Welcome to Michigan week at Off Tackle Empire. This year’s previews can’t help but ring a little hollow, as they point to a season that looks less and less likely to be played. But if college football is played this fall - or next spring - here’s a quick primer on the Wolverines.
About Last Season
A year ago, Michigan was the talk of the offseason and the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. The Wolverines introduced a new offensive coordinator and a new offensive philosophy. Gone was the run-heavy game plan, replaced with the promise of a more wide-open attack. “Speed in Space” was the catch phrase of choice, and Michigan’s new offensive philosophy promised to open things up and score in bunches.
But change didn’t come easily - or quickly. Michigan was slow out of the gate. The Wolverines struggled to beat Army at home, were run off the field at Wisconsin and tallied a single touchdown in a victory over Iowa. With each passing week, questions surrounding Michigan’s new offense intensified.
On an October night in Happy Valley, however, the Wolverines began to find their groove. Michigan might have come up short in its comeback against the Nittany Lions, but it found its way offensively that night. From that point on, Michigan rolled over Notre Dame, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana, averaging more than 40 points a game in the process. Heading into the season-ending showdown against Ohio State, Michigan was playing its best football of the season. But so were the Buckeyes, and another season ended in frustrating style for head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines.
This year, the offseason talk isn’t about a new offense, but a new quarterback. With Shea Patterson moving on, the torch will be passed. But to whom? The leading candidates are redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton, both of whom possess the athleticism to thrive in Offensive Coordinator Josh Gattis’ RPO-heavy (run/pass option) system. McCaffrey and Milton are also similar in the respect that each possesses an abundance of promise but precious little experience. McCaffrey is a year older, but when it comes to game experience, neither has taken many meaningful snaps.
The conventional wisdom is that McCaffrey is the more polished, the more ready-to-play option, while the strong-armed Milton has more untapped potential, more upside. This thinking is based on little more than recruiting profiles, however, as neither player has seen enough of the field to provide a reasonable idea of what can be expected in a starting role. Harbaugh and Gattis insist that there is no leader in the competition and that McCaffery, Milton and even redshirt freshman Cade McNamara are all on equal footing, but it’s really a two-horse race.
Whoever wins the starting job will have at his disposal a deep rotation of running backs and a receiving corps led by match-up nightmare Nico Collins. What he won’t have, however, is an experienced offensive line to protect him.
Having lost four starters to the NFL, Michigan has to replace nearly its entire offensive line. An unenviable position to be in, to be sure. But things are not quite as desperate as they may seem, as Michigan has been accumulating depth up front. There may not be much starting experience in the group, but there is no shortage of talented linemen from which to choose. And if you only have one returning starter, having it be a star-in-the-making in redshirt junior Jalen Mayfield is a good one to have. So, despite the turnover, Michigan should put together a credible offensive line.
But while Michigan may have depth up front on offense, the same is not true on defense, particularly in the middle. Defensive Coordinator Don Brown once again has a talented unit, but if there is a hole in Michigan’s defense, it’s front and center at the defensive tackle position.
Upperclassmen Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson should provide an effective pass rush on the outside, but the Wolverines are far from stout in the middle. Undersized Carlo Kemp, a natural end, will man one spot and the Wolverines are hoping sophomores Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith can contribute in expanded roles. That Michigan is counting on two second-year players to excel at a position rarely mastered by young players shows how desperate Michigan is up front.
It’s not that Michigan’s defense lacks for talent or playmakers. In addition to Paye and Hutchinson, the Wolverines have a star-in-the-making on the defensive side of the ball as well, in redshirt sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone. But Michigan will struggle holding up against big, powerful offensive lines. The bad news for Michigan is that there are a few of those in the Big Ten.
The best-case scenario for Michigan? Either McCaffrey or Milton establishes himself as solid starter, the offensive line gels, the defense maintains its strong play and Hinton and Smith shore up the defensive front. If that happens, Michigan should be a solid, upper division team. Yet with games against Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota, it won’t be easy sledding. If the Big Ten ultimately does play a ten-game schedule, an over/under of around 7.5 wins seems reasonable.
With the Big Ten opting for a ten-game, conference-only schedule, Michigan’s long-anticipated trip to Washington is off. Michigan still faces a tough slate, and one that could get tougher depending on which yet-to-be-determined conference opponent will be added. If Michigan can take any solace in this year’s schedule, it’s that it gets Penn State and Wisconsin at home and it may not end the season losing to Ohio State. The Big Ten is discussing moving the game to earlier in the season this year.
When Talking to a Michigan Fan
Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton, Nico Collins , Zach Charbonnet, Kwitty Paye, Aidan Hutchnson and Cam McGrone. Speed in Space: Season two of Josh Gattis’ Pro Spread offense. The return of Isiah Livers. Juwan Howard and the Michigan basketball team.
Does it even need to be said?