverines hope to learn from last year’s travails. But with a schedule that includes road games in South Bend, East Lansing and Columbus, what can be expected of this year’s Wolverines? Or in simpler terms, will a year of seasoning result in more on-field success?
Michigan’s defense is stacked. Michigan ranked among the nation’s top defenses in 2017, and with almost everyone returning, the Wolverines expect to be even better in 2018. All-American candidates Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich headline what will once again be one of the conference’s top defensive lines, Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson return to wreak havoc in the middle of the field, and the entire secondary returns, led by NFL prospects LaVert Hill and David Long at the corners. About the only area in which the Wolverines fell short last season was getting big stops in big moments. If Defensive Coordinator Don Brown’s charges can improve on that this season, if they can do a better job of getting off the field, Michigan’s defense could be special.
But Michigan fielded a top-flight defense last season, and as dominant as it was for stretches, it was ultimately only able to carry the Wolverines so far. So the key for this season is, will the Wolverines be better on the offensive side of the ball in 2018?
Michigan doesn’t lack for offensive talent. Upperclassmen Karan Higdon and Chris Evans give the Wolverines a proven one-two punch at running back and Tarik Black returns from injury to join Donovan Peoples-Jones in what could be one of Michigan’s most talented, if still inexperienced, receiving tandems. But if there is a real position of strength for the Wolverines, it’s at tight end, where Zach Gentry, Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks head a deep and athletic group.
If there are questions on the offensive side of the ball, they are at - stop me if you’ve heard this before - quarterback and offensive line.
Despite turning to another first-year starter at quarterback, Michigan should be in good hands with presumed starter Shea Patterson. While not naming a starter, Harbaugh praised Patterson at the Big Ten Media Days. While that’s to be expected, and Harbaugh spoke glowingly of all of his quarterbacks, if you read between the lines, you got the feeling both the coaches players and coaches are on board with Patterson. Higdon echoed his coach’s sentiments, saying that he knew that Patterson was talented, but reserved judgment until he saw Patterson up close, saw his work ethic. It didn’t take long for Higdon to be satisfied. This isn’t to say you should put any stock into the early Heisman hype, but Michigan should be fine at quarterback … providing the Wolverines can keep him upright.
For years the offensive line was an unquestioned strength for Michigan. If there was one thing that could be counted on in Ann Arbor, it was strong offensive line play. For the past decade-plus, however, the offensive line has been Michigan’s Achilles Heel. Last year, Michigan allowed 36 sacks, good for 110th in the nation. It’s no secret, but for Michigan to take that step forward, its offensive line play will have to improve significantly.
With Ben Bredeson at guard and star-in-the-making Cesar Ruiz directing traffic at center, Michigan should be stout inside. Outside, however, it’s another story, as Michigan is still searching for answers at tackle. Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan Jr. are the presumed starters, but neither has done much to solidify their standing or separate themselves from the pack. New offensive line coach Ed Wariner and his more simplified blocking schemes have been receiving rave reviews this off-season, but similar praise was heaped on Tim Drevno and Greg Frye before him. For Michigan, the proof will be in the pudding
With so much uncertainty up front and such a difficult schedule (much is made of the away games, but Michigan also hosts Wisconsin and Penn State), it’s difficult to see Michigan finishing much better than it did in Harbaugh’s first two seasons. Las Vegas has set Michigan’s over/under at nine victories, and that seems about right, give or take. The Wolverines will be an improved team in 2018, and should contend for the conference championship, but the Wolverines will have to prove they can protect their quarterback if they don’t want to end up on the outside looking in, watching Ohio State and Wisconsin battle (again) for the Big Ten championship.
How the OTE Writers See it
The OTE writers see things similarly, collectively landing on roughly 8.5 wins. LGHF and Stew Monkey are the most bullish, predicting a ten-win season, and BRT, Creightion and 87 Townie are the most pessimistic (or in their cases, perhaps it’s optimism?), giving the Wolverines seven wins.
To which end of that spectrum Michigan finishes depends on how Michigan does up front.