I’m gonna start out this preview with a look at some Michigan players I see making a big impact. I went over an entire depth chart preview in my podcast, “The Big Yang Theory” earlier this month. Starting with the defense, Rashan Gary and Mo Hurst are potential all American players on the defensive line. Mike McCray is the defense’s lone returning starter and a team captain. These three players will for sure be making an impact this year. Khaleke Hudson is a guy I like. He is filling in at the VIPER position for Jabrill Peppers which is a hybrid linebacker/safety role. Hudson is a guy who is super physical in the box and has coverage skills (he played safety last year). Devin Bush is a true middle linebacker and I expect him to be blitzing a lot under Defensive Coordinator Don Brown, and living in the backfield either stopping the run or in the pass rush. Both Hudson and Bush are sophomores and while they didn’t start last year they saw time on special teams. The secondary is inexperienced and unproven and will be the weakest unit on defense.
On offense, Wilton Speight will likely be the starter and I expect him to make a large improvement in his third year with Jim Harbaugh. He already had a good grasp of the offense last year, but struggled with accuracy. Also the addition of passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton should help create more protections to give Speight more time in the pocket. Mason Cole is a senior and is starting at left tackle; he is one of the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten, and should be the bright spot on the offensive line which is Michigan’s weakest position group on offense. Tarik Black is a true freshman that coaches have been raving about in the offseason. He is super polished and versatile despite not having played a single snap of college football. Lastly, Chris Evans is a guy who I expect to have a breakout year. He primarily took 3rd down duties last year and he should have a much heavier workload in his sophomore season.
Obviously, any team can win on any given Saturday, but realistically, there are only 4 games Michigan can lose this year. Michigan opens with Florida in Cowboys Stadium. Florida has 10 players suspended including their best player, Antonio Callaway, and leading running back Jordan Scarlett. Florida has a strong defense and could give Michigan’s offense some trouble. They have some inexperience in the secondary and lost senior safety Marcell Harris for the year. If Speight and the passing game can get going, they can overwhelm Florida’s defensive backs.
Florida is starting redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks along with a lot of inexperience at the offensive skill positions (with Callaway and Scarlet out). Florida’s offensive line is good, but Florida’s offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s vanilla play calling will be no match for Don Brown’s exotic scheme. This should be an easy victory for Michigan who will be wearing all maize uniforms for the first time since 1928.
The next big game will be October 21st against Penn State in Happy Valley which will be a ‘white out’ night game. Penn State is ranked in the top 5 pre season mostly based off of their hot finish last year. Running back Saquon Barkley is a favorite by many to win the Heisman and is the best running back in the country. A lot of the success of Penn State’s offense came with the deep ball, but Penn State loses its number 1 deep threat weapon Chris Godwin to the NFL. This will hurt Penn State’s offense a lot more than people think. Mike Geseke was another great pass catcher and red zone threat. So yes, Penn State has some true superstars on their team, but their roster isn’t as deep top to bottom as Michigan’s, and I think Michigan can shock the Nittany Lions on the road.
Wisconsin is another team ranked in the top 10 preseason. They had an elite defense last year, and should have a good defense this year. They lost one of their best defenders in Jack Cichy for the season, which will hurt them tremendously. The problem last year with Wisconsin is that their offense can stagnate at times. Wisconsin loses their top two running backs from last year to the draft. They bring back their quarterback Alex Hornibrook and best receiver Jazz Peavy. This game will be late in the season, but if Wisconsin can’t figure out their offensive woes by then, Michigan will walk into Madison and leave with a win.
The Michigan Ohio State game is the best rivalry in college sports and anything can happen in a rivalry game. Ohio State improved their running back situation with true freshman J.K Dobbins started their opener against Indiana over Mike Weber and looked very impressive in their opener against Indiana. Granted, Weber is recovering from a hip injury, but Dobbins already looks like he is better than Weber was last year. The offensive line, which was dreadful in 2016, has looked improved this year as they bring back 4 of 5 starters. Quarterback J.T Barrett is well… J.T. Barrett. The same quarterback OSU has trotted out for the past 3 years returns for his senior season as a Buckeye. Not super athletic and not the strongest arm, but a true game manager who makes the right decisions within the offense. He is a very accurate passer, but only in nice weather. The receiving core is returning but probably OSU’s weakest position group. They have depth at the WR position, but no receiver has stepped up to be a consistent player within the offense. Paris Campbell is OSU’s most talented receiver and he will likely step up if anyone does.
OSU’s defense will be great. Their already elite defensive line from last year are all returning. Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa are just some examples of OSU D-lineman that have All-American potential. Chris Worley slides from outside to middle linebacker and Jerome Baker continues to be one of the best and most versatile linebacker/safety hybrids in the country. OSU’s secondary is questionable. OSU lost three defensive backs in the first round of the draft. Returning cornerback Denzel Ward has received a lot of hype this year, but he doesn’t have experience playing heavy minutes. The rest of the secondary has very little experience. If Michigan can develop its passing game by Thanksgiving, they can surely exploit OSU’s secondary. But they need to protect Speight against OSU’s pass rush.
Unlike a lot of teams Michigan will face this year, Ohio State has an elite coaching staff. They bring in Kevin Wilson to be their Offensive Coordinator who runs an up-tempo attack. Michigan will need to establish good depth by the end of the season on defense or they will be gassed by this hurry-up offense. Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano is just as good as Don Brown. And Urban Meyer is an elite head coach. I think if the weather is good, OSU’s offense will roll over Michigan’s defense that is just not deep enough, and the Buckeyes will win. But if the weather is ugly, Michigan can stack the box and contain the run. Michigan has better depth at the running back position, and can eek out just enough points on offense to win.
This is a regular season preview, but if Michigan runs the table, which I think they do as long as Doug Nussmeier remains Florida’s offensive coordinator, Penn State’s role players don’t step up, Wisconsin’s offense remains stagnant, and the weather is ugly against Ohio State, Michigan plays Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. If they win, they will face USC, Florida State or LSU in the playoffs.