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Closing Arguments: Michigan

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A new era begins (again) in Ann Arbor.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Case History

The sporting off-season is sometimes referred to as the "silly season."  The rationale being that with no games to play, the restless media resort to reporting increasingly banal happenings in an effort to keep the sports pages full.  If that's the case, it's hard to remember an off-season as silly as the last one in Ann Arbor.  In the last year-plus, Michigan has welcomed a new president, a new athletic director and ultimately a new football coach.  But it was only after that final hire that things really got out of hand, with seemingly daily headlines over satellite camps and shirtlessness, graduate transfers and radio interviews, overseas trips and endless tweets.  The media, both local and national, truly attacked the off-season with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

Mercifully, football is finally on the horizon, and as this silliest of seasons comes to an end, a new chapter in Michigan football begins.  After a rough season (or seasons, to be more precise), it's not just football that's back in Ann Arbor, but excitement as well.  Gone is the despair that prevailed last year, when the program's fate seemed inexorably tied to its increasingly out-of-touch athletic director, Dave Brandon.  In its place are excitement and hope, that after the better part of a decade of struggles, Michigan finally has its coach.

There's little doubt, both among the Michigan faithful as well as those outside the program, that Jim Harbaugh will bring new life to Michigan football.  But what does that mean for 2015?

Opening Statement

Rare is the team enters a new season without questions. With rosters turning over every few years, it's simply a fact of life for college football programs.  Few teams, however, come into the 2015 season with as many questions as does Michigan, with nearly half of its starting line-up unsettled.  Yet it's not as if Harbaugh has inherited a team bereft of talent.  Brady Hoke may have proven incapable of developing talent, but he didn't fail at acquiring it.  So while Michigan may not be where it wants to be, roster-wise, it's not as far away as some might think, with many talented, if unproven, players.  The Wolverines will also be older than they've been in recent years, as upperclassmen will likely fill many of the open positions.  But who will those upperclassmen be?  And will they perform better than their predecessors did?

The question that's been discussed most is whether junior Shane Morris will hold off Iowa transfer Jake Rudock at quarterback.  Morris has said that he's approaching the battle as if it's his job to lose, but he'll need more than self-confidence to lead the Wolverines this fall, as for all his natural ability, Morris has yet to show that he's mastered the nuances of the position.  Working with Harbaugh will undoubtedly help Morris develop, but not enough, at least not yet.  The smart pick to start is Rudock.  Rudock's critics point to a history of being a steady but unspectacular performer, but after the past couple years that Michigan's had, and with few proven playmakers at his disposal, look for Rudock, who completed nearly 62% of his passes while throwing for only five interceptions last season, to be under center when the season starts.

Quarterback may be the most discussed question heading into the season, but it's hardly the only one.  Running back is no less murky.  While the highly-touted duo of Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith got the majority of the carries last season, the only Wolverine to show any real spark was Drake Johnson, who displayed an ability to hit the hole not seen in his fellow backs.  However, indicative of the season that it was, Johnson suffered his second ACL injury in as many years in season finale and can't be counted on this season.  Michigan's running game been has been so underwhelming that most Wolverines fans are hoping that the largely untested Ty Isaac wrests control of the starting spot this season.  The one-time USC Trojan brings size, potential ... and a history of injuries.  If Isaac can stay healthy, he could be Michigan's primary back, but if he continues to be nagged by injuries or doesn't separate himself from the pack, look for more shuffling between Green and Smith.  And if that's the case, then the most important running back in Ann Arbor might one that hasn't had carried the ball in more than a decade, running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, who will try to succeed in getting something out of Green and Smith that Hoke and his staff couldn't.

The receiver position is no more certain.  While Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson lead the pack of receivers, they've also yet to do much to distance themselves from younger players like Maurice Ways or Freddie Canteen - even someone like Drake Harris, who's finally healthy.  If there is a sure thing in the receiving corps, it's tight end Jake Butt, who, after a knee injury of his own, should be fully healthy this season.  Butt provides the Wolverines their only proven difference-maker on offense, and with Harbaugh's history with tight ends, it's a good bet that Butt will be play a key role for Michigan this year.

With all the uncertainty on offense, Michigan could use a solid defense, and fortunately for the Wolverines, that looks like it's the case.  Led by a linebacking corps featuring returners in Desmond Morgan, Joe Bolden and James Ross III, even with a suddenly depleted defensive line and a secondary looking for stability from a redshirt freshman and a graduate transfer, the defense should be the strength of the team and keep Michigan in most games, which is critical with so many questions on offense.

Discovery

What we've learned so far:

Schedule

Date Opponent
September 3 @ Utah
September 12 Oregon State
September 19
UNLV
September 26 BYU
October 3 @ Maryland
October 10 Northwestern
October 17 Michigan State
October 31 @ Minnesota
November 7 Rutgers
November 14 @ Indiana
November 21 @ Penn State
November 28
Ohio State

Emotional Plea

While these position battles will go a long way toward defining Michigan's 2015 season, the key to Michigan's development under Harbaugh won't be who's starting at quarterback as much as it is how the Wolverines play in general.  In short, it's not as much who will play, but how they play.  If there was one hallmark of the Wolverine teams during the Hoke era, it was that despite talk to the contrary, the Wolverines were simply not a physical team.  A team that talked about pushing people around too often got pushed around, and when push came to shove, Hoke's teams all too often collapsed.  That should change under Harbaugh, and evidence of that should be seen this year.  A couple of years ago I wrote that style of play, more than wins and losses, would be the best barometer of where Hoke's Wolverines were as a program.  That question was clearly answered ... for the worst.  Expect a different answer this year, on the field, if not in the record book.

The Verdict

Cleveland.com polled 40 writers from around the Big Ten and the consensus was that Harbaugh would lead Michigan to seven wins in his inaugural season.  Seven wins sounds reasonable, but I think the Wolverines find their way to an eighth win.  Quarterback play will obviously be a key, but aside from that, Michigan hopes that Harbaugh and his staff prove more adept at getting the best out of its players than Hoke and his staff were.  And that's a bet many are willing to make.

How the OTE Staff Sees it

The OTE staff more or less falls in line with the Cleveland.com poll, with Go For Three the most bullish, predicting ten wins (I think he's secretly just trying raise the hopes of those who live in his summer home of Ann Arbor) and our Minnesota writer, White Speed Receiver, the most critical, predicting that the Wolverines will fall short of Hoke's final season's mark.  Ouch.

Writer Overall Conference
Go for Three 10-2 6-2
Candystripes 9-3 5-3
Hilary 9-3 6-2
Lincoln Park Wildcat 9-3 5-3
Brian 8-4 5-3
DJ 7-5 3-5
Graham 7-5 5-3
The Unknown Writer 7-5 4-4
Jesse 7-5 5-3
MN Wildcat 7-5 4-4
Ray Ransom 7-5 4-4
Aaron 6-6 3-5
babaoreally 6-6 4-4
Mike 6-6 4-4
White Speed Receiver 4-8 2-6