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B1G 2020: A Season of Uncertainty for Michigan

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A different kind of closing argument for a different kind of season.

In early August, I wrote a season preview for a Michigan football team that wasn’t sure it would have a season to play. A few days after that preview was published, the Big Ten announced a new, ten-game, conference-only schedule. A few days after that, the season was abruptly cancelled. After a tempestuous month in which each new day seemed to bring with it a new rumor of playing in the fall (or winter), the Big Ten reversed course and resurrected the season, now in the form of an eight-game, still-conference-only schedule. In the two-plus months since that August preview, some things have changed for Michigan - and not all for the better.

What’s been written about Michigan this summer

What could have changed in such a short time? And in the offseason, no less? For openers, Michigan found its quarterback. With two-year starter Shea Patterson moving on, Michigan had two options to replace him: Junior Dylan McCaffrey and sophomore Joe Milton. The conventional wisdom was that McCaffrey was the more polished, the more ready-to-play option, while Milton was rawer, but had more upside. So it was surprising to some that Michigan ultimately turned to Milton.

It would be easy to think that Michigan made its decision based primarily on potential. But to listen to Michigan’s coaches, the Wolverines are hardly sacrificing the present for the future. Coaches and players alike are effusive in their praise of Milton, and not just for his physical tools, but also for how he’s improved both his game and his understanding of Michigan’s system. If anyone is nervous about hitching the team’s wagon to a first-time starter with little game experience, they’re not showing it.

With Milton getting the starting nod, McCaffrey departed for greener pastures, opting out of the season, presumably to enter the transfer portal. This wasn’t completely unexpected, as it was widely speculated that whoever lost the quarterback battle would likely transfer. But while McCaffrey’s departure might not have been unexpected, Michigan has had to deal with some departures that were.

Michigan doesn’t have the most players opting out of the upcoming season, Central and South Florida have lost a combined 17 players between them. Michigan doesn’t even lead the Big Ten in sheer numbers, that honor goes to Maryland, which could lose up to a half-dozen players. It’s hard to imagine, however, a team that’s had to deal with more significant losses than Michigan.

Michigan had only four players initially opt out of the season, but three made headlines when Jalen Mayfield (the only returning starter on Michigan’s offensive line), Ambry Thomas (the only returning starter in Michigan’s defensive secondary) and Nico Collins (Michigan’s most experienced receiver and its biggest defensive mismatch) all indicated they were forfeiting their final season of eligibility (Mayfield is only a redshirt sophomore, but it was widely assumed that he would enter the NFL draft after this season). Mayfield has since reconsidered and has returned to the fold, and his presence will surely help an offensive line lacking experience. The departures of Collins, and especially Thomas, however, are significant blows.

Michigan loses a dangerous weapon in Collins. The 6’4” and 220-pounder presented a challenge to every defense Michigan faced. But the Wolverines have a deep pool of receivers, with many capable of contributing this fall. That’s not the case with in the defensive backfield, however. The only known quantity at cornerback, Thomas’s departure leaves the Wolverines vulnerable both up front (where they’re precariously thin at defensive tackle) at the back end of their defense. Michigan coaches are saying all the right things about the young corners vying for starting positions, in particular Vincent Gray, but word that the Wolverines worked out safety Daxton Hill at corner speaks to how concerning the situation is.

Michigan has been spoiled of late, with players like Jourdan Lewis, David Long and Lavert Hill anchoring the Wolverines’ defensive backfield. One of the biggest keys to Michigan’s success this season will be whether Michigan’s unproven cornerbacks will be up to the task, because if there’s something the rest of conference doesn’t lack, it’s talented receivers.

It won’t be an easy road for Michigan. The Wolverines arguably have the most difficult schedule in the conference, having to face the top two teams in each division. In fact, half of Michigan’s eight opponents range somewhere between very good-to-elite, with the likes of Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota lying in wait.

In that August preview, I said a reasonable over/under for Michigan was 7.5 wins. Set against the backdrop of an 11-game schedule (Michigan’s long anticipated season opener against Washington in Seattle was already off the table) that translates 3.5 losses. It should be an exciting season in Ann Arbor (assuming there is one), but with so much uncertainty at so many key positions, and with such a difficult schedule, the Wolverines will be hard pressed to hit the under on losses.

Poll

How many games does Michigan win in an 8-game season?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    8
    (8 votes)
  • 7%
    7
    (12 votes)
  • 27%
    6
    (43 votes)
  • 41%
    5
    (65 votes)
  • 10%
    4
    (17 votes)
  • 7%
    3 or fewer
    (12 votes)
157 votes total Vote Now