Consecutive 10-win seasons for virtually any program in college football is deemed a big success. That has been the case for Michigan who, despite also finishing third place in their division each of the last two seasons as well, has been back in the picture among the better teams in the country since Jim Harbaugh arrived.
The 2017 season though will be a fascinating one to see the last for Harbaugh & Co. in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines had 11 players drafted this past spring, more than any other school and also a program record. So there’s a lot of turnover from the 2016 team.
How will Harbaugh and Michigan respond come this fall? These are three questions that need to be answered before the opening kick.
1WHO MAKES A BIG SPLASH ON DEFENSE?
The bulk of the wholesale changes in the roster for Michigan are on defense. The entire first-string unit was either drafted or signed as a free agent post-draft, all but one: linebacker Mike McCray. The senior will undoubtedly be one of if not the biggest leader for what will be a completely new crop of defenders.
McCray won’t be alone though, he will have a pair of Chuck Bednarik Award watch list honorees, fellow senior Maurice Hurst Jr. and rising sophomore Rashan Gary. Barring injuries, one can safely expect this trio to meet and perhaps exceed expectations.
But what about the rest of the defense? Michigan will look for continued development and maturation from Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich up front to help Hurst and Gary. There’s also multiple high-profile freshman who should see regular time right from the get-go.
There’s no question that there is some talent and potential there once again. But with a lot of new pieces joining the puzzle, it is reasonable to expect that the Wolverine defense may not gel immediately. Patience is key.
2WILTON SPEIGHT NEEDS HELP
Like some notable names on defense, Michigan fans will be looking for continued improvement in junior quarterback Wilton Speight. Speight will presumably be the starter once again so long as he stays healthy and there’s no setbacks in his growth.
That alone will be a storyline in itself. But the bigger one could be rest of the offense for Michigan. There wasn’t as much roster turnover on this side of the football for the Wolverines, but the notable names lost were all targets for Speight in 2016.
The team’s top three receivers from last season — Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson — have all moved on to the NFL, as has running back De’Veon Smith. So in come some fresh faces.
Tailback Chris Evans appears prime to take over the everyday role in the backfield. Evans logged 614 yards on the ground, second only to Simth, and 7.0 yards per carry in 2016. At tight end, there could be a rotation of sorts, led by returning senior Khalid Hill and Mackey Award watch list member Tyrone Wheatley Jr. On the outside, look for some true freshman to emerge and perhaps make an impact right away, namely Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black.
Like on defense, there could be a minor adjustment period of sorts early on for the Michigan offense. But if there’s a coaching staff that can speed up that process, it’s Harbaugh and his crew.
3ANOTHER THIRD PLACE FINISH IN THE EAST DIVISION?
Jim Harbaugh has achieved its goal of getting Michigan back into the national limelight both on and off the field. Just when you think he’s pulled out all the stops, he is trying something new and grabbing attention by the fistfuls left and right.
However, where they have finished each of the last two seasons is probably not what most Michigan fans had envisioned. Sure, a 20-6 record and flirting with a College Football Playoff appearance is nice. Unfortunately, all it has gotten them so far is a pair of third-place finishes in the Big Ten East Division. Granted, a couple bounces here and there in some games over the last two seasons, and they’re competing for at least one, perhaps both of the last two Big Ten crowns. But in a results-based business, that can only carry so much weight.
So is this the year Michigan will get over the hump in the Big Ten? They’re definitely a contender for the title, and there’s multiple opportunities on this year’s schedule that allow them to really pad the resume.
It should be very interesting to watch in what should be another top-heavy East Division race, with Ohio State and Penn State sitting along side Michigan as the obvious favorites. It won’t come as any surprise if Michigan finds it way to Indianapolis, but equally not surprising if they finished in third place once again.