So here we are. Michigan finishes the 2017 football season 8-4 and 5-4 in Big Ten play. Entering the season, the realm of possibilities was between 8-4 and 12-0. The projection based on S&P+ numbers had Michigan pegged for 8.9 wins. So in some ways, the season wasn’t too unexpected. But as always, the roller coaster of the moment is more treacherous than the long view of the program. Frustration, disappointment, hope, all the emotions are there as Jim Harbaugh wraps up season #3. The honeymoon is over. It’s go time now. How should we view the wreckage of 2017, the impending 2018 run, and the future of the program? Let’s take a look:
Sorting through the wreckage of 2017
Michigan homers were extremely optimistic on the outlook for 2017. Realists adhered to the 8.9 win projection. So 8-4 doesn’t seem too bad. The basic facts of the scenario, none that Harbaugh really could have avoided, created issues for the team. Let’s start with the offensive line, where Michigan lost three starters from the 2016 team, Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis, and Erik Magnuson. The 2017 team was dependent on Grant Newsome, who Harbaugh had recruited to fill the gap between those three and the young highly touted tackle recruits joining Michigan this season. Unfortunately, Newsome’s catastrophic knee injury last season sidelined him for the entire 2017 campaign. This forced Mason Cole to move back to left tackle from center and created a gaping hole at right tackle. No one would dare start a true freshman at that position, so they were left with two very bad options: Nolan Ulizio and Juwann Bushell-Beatty.
The other downside of that injury is that it forced Patrick Kugler into action at center, a former star recruit whose development was severely stunted by Brady Hoke. Kugler was given many chances over his five years at Michigan, including the middle of last season when Newsome went down. Ben Braden moved to LT and it opened up a slot at guard. Yet instead of the 4th year Kugler, true freshman Ben Bredeson got action and was pretty terrible. If Kugler wasn’t better than that iteration of Bredeson….. uh oh. The combination of a very bad RT and a center who couldn’t set protection accurately, along with a pair of sophomore guards, created a mess. It was unable to maul weaker opponents like in past seasons and when they faced more elite competition, problems arose. In pass protection, it was a disaster. Michigan allowed 34 sacks, among the most in the country, and forced their QB’s to face pressure all season long. It also broke their best 2 QB’s, Wilton Speight (week 4, out for the year) and Brandon Peters (week 12, missed OSU game).
The final issue offensively was the receiving corps. Freshman receivers suck. That’s just a fact. The elite high school recruits are used to using their physical tools to get open and thus, aren’t as polished as they need to be to compete at the collegiate level. Michigan recruited four 4-star and above WR’s in the 2017 class. Of those 4, only Tarik Black was polished enough to be a force early on. And he was lost for the year in week 4. Michigan lost to graduation their only three dynamic pass catchers from the 2016 team and without receivers who knew what they were doing, the offense was permanently stunted. It should be of little surprise that given the combination of a disastrous offensive line and no viable receiving options, Michigan’s quarterbacks struggled. Wilton Speight looked shaken and without confidence, John O’Korn was just mechanically terrible, and Brandon Peters was raw. And the situation around them didn’t help one bit.
Defensively, the team was forced to replace 10 starters and yet, Michigan’s defense remained very strong. As good as 2016’s? No. But good enough to have a better record than they did. They shut down Wisconsin consistently until appearing to fold after watching Brandon Peters be knocked from the game. They held Ohio State, S&P+’s 4th best offense in the country entering the game, to under 300 yards with only a few minutes to go in the fourth quarter, when they once again folded after John O’Korn’s crushing interception. Put simply, the defense was good enough to give Michigan a chance to beat the two teams playing this Saturday for the Big Ten title. The offense wasn’t up to snuff. In the meantime, Rashan Gary became the monster we all thought he would become, Chase Winovich broke out, Devin Bush became one of the nation’s top LB’s, Mo Hurst became a first round NFL pick, and David Long and Lavert Hill began to form their own No Fly Zone. Yes, the safeties were the weak point of the unit, but to lose 10 guys and remain a Top 10 defense by every important metric is damn impressive. We should accept the fact that as long as Jim Harbuagh is Michigan’s head coach, he’s going to field a defense good enough to win titles.
A look at 2018
Entering the season, realistic folks saw 2018 as the year. And it’s not hard to see why. Let’s take a look at a potential depth chart
WR 1 Left Tackle - Left Guard - Center - Right Guard - Right Tackle WR2
DPJ Grant Newsome Ben Bredeson Cesar Ruiz Mike Onwenu Stueber/Filiaga Tarik Black
Tight End RB
Now this depth chart is depending on the health of Grant Newsome’s knee. Who knows about how it will turn out, but a quick look at his Twitter reveals that he is working his ass off to rehab and has every intention of returning for the 2018 season. If he could come back, that would be a massive boost. It would, at the very least, maintain the same quality of pass protection as Mason Cole at that spot. Meanwhile, the guards Bredeson and Onwenu will return, and both made big strides as the season went on. As they enter their junior year, Michigan will look to them to carry the weight of the line. Plugging in Cesar Ruiz at center is important, not just because he’s a natural center prospect who should be ready to play, but because he’s Not Patrick Kugler. Losing him alone will be addition-by-subtraction. Also, Ruiz got several starts at the end of the season when Onwenu went down with injury, giving him some much needed seasoning. That means that if all goes well health-wise, Michigan will run four guys out on the offensive line who have started at least three games in their career. In 2017, they only started two such players. Finally, the RT position should be seized by one of the young tackles who spent this season redshirting, learning the playbook, and bulking up. Whether it’s Andrew Stueber or Chuck Filiaga, Michigan should have elite talent at that position, which also at the very least, is an upgrade over 2017. How they will perform, no one knows. But in terms of talent and preparedness, it’s a big step up over this year.
Most importantly, the skill players all return, with Evans and Higdon the starters in the backfield, Kareem Walker getting more carries and O’Maury Samuels likely getting some garbage time looks. At TE, Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry both return, and Michigan will bring all of their WR’s back, DPJ, Tarik Black, Kekoa Crawford, Grant Perry, Eddie McDoom, Nico Collins, Nate Schoenle, and Oliver Martin will all return. Ben Mason plugs in at fullback for Khalid Hill but he had already started getting snaps late in the season. It will largely be a continuation of what there was this year and in at least two positions, there should be improvement. A whole offseason of practicing together will be big.
And then there’s QB. Will it be Speight? Or will it be Peters? Sorry Evan, it’s not going to be Joe Milton. And it’s probably not going to be Dylan McCaffrey. In a season that will come with high expectations, look for Harbaugh to turn to one of the two guys with substantial starting experience. I give the edge to Peters, as he was an actual Harbaugh recruit and he certainly has more raw talent. But Speight was also one of the best QB’s in the conference in 2016 before his injury. It will be a long battle but whoever wins the job will have lots of scrutiny and pressure, high expectations, and will have to play in tough environments next year (more on that in a bit).
Now onto the defense, as we look at the depth chart:
Defensive End- Defensive Tackle- Defensive Tackle- Defensive End-
Rashan Gary Aubrey Solomon Bryan Mone Chase Winovich*
OLB MLB Viper
Devin Bush Jr. Anthony/Ross/Singleton Khaleke Hudson
Lavert Hill David Long
Josh Metellus Tyree Kinnel
This unit could return as many as 9 starters, with the other two spots being filled by elite recruits. Winovich is the question mark, as he could leave for the draft or he could return. If he leaves, then expect Carlo Kemp or whoever else to fill in at DE. 5 star sophomore Aubrey Solomon plugs in on the defensive line for Maurice Hurst, and he’s gotten quite a few snaps throughout the year, so he should be game ready. Bush and Hudson both return, as does the entire secondary. I could see Michigan upgrading at safety, given that that was the team’s weakness, but if not, Metellus and Kinnel should be the guys. Mike McCray leaves at MLB and will be replaced by the winner of a positional battle between Jordan Anthony, Drew Singleton, and Josh Ross, all of whom will be more athletic than McCray, which could be a boost to the defense right there. With so many guys returning, I expect that this defense will take a step forward and go from a top 10 unit to a top 5 unit. Michigan will be good enough defensively to go to the promised land.
As for the schedule, it’s a tricky one. Michigan faces Notre Dame in South Bend in week 1, which will be a big measuring stick. Notre Dame is perpetually overrated and will lose half their team to graduation, including 4 of 5 offensive line starters. It’s a game Michigan should win, and it will set the tone for the entire season. Then the Wolverines get Western Michigan, SMU, and Nebraska in Ann Arbor, before traveling to Evanston to play Northwestern and then hosting Maryland, a nice 5 game stretch to gain some confidence. The second half of the schedule is much tougher, playing Wisconsin at home in week 7 and at MSU in week 8. Then comes the bye week before a home game against Penn St., a road game at Rutgers, a home game against Indiana, and then The Game in Columbus. It’s a schedule with its fair share of very good opponents, no question. But that shouldn’t stop a great team from winning the conference.
The future of the program and expectations
As I mentioned earlier, the honeymoon period is now over for Jim Harbuagh. Coaches should always be given three years before they can really be judged. In three seasons, he has amassed a 28-10 record (.737), and an 18-8 record (0.643) in Big Ten play. He’s took a broken down program and resuscitated it, reeling in Top 5 recruiting classes in the process. But the monkey on his back continues to be the 1-5 against MSU and OSU mark, and an equally dismal mark against top 10 teams. But the important question is: how close are they to getting over the hump?
WCBN alum and eternal pessimist Kevin Cline predicted before the Ohio State game that it would be 31-3 in favor of OSU and saying “I just want it to be exposed how far away from elite or great (Michigan is)”. Well Kevin, we saw how far away Michigan is: down 4 with the ball on their own 30 and 3 minutes to go. When you examine the record against top 10 teams, you see that consistently, Michigan had their chances to win the games. Against FSU in the Orange Bowl, OSU the last two years, Wisconsin this year, and MSU in 2015, this was the case. So, no the program isn’t miles away. They’re really close. But until it happens, these issues will continue to nag Harbaugh.
And this leads us to 2018. And 2019 for that matter. These next two years will determine Jim Harbuagh’s fate in Ann Arbor. Put simply, Jim Harbaugh has to win a Big Ten title in the next two years, or his tenure is a failure. Plain and simple. He entered in tough conditions, no question. He took over a program that was in much worse shape than say, when Urban Meyer took over OSU. And in terms of rivalry opponents, that is true too. He’s competing on a yearly basis against one of the 5 greatest coaches in college football history running an established juggernaut, along with a Top 10 college football coach bringing his program to a 50 year high. It’s not like he’s facing John Cooper and John L. Smith.
But the excuses stop now because Harbaugh finally has his guys. He’s recruited the players he wants at every position, and a quick look at the depth chart shows that the only Brady Hoke players that will start next season are Bryan Mone, Winovich (if he returns), and Speight (if he’s the starter). This will be a Harbaugh team. His guys, and with elite talent. It’s time that they go out and win. Looking at the Big Ten, Michigan is going to have the best combination of talent and experience in the conference. Only Ohio State can rival the raw talent of Michigan and only Michigan State can rival the experience of Michigan in terms of returning starters. The Wolverines should have a high preseason ranking and the expectation should be a Big Ten title. Anything less than that is a failure. This is a two year window where it’s now or never. Yes, there are questions at tackle and at quarterback, but every team has questions. It’s just the great ones solve those. It’s time to prove that the Michigan Wolverines are a great team.