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B1G 2019: Michigan Cocktail Party Season Preview

After another disappointing finish - this time in a season that seemed to hold so much promise - what can be expected from Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in 2019?

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game

About Last Season

Michigan stumbled out of the gate, dropping its season-opener to Notre Dame. The Wolverines regrouped, however, and quickly found their groove. Led by a stout running game and a dominating defense, Michigan began racking up victories and moving up the polls. Over a ten-game winning streak, Michigan held its opponents to under two touchdowns and just over 200 total yards per game, while averaging nearly 40 points of its own. Along the way, the Wolverines avenged losses to Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State and were quick to talk about it. The “Revenge Tour” was born. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, the Wolverines were ranked in the top five and playing as well as any team in the country. With Michigan rolling and Ohio State struggling, even fans in Columbus resigned themselves to accept that this might (finally) be Michigan’s year.

However, in a case of déjà vu all over again, the wheels came off in Columbus, where the Wolverines suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes. The nation’s best defense? It surrendered 62 points and more than 500 yards of total offense. In losing to Ohio State, Michigan found itself in a familiar, yet unpleasant place. Nursing its wounds. On the outside looking in.

Looking Ahead

It was a demoralizing end to the season to be sure, but was there a silver lining? Was Michigan’s late season swoon enough to convince Jim Harbaugh that Michigan needs to make fundamental changes to its program? That for Michigan to compete with elite teams, it can no longer be content to simply deliver “body blows” on offense or operate at only one speed on defense?

There are signs that Harbaugh has come to this conclusion and has accepted the necessity of such change. Not long after last season concluded, Michigan introduced a new offensive coordinator, former Alabama co-offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Gattis comes to Michigan from Alabama after a stint at Penn State, where he was the Nittany Lions’ receivers coach. At both of his previous stops, Gattis was credited with improving his teams’ respective passing games. The hope in Ann Arbor is that he will have a similar impact not just on the Wolverines’ passing game, but on their offense in general.

Gattis won’t lack for talent, that’s for certain. Michigan returns an all-conference level quarterback in Shane Patterson and a trio of NFL-caliber receivers in Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and the oft-injured Tarik Black. But will Gattis have the freedom to fully utilize these tools? A change in coaching personnel means little if it doesn’t bring with it a change in coaching philosophy. So the key question for Michigan is, will the hire of Gattis result in a more wide-open offense? Or will it simply result in someone else calling the same plays?

The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but there are signs that it might be the former, that Gattis has been “given the keys” to the offense. If that’s the case, it’s a step in the right direction for Harbaugh’s Wolverines.

Personnel-wise, Michigan’s offense will look very similar to last year’s unit, with the only significant loss being 1,000-yard rusher Karan Higdon. That won’t be the case on defense, however, as Michigan loses stalwarts like Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, David Long and Devin Bush. The cupboard is far from bare, with playmakers like Khaleke Hudson, Josh Uche and Lavert Hill returning, but the Wolverines won’t have the depth they’ve had the past two seasons. The degree to which how some of the younger players fare in leading roles will go a long way toward determining how good Michigan’s defense will be this season. But that won’t be the only question for Michigan’s defense headed into the season. Or even the biggest question, for that matter. For Michigan to take the next step on defense, the Wolverines will have to show the ability to adapt, adjust when necessary.

I wrote last season that, “It’s ironic that to take that next step, Michigan’s offense needs to show more explosion, more aggressive play, and its defense needs to show more patience, more prudence at times.” Michigan’s ultra-aggressive, ever-attacking defense has been the driving force behind Michigan’s success since defensive coordinator Don Brown arrived in Ann Arbor. Brown’s defenses have ranked among the nation’s top five in each of Brown’s three seasons at Michigan, but if there has been a weakness, it’s that Michigan has had difficulty adapting to offenses that are able to find a gap – or gaps – in Michigan’s scheme. So, much the same as on the offensive side of the ball, playcalling may well dictate the level of success Michigan has on defense. Can the Wolverines adapt? Can they adjust? Because as many have colorfully put it, there are times Michigan needs more than just a fastball.

Final Word

As it has every season under Harbaugh, Michigan will field an extremely talented team, brimming with NFL talent on both sides of the ball. The Wolverines are ranked near the top of many pre-season polls and have been tabbed as favorites in the Big Ten. However, the keys to Michigan’s season aren’t whether someone will step up at running back in Hidgon’s absence, or whether Uche and Aiden Hutchinson will pick up where Gary and Winovich left off, but rather, is Brown capable of adding an off-speed pitch to his repertoire? And will Gattis truly have carte blanch on offense? For talent aside, it’s Michigan coaching philosophy and strategy that holds the key to 2019 - and beyond.

Michigan Week at OTE

Monday: Cocktail Party Preview

Tuesday: Tales from the Big Ten Media Days, Part I

Wednesday: Tales from the Big Ten Media Days, Part II

Thursday: Michigan Baseball

Friday: No need to tune in Friday. Nothing but love for Michigan around here.

The Schedule

Michigan’s schedule flips in 2019, and the Wolverines get Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State at home. But that doesn’t mean it will be an easy road for the Wolverines. Whatever the venue, the Irish, Spartans and Buckeyes present a difficult challenge - as will trips to Madison and Happy Valley.

When Talking to a Michigan Fan

Do Mention

New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Shane Patterson and Michigan’s NFL caliber receiving corps. Freshman running back Zach Charbonnet. Erik Bakich and the Michigan baseball team. The 2019 College World Series. New basketball head coach Juwan Howard. Tom Brady and his sixth Super Bowl ring. One of the greatest college towns in America.

Don’t Mention

Dan Gilbert, the Cleveland Cavaliers or the NBA in general. Dwayne Haskins and his six-touchdown performance in last year’s game. Kumar Rocker. The finish to last year’s football season … or basketball season, for that matter.