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Cocktail Party Preview: Michigan Wolverines

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Photo by Aaron J. Thornton

About Last Season

In last year’s cocktail party preview, I wrote of the previous (2021) season: “It was a season the likes of which Michigan and its fans have been waiting for years.” The same could be said of last season. 13 victories. Second consecutive victory over Ohio State. Second consecutive Big Ten championship. Second consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. It was another banner year in Ann Arbor. But just because the season was successful, doesn’t mean it was without controversy or concern.

It’s easy to forget, but most of the offseason chatter last year focused on Michigan’s quarterback controversy and who would ultimately emerge as Michigan’s starter. Cade McNamara was the returning starter - fresh off leading Michigan to one of the greatest seasons in its history. J.J. McCarthy was the young gunslinger - long on talent and potential but short on experience. So close was the competition, head coach Jim Harbaugh gave each player a regular season start before making a final decision. McCarthy ultimately won the starting job, and with the sophomore signal-caller under center, all the Wolverines did was win.

As the wins piled up and the season wound down, it became apparent that Michigan’s season, like the one before it, would come down to the Ohio State game. And if there was a team playing as well as Michigan, it was Ohio State. Led by two-time Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud and all-world receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., the undefeated and revenge-minded Buckeyes were rolling.

But with McCarthy at the helm and All-American running back Blake Corum driving the offense, Michigan appeared to be primed for the challenge. A week before The Game, however, all that was suddenly in doubt. In its final tune-up before heading to Columbus, Michigan survived an Illinois upset bid, but effectively lost Corum for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Corum’s injury led to much hand wringing in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines faced the prospect of playing their biggest game of the season without their most productive offensive weapon.

But if Michigan fans were concerned, the team never wavered, and in front of a raucous Buckeye crowd, Michigan used big plays (a pair of long touchdown passes from McCarthy to Cornelius Johnson in the first half and a pair of long touchdown runs by Donovan Edwards in the second) to carry the day. By the time the dust settled - and the Horseshoe emptied - the Wolverines celebrated a three-touchdown victory over their biggest rival. A week later, Michigan successfully defended its Big Ten title with another three-touchdown victory, this one over Purdue.

Michigan fell in national semi-finals, but as crushing as its 51-45 defeat to TCU was, it didn’t take away from what was another special season in Ann Arbor.

But that was last year. How does this year’s team look? In a word: Very good. OK, that’s two words. But in all fairness, it takes more than one word to describe Michigan’s outlook in 2023.

Looking Ahead

All college football teams have questions heading into a new season. Losing players to graduation and the NFL, roster turnover is a constant. Having nine players selected in April’s NFL draft, you’d think Michigan would have more questions than most teams. After all, that’s a lot of personnel to replace. Yet despite losing so much talent, Michigan heads into the 2023 season with surprisingly few questions. In fact, despite coming off back-to-back conference championships, Michigan could potentially field an even better team than it did in either of the previous two seasons.

On Offense

There’s no quarterback controversy this season as McCarthy returns to lead the Wolverines. In his first season as starter, McCarthy was the second highest rated QB in the conference (behind Ohio State’s Stroud), completing 65% of his passes for more than 2,700 yards and 22 touchdowns against only five interceptions. In McCarthy, Michigan has the Big Ten’s most proven entity at the game’s most important position.

If Michigan feels good at quarterback, it should feel even better at running back, where the Wolverines return one of the most productive tailback tandems in the nation in Blake Corum (1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns) and Donovan Edwards (991 yards and nine touchdowns). A consensus All-American as a junior, Corum was on the short list of Heisman favorites when he was injured in late November. All Edwards did in Corum’s absence was rush for 401 yards and three touchdowns against Ohio State and Purdue (in the Big Ten title game).

A lot of factors led to Michigan turning the corner in 2021, but none was more important than its offensive line play. Winners of the last two Joe Moore awards, given annually to the best offensive line in college football, the Wolverines look to be solid up front again this year. Michigan lost a pair of starting linemen to the NFL, but return one of the better guard combos in the country in Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan. The Wolverines also welcome a pair of accomplished linemen from the transfer portal in center Drake Nugent (Stanford) and tackle LaDarius Henderson (Arizona State).

Michigan isn’t deep at receiver, but does return a pair of upperclassmen in Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson. McCarthy also has at his disposal tight end Colston Loveland. A breakout performer last year as a true freshman, big things are expected from Loveland in his sophomore campaign.

On Defense

Michigan returns a number of talented players on the defensive line, but for the first time in a while, the Wolverines look to be stronger on the interior than on the edge. With Kris Jenkins (who put off the NFL to return for his senior season), Mason Graham (another a true freshman from last season who looks to make a big leap this year) and Kenneth Grant, the Wolverines should be stout inside. On the edge, Michigan doesn’t have a lot of returning production, but does have a number of options, including Jaylen Harrell, Derrick Moore and Braden McGregor. The Wolverines also added one of the top pass rushers in transfer portal, Josiah Stewart.

Junior Colson (another player from whom big things are expected this season) and Michael Barrett lead an experienced linebacker group, which, along with the defensive line, give the Wolverines a strong front seven.

I said that there aren’t many questions facing this Michigan team, but I didn’t say there weren’t any. And the biggest of these questions is who will play cornerback opposite Will Johnson. By the end of his freshman season, Johnson was rated as one of the best corners in the Big Ten and is ranked by Pro Football Focus as one of the top returning cornerbacks in the country. But who starts opposite Johnson is anyone’s guess. Sophomores Ja’Den McBurrows and Amorion Walker look to be in the mix, as does grad transfer Josh Wallace. A four-year starter before coming to Ann Arbor, Wallace is expected to bring experience and stability to a young cornerback room.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, the rest of the secondary is solid, with Mike Sainristil returning at nickel back and Rod Moore and Makari Paige at safety, anchoring the back end of the defense.

Special Teams

If cornerback is one concern, special teams is another. Michigan loses multi-year starters at kicker and punter, sending both Jake Moody and Brad Robbins to the NFL (when is the last time a team had a kicker and punter drafted in the same year?). Michigan shored up its kicking game by plucking James Turner from the transfer portal. Turner is coming off a solid season at Louisville, where he connected on 20 of 22 field-goal attempts, but losing the best kicker in program history in Moody shouldn’t be minimized.

Final Word

After Michigan lost to TCU in the college football playoffs last season, I wrote that, “Everything lined up for this season. For this game. That Michigan squandered this opportunity will haunt the Wolverines. Maybe Michigan will be back. But it will never have a chance like this again.”

Perhaps. But with the abundance of talent and experience that Michigan returns, the Wolverines could very well make me eat my words.

The Schedule

Michigan plays another soft non-conference schedule, but has to navigate a difficult conference road slate, one that includes trips to Minnesota, Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland before hosting Ohio State in the season finale.

Michigan Schedule

Date Opponent Location
Date Opponent Location
09/02/23 East Carolina Ann Arbor
09/09/23 UNLV Ann Arbor
09/16/23 Bowling Green Ann Arbor
09/23/23 Rutgers Ann Arbor
09/30/23 Nebraska Lincoln
10/07/23 Minnesota Minneapolis
10/14/23 Indiana Ann Arbor
10/21/23 Michigan State East Lansing
10/28/23 Off N/A
11/04/23 Purdue Ann Arbor
11/11/23 Penn State State College
11/18/23 Maryland College Park
11/25/23 Ohio State Ann Arbor

When Talking to a Michigan Fan

Do Mention

Jim Harbaugh and the two-time defending Big Ten champion football team. J.J. McCarthy and Blake Corum. Donovan Edwards and Will Johnson. The NFL Draft and the nine Wolverines selected (only Alabama and Georgia had more players drafted, with ten each). Back-to-back Big Ten championships and Frozen Four berths in hockey. Freshman Adam Fantilli winning the Hobey Baker award (given to the nation’s best college hockey player). Senior wrestler Mason Parras winning both the national championship in the heavyweight division and the Dan Hodge award (given to the nation’s most dominant college wrestler). Michigan’s conference-high 13 Big Ten championships in the 2022-2023 sports year.

Don’t Mention

Basketball season. Please, don’t mention the basketball season.