2021 was the season that Michigan and its fans had been waiting for. 12 victories. Conference championship. A Big Ten title game that was more of a coronation than a contest. And of course, finally defeating Ohio State on a snowy November day that will long be remembered in Ann Arbor.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said last season was just the beginning, something that’s undoubtedly music to the ears of long-suffering Michigan fans. But was last season just the beginning? Michigan returns an abundance of talent from last year’s conference champion team, but will it return the conference championship game? In short, what can be expected of Michigan in 2022?
If the Big Ten title game was a coronation, Michigan’s offseason was a victory tour. Despite falling short in the college football playoffs, where the Wolverines lost badly to eventual national champion Georgia, it was a good offseason for both Michigan and its fans. The latter, something Michigan players found out firsthand.
Harbaugh and the Wolverines toured the state this summer, meeting fans throughout the upper and lower peninsulas. And at each stop along the way, Michigan’s players were reminded how special last season was to their fans. “We didn’t know how much last season meant to our fans,” Erick All told reporters at this summer’s Big Ten Media Days. “We were reminded of it at every stop.”
But as special as last season was, it’s just that, last season. What will Michigan do for an encore this year? Michigan returns many key performers and looks to be at least as deep, if not deeper, than it was last season. On offense, especially, the Wolverines are loaded. On paper, they should again be in the mix for the Big Ten title.
But that’s on paper. One of the biggest reasons Michigan had the season it had last year was that it played with an edge and possessed a resiliency not seen in recent Wolverine teams. Will Michigan play with that same mindset and intensity this year? More to the point, how will the Wolverines respond to last season’s success?
What’s been written so far.
Michigan’s players have not only had an offseason to revel in last season’s success, they’ve also spent the summer reading and hearing about how good they’ll be this season. A team that last year came into last season well under the radar and with plenty to prove, Michigan enters this season very much in the spotlight, and with a bigger target than ever on its back. How will the Wolverines respond?
Harbaugh and his players have been saying all the right things. That last season is in the past and the focus is on this year. “One of the more focused and dedicated teams (I’ve coached),” Harbaugh said of this year’s Wolverine squad. “Very driven.” Michigan will need that focus, dedication and drive if it hopes to replicate last season’s success. That’s because in college football, as much as any sport, it’s more than just talent that dictates success.
Michigan returns a plethora of talent from last season’s team, but it lost its emotional leaders on offense and defense in Hassan Haskins and Aidan Hutchinson, respectively. Who will fill that void this season? And will they fill it as effectively?
On offense, Cade McNamara seems to be slipping into more and more of a leadership role. You can see and hear it in the way he comports himself and you can hear it whenever his teammates speak of him. I lost track of how many times I heard, “That’s my quarterback,” from Michigan’s players during the Big Ten Media Days this summer.
On defense, Mazi Smith appears to be taking the leadership reigns. One of the more vocal (and entertaining) Wolverines, the Grand Rapids native seems particularly driven to prove that this year’s defense won’t take a step backward, something most pundits assume it will do. “With the guys we have on this team, we’re capable of playing even better this year (on defense),” Smith said. “I’m taking it upon myself, we all are, to make sure we get there.”
If Michigan hopes to repeat last season’s success, if it hopes to play with the same grittiness, resiliency … and nastiness with which it played last year, it will be up to players like McNamara and Smith to make sure they do. And if Michigan does play with the same kind of edge as it did last year, it should be another enjoyable autumn in Ann Arbor.
In Cleveland.com’s annual pre-season poll of Big Ten media members, Ohio State was the unanimous pick to win the Big Ten. And for good reason. The Buckeyes are loaded on offense (as they usually are), have what they hope will be a rejuvenated defense and will be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Led by CJ stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the Buckeyes are the team that the rest of the Big Ten will be gunning for.
Michigan, however, has the talent and experience to be in a group with Michigan State and Penn State to battle Ohio State for top spot in the East. The schedule lines up nicely for Michigan this season, with a soft non-con schedule and home games against Michigan State and Penn State. There’s every reason to believe that Michigan could go to Columbus with a Big Ten championship within its grasp. Whether that’s the case or not will largely depend on how the Wolverines approach the season, and whether they’re able to replicate last season’s mindset.