Last week’s Cocktail Party Preview laid it out pretty well. After years of frustration and concerns that Michigan might never again beat Ohio State or win the Big Ten, Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines did both. Twice. Add consecutive berths in the college football playoffs and it’s been quite a two-year run for the Wolverines. Conference favorites this year, the Wolverines look to extend their run.
Despite having nine players selected in April’s NFL Draft, Michigan returns an abundance of talent. And in key positions. Favored to extend their run atop the Big Ten and compete for another berth in the College Football Playoffs, the Wolverines find themselves in an unfamiliar position as the hunted rather than the hunter. Loaded with talent and experience, the key to this season just might be how Michigan responds to such lofty expectations.
So what to expect from Michigan this year? How about a little Q&A with our Michigan team.
Are the “Championship or Bust” expectations for this season fair and/or warranted?
Brian: Michigan certainly has the team to compete for a national championship. Putting it plainly, the Wolverines are loaded. So much so that Michigan could have its best team under Jim Harbaugh. And considering Michigan is coming off consecutive Big Ten championships and College Football Playoff appearances, that’s saying something.
But the road won’t be easy. Just getting to the Big Ten Championship game will be incredibly difficult, with Ohio State and Penn State fielding strong (and revenge-minded) teams. With all three teams appearing in many pre-season top tens (Joel Klatt has all three in his top five) no contending team has a tougher path to its conference championship game than do Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. And with teams like Georgia, USC and others waiting in the wings, it won’t get any easier should Michigan advance to the playoffs.
Michigan should be in the mix, to be sure. But a “Championship of Bust” season? No. The biggest problem with the “Championship or Bust” mantra is that it renders anything less than a national championship a failed season. Another season ending in a playoff loss will be disappointing, to be sure. But if Michigan can continue its run atop the Big Ten and advance no further (again), its season would be anything but a failure.
RockyMtnBlue: Which championship? Big Ten? Sure. National? Hell no. “National champs or bust” applies to Alabama, and I guess maybe Georgia these days, but absolutely no one else. The notion of “we were fantastic this year, but the season was a complete failure” is the most college-football-fan thing in the world. You’re all idiots.
First, consider the schedule. The Wolverines get OSU at home, but PSU, MSU, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Maryland are all on the road. This is a high-variance schedule. You know what you don’t get with high-variance schedules? 12-0.
Even if you set that aside Michigan is exactly one J.J. McCarthy or Will Johnson injury away from 3rd place (or worse) in the division. You can be a pretty good team and finish alone in 3rd in the Big Ten East. Right, PSU?
“National Championship or Bust” is absurd.
What is the key to Michigan’s season and its bid to three-peat?
Brian: The key to Michigan’s season may not be whether it finds an effective pass rush or a cornerback able to lock down the starting spot opposite Will Johnson, but how it deals with being the favorite. How do Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines deal with being the hunted, rather than the hunter?
Harbaugh and his players insist that there’s no complacency within the program. Insist that the team is not taking anything for granted and is working as hard as ever. And they better be, because teams will be gunning for Michigan this year. Particularly the one south of the border.
Ohio State isn’t accustomed to losing to Michigan and having done so in consecutive seasons, the Buckeyes will be sufficiently motivated to end that streak. Michigan had better be every bit as motivated to keep it going.
RockyMtnBlue: Dammit, Brian, you took my answer. You just wrote it better.
Fine. I’ll go with “Keep J.J. McCarthy alive and on the football field.” The backups are Jack Tuttle (of Indiana fame) and former walk-on David Warren. Don’t get me wrong. Those guys aren’t disasters or anything. I’d have killed to have either of them in 2017. But they’re a long step down from J.J. McCarthy. With a significantly harder schedule than in 2022, taking a large step back in QB play would not be ideal.
Despite losing so much talent to the NFL, Michigan has surprisingly few questions heading into the season. What’s the biggest of those questions? (One or more)
Brian: Most people are focusing on the secondary. In particular, the corner spot opposite Will Johnson. And indeed, finding a solid corner is important. As is developing a pass rush.
But something that may be flying under the radar a bit is the kicking game. Michigan replaces multi-year starters at kicker and punter - both of whom were drafted in April’s NFL Draft. Kicker Jake Moody, in particular, will be missed.
How spoiled has Michigan been? Harbaugh was asked at the Big Ten Media Days what he typically says to a kicker after a missed big kick. Harbaugh thought about it for a few seconds before finally answering, “I don’t know. I don’t remember the last time a kicker missed a big kick.”
Longtime Michigan fans know very well that one of the constants of Michigan football over the years has been a frustrating kicking game. That ended when Jake Moody secured the starting spot in 2021. All Moody did was connect on 87% of his field goal attempts over the course of his career, including converting 50% from 50 yards or more in his final two seasons at Michigan (highlighted by a CFP record, 59-yarder against TCU). Michigan has several options to replace Moody, including a proven transfer in James Turner, but replacing the best kicker in program history may not be as easy as some think.
RockyMtnBlue: You’re right, the low-hanging fruit here is CB2. Or, for that matter, CB3. You don’t play OSU with just two corners, and right now Michigan doesn’t know if they have more than one.
That said, I’ll go with offensive tackle. Both of them, even though one starter is returning. Michigan’s going to be just fine running the ball. The OL room is very deep in that regard. But teams are going to crash the line with linebackers, trying to stop the run. They’re going to put safeties in the box. Michigan will be forced to throw the ball to soften them up, and I’m not convinced they can protect McCarthy when they do it. It’s telling that most insiders expect a transfer 6-4 guard to win a tackle spot, and probably left tackle at that.
Which team (or teams) represents the biggest threat to Michigan this season?
Brian: Ohio State, obviously. The Buckeyes are both loaded with talent and highly motivated. But don’t sleep on Penn State, particularly with Michigan traveling to Happy Valley. Looking for more of a dark horse? Road games at Minnesota and Maryland could prove more difficult than many expect. But if limited to one team … you know who it is.
RockyMtnBlue: OSU has more NFL talent than any two other teams in the Big10. Maybe more than any 3. They are frightening and I hate them and the world would be a better place if the earth just swallowed up that entire university. As Brian says, the next one is PSU. Just as talented as Michigan, playing in Happy Valley, and pissed off. My darkhorse is Nebraska. The game is in Memorial Stadium, a place Michigan has struggled, and it’s in September so the Corn Crazies will still be excited about the new regime and the stadium will be rocking.
Verdict / Final Thoughts
Prediction time. When all is said and done, how does Michigan’s season play out?
Brian: I’m somewhat cautious by nature. It takes so much - including good fortune - to put together a championship season. It’s tricky proclaiming that “this is the year” for any team. Michigan’s non-conference is soft, but its conference road schedule is difficult, with trips to Michigan State, Penn State, Minnesota and Maryland before hosting Ohio State in the season finale. Yet despite all of this, I think Michigan goes into final game of the season with everything still on the table ... and then gets it done against Ohio State.
RockyMtnBlue: There’s more luck in football than people like to admit and Michigan’s been pretty fortunate the last couple years. The team is loaded, but the good fortune reverts to the mean a bit. Michigan doesn’t play quite as loose as the last couple years. Michigan State puts a bounty on JJ McCarthy. That road schedule (and the knowledge that Michigan is a home-heavy team under Harbaugh). It adds up to a completely respectable 9-3 that too many Michigan fans bitch about and the OTE horse traders thoroughly enjoy.
Off Tackle Empire: Not straying far from the pre-season polls, the staff at OTE predicts a three-horse race between Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. The results of the dozen writers who weighed in predict ten-plus victories for each team, with Ohio State a tick above Penn State and Michigan.