Last season couldn’t have ended much worse for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines. After a ten-game winning streak propelled Michigan into Thanksgiving weekend as a top-five team and a road favorite in Columbus, the wheels came off, and Michigan ended the season with a pair of crushing defeats. First to Ohio State in the regular season finale and then to Florida in the Peach Bowl. After yet another humbling loss to Ohio State, this time in a season that seemed to hold so much promise, fans and pundits alike began asking, “If not this year, then when?”
Against this backdrop, you might think the mood in Ann Arbor would be somewhat somber this summer, that there would still be a bit of a hangover from the way last season ended. You might think that, but you would be wrong.
During July’s Big Ten Media Days, Harbaugh and the Wolverine players in attendance were anything but downbeat. In fact, to hear Harbaugh tell it, he couldn’t be more excited about this season. Harbaugh spoke at length about how much he likes this year’s team and how much he likes the way it’s coming together. In fact, when asked how he felt about being the pre-season favorite to win the Big Ten, Harbaugh casually responded, “I think that’s where I would pick us.” Confidence, it seems, is something that Harbaugh and his Wolverines are not short on. But is it warranted?
What we’ve written about Michigan this offseason:
There are plenty of reasons to believe Michigan is primed for a big season. For openers, the Wolverines return their starting quarterback for the first time under Harbaugh, and that quarterback, senior Shea Patterson, will be playing behind what could be Michigan’s best offensive line in years. Michigan is also famously implementing a new, up-tempo offense, one that should better take advantage of both Patterson’s skillset and Michigan’s plethora of talented receivers. The Wolverines may not have a single running back in position to replace departed 1,000-yard rusher Karan Higdon, but they do have depth, with Tru Wilson, Christian Turner and incoming freshman Zach Charbonnett expected to share carries.
Success is not guaranteed, of course. Michigan will be turning over the keys to a first-time offensive coordinator, and one who will be calling plays for the first time, at that. But first time play-caller or not, with an all-conference-caliber quarterback, its best offensive line in years and a deep and talented group of receivers and tight ends, Michigan should be fine on offense.
If there are questions, they are on the other side of the ball. The season’s final two games notwithstanding, Michigan had one of the nation’s best defenses last year, but the Wolverines lost a significant amount of production from that unit. With Rashan Gary, Chase Winovoch, David Long and, most importantly, Devin Bush moving onto the greener the pastures of the NFL, Michigan has holes to fill at every level of its defense. How it fills those holes will go a long way in determining Michigan’s season.
At first glance, defensive line might look like Michigan’s biggest concern. After all, Michigan lost both of its ends to the NFL. But while Gary and Winovich were disruptive forces that will surely be missed, Michigan has the numbers, at least, to make up for their departures. With Kwitty Paye, Josh Uche, Mike Danna and Aiden Hutchinson, Michigan should continue pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Inside, Michigan is counting on Carlo Kemp and Michael Dwumfour to take that next step this season. And while Bush’s impact can’t be overrestimated, the Wolverines do have playmakers the likes of Khaleke Hudson and James Ross to patrol the middle of the defense.
It’s the back end of Michigan’s defense where there is the most concern. Lavert Hill returns to anchor one cornerback spot, but the other side is far from settled. The hope was that Ambry Thomas would step in and contribute at a high level, but with an illness keeping Thomas on the shelf until last week (he only recently returned to practice), second-year man Vincent Gray appears to be the next man up. Even with Thomas healthy, depth would have been an issue. Without Thomas, the back end of Michigan’s secondary could be its Achilles heel.
Michigan fans have no doubt that new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and his RPO-heavy, no huddle offense with its emphasis on “speed in space” will take the Wolverines to the next level. Critics counter that with a first time play caller, its success will be limited. Each argument has merits, but the truth is probably closer to the former. There’s just too much talent on offense for things to go south.
On defense, Michigan has plenty of talent, but much of that talent is still unproven, particularly on the back end of the defense. Look for Don Brown’s unit to continue to be one of the conference’s best defenses, but a drop off, to a certain extent, is inevitable. It the secondary proves up to the challenge and if Paye, Uche, Danna and Hutchinson can do reasonable impersonations of Gary and Winovich, the Wolverines should be in good shape.
But while Michigan may be the preseason favorite in the Big Ten, and the Wolverines should certainly be in the mix, Ohio State can’t be dismissed. The Buckeyes are not only the defending champs, but as is the case most years, they don’t lack for talent. And Ryan Day may be in his first year as head coach, but he’s the same person who called the plays that resulted in 62 points and 500-plus yards of offense against Michigan last season. So while the game may be played in Ann Arbor this year, the road to the conference title still runs through Columbus.
Michigan plays a difficult schedule, one that Phil Steele rated as the ninth toughest in the nation. But despite home games against Notre Dame and Michigan State and road trips to Madison and Happy Valley, this season, like the one before it, will ultimately come down to the final weekend in November.
How the OTE Writers See it
OTE shares Harbaugh’s optimism, and is rather bullish on Michigan this season, predicting a ten-win season, just behind Ohio State. Most writers see the Wolverines getting past Notre Dame and reaching and double-digits in victories, with only Baba O’Really seeing the glass half-empty, calling for an 8-4 record.