The Michigan Wolverines have seemingly always been a national powerhouse and a respected program but it wasn’t that long ago that the team was struggling. From 2006, the last time it contended for a national title, to the end of the 2014 season, the team was a shell of its former glory, compiling a pedestrian 55-46 record. The program didn’t win anything of consequence and didn’t deserve to be mentioned among the other titans of the national landscape. Boy, have things changed since Jim Harbaugh has taken the head coaching position. With his illustrious coaching resume, flamboyant sideline antics, hard-nosed personality and khaki pants, he has reinvigorated Michigan and almost overnight, brought the team back to the national conversation. Now this team is poised to make a run at a Big Ten title and a college football championship.
As far as the schedule is concerned, getting off to a 3-0 start shouldn’t be too difficult for Michigan as it takes on Hawaii and Central Florida, both of which are coming off disappointing seasons with new coaching staffs, and a Colorado club that accumulated four total victories. The Wolverines will then face Penn State and Wisconsin, but will be within the friendly confines of the Big House. In fact, Michigan leaves the state just once before November 12. After a trip to Rutgers and a bye, the Wolverines will host Illinois before venturing into East Lansing, where they will be hungry for revenge after last season’s devastating loss in the waning seconds. After that battle for state pride, there is a winnable matchup versus Maryland and a tough trip west to Iowa. To close out the year, Indiana, who nearly pulled off the upset in 2015, comes to town, then the grand finale will be a ferocious battle with the Silver Bullets down in Columbus. It’s not inconceivable to see the Wolverines to rack up 9-10 wins this season as they most likely will be favored in most of their matchups. Two possible hiccups are undoubtedly Michigan State and Ohio State, where they have had trouble playing at in the past few years. Iowa will also be fully loaded and Wisconsin is no slouch either but it helps having eight home games.
Michigan is looking for a replacement under center and a competition has been brewing between John O’Korn, Wilton Speight and Shane Morris.
O’Korn was named the American Athletic Conference’s freshman of the year in 2013 at Houston and was sidelined last season due to NCAA rules after transferring to Michigan. He has the most experience out of any of the quarterbacks with 34 career touchdowns and showcased his athleticism as the starter for the Blue team in the spring game, scrambling for three first downs and a rushing touchdown.
Speight has limited experience as he appeared in only five games in 2015 and completed just nine of 25 passes, though he did help Michigan secure a victory against Minnesota. He was the signal caller for the Maize team in the spring game and led two drives that resulted in touchdowns for a 14-13 victory. As for Morris, he saw action in his first two seasons but opted to redshirt and watch from the sidelines after falling behind Jake Rudock in last year’s quarterback competition. Known for his strong arm, the lefty still has yet to throw a touchdown in his career.
It’s a long time until the start of the season but if the spring game was any indication, O’Korn and Speight have pulled ahead of Morris and both look like viable, solid options to run the offense.
Fortunately, whoever quarterbacks the team will have a bevy of options to choose from as Michigan returns virtually all of its offensive production from last season with seniors Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and Jake Butt leading the way. All three combined for 159 catches, 2,145 yards and 19 touchdowns and each one is a downfield threat defenses must account for. Butt (51 catches for 654 yards) is arguably the nation’s top returning tight end. If that isn’t enough, a player to watch out for is Grant Perry, who had a breakout game against Florida in last season’s Citrus Bowl with five catches, 51 yards and a touchdown.
For the past several seasons, the offensive line has been an area of concern for Michigan but in 2015, particularly after the Utah game, the line seemed to rebound mightily with better pass protection. Much of that success was due to the strong play of center Graham Glasgow. The Wolverines will no longer have the services of Glasgow but are very high on his potential replacement Mason Cole, a starter for two years at left tackle who moved to center this spring. Sophomore Grant Newsome looks like the most likely starter at left tackle as its three other starters, tackle Erik Magnuson and guards Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis, are all fifth-year seniors, making Michigan one of the most experienced lines in the conference.
Last, it remains to be seen if any of the running backs can break the 1,000 yard mark, something that hasn’t happened since Fitzgerald Toussaint gained 1,041 yards in 2011. They have the personnel to do so but it all comes down to execution. De’Veon Smith accumulated 753 yards and six touchdowns while backup Drake Johnson performed well in a limited role, gaining 271 yards and four touchdowns. Notable departures from last year’s team are Derrick Green, Joe Kerridge and Sione Houma. They combined for 403 yards and eight touchdowns while Houma led the group with 184 yards and five touchdowns.
It’s no secret that Michigan’s defense was one of the best in college football last season and a big reason for that was the excellent guidance and tutelage from former defensive coordinator, DJ Durkin. But Durkin left to become the head coach of Maryland and many wondered who could replicate his success. Well, the Wolverines made a nice pickup by luring Don Brown away from Boston College. Time will tell if the hire was right and he will undoubtedly be heavily scrutinized if the defense struggles. If numbers are any indication (Boston College defense allowed the fewest yards per game in college football last fall at 254.3), it could be a scary unit for opposing offenses to face.
After finishing fourth nationally in yards allowed per game (280.7), the defensive line has the potential to be even more outstanding if not the best in the country period. Yes, Willie Henry left for the NFL draft but Bryan Mone, who was slated to be the starter before breaking his leg last fall, is already back. Joining him will be senior defensive ends Chris Wormley, who led Michigan with 14.5 tackles for loss a year ago, and Taco Charlton, as well as the top-ranked recruit in America, five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary. The Wolverines also have Ryan Glasgow, Matt Godin and Maurice Hurst to add to the mix. All of this means that Michigan is fully loaded with talent, experience, depth and versatility up front.
One of the big changes the Wolverines have to deal with is player turnover at linebacker. There is a sizable hole as starters Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden as well as James Ross have graduated. To compensate for the loss, highly-talented sophomore Jabril Peppers has made the transition from safety to strongside linebacker and is a virtual lock for the spot. If the versatile Peppers improves upon a stellar freshman year, he could be a coveted prospect for the 2017 NFL draft. Throughout spring, seniors Mike McCray and Ben Gedeon have been lining up beside him but will have to hold off junior Noah Furbush and a handful of promising underclassmen, including highly touted early enrollee Devin Bush.
As for the secondary, Michigan ranked first in the Big Ten in pass defense last season and should be even more fundamentally sound as it returns shutdown cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Lewis, a fantastic athlete with solid speed, was second in the conference with a school-record 22 passes defended, which earned him second-team All-American honors. Delano Hill is the current starter at the strong safety position and Dymonte Thomas, who has played four different positions at Michigan, including cornerback and linebacker, has settled in at free safety as team leader Jarrod Wilson (61 tackles and two interceptions) has moved on. Cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, a fifth-year senior, provide even more experience and will be battling for the other corner position.
I had a hard time predicting what record this team will end up with. There’s a ton of hype and extremely high expectations surrounding this team this season. They have the potential to win a conference title and make a playoff appearance but could also easily fall short like they did last season especially with their quarterback situation. However, I’m a big proponent that defense wins championships and they will boast one of the top units. Plus, following the results in the spring game, I’d be optimistic because both O’Korn and Speight looked like capable starting quarterbacks. Moreover, they have Jim Harbaugh, who has a proven track record and last season, you could definitely see an improvement as the team epitomized the grit and toughness he exuded. Yet, even so, I still think the Buckeyes are the team to beat and, I believe, will win the Big Ten. Michigan will finish 11-1, 8-1 conference.