After last season's disappointing showing, Michigan fans are anxious for Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines to take that next step forward. Harbaugh has reshuffled his offensive staff but the key will be how quarterback Shea Patterson fares in his first season in Ann Arbor. Patterson has weapons to work with but there are questions up front. That's not the case with the defense, however, as eight starters return from one of the nation's stingiest units last season. If the offense improves behind Patterson, Michigan's rugged schedule will provide the Wolverines with plenty of opportunities to build their resume for a potential College Football Playoff berth.
Previewing Michigan Football's Offense for 2018
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Michigan's attack lacked identity, organization and leadership in 2017. Harbaugh, Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton tried to implement a complicated NFL-style offense with a host of freshmen and sophomores, and the results were predictable: No. 105 in total offense, No. 91 in scoring offense and only nine TD passes (fewest for Michigan since 1975).
Drevno's out, Ed Warinner and Jim McElwain are in, and Hamilton remains, although there's no official offensive coordinator. Michigan also brought in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson at quarterback, who was granted immediate eligibllity by the NCAA in late April. Patterson outpaced Michigan's entire pass offense by himself last season in just seven starts at Ole Miss, throwing for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns.
While Patterson's arrival is reason for optimism, he'll be playing behind a questionable offensive line and will have to develop chemistry quickly with talented young receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. The running game was one of the few bright spots offensively, and the return of Karan Higdon and Chris Evans gives Michigan some stability in the backfield.
Michigan has talent. But it needs to be developed, and the offense needs to be simplified. If Harbaugh can get back to building a solid foundation around a few key players, his offense can become efficient again.
Previewing Michigan Football's Defense for 2018
The offense may have been a mess, but the Michigan defense was outstanding. The bigger frustration for Michigan fans, frankly, was how much an elite defense was wasted in 2016 and 2017. Well it's a good thing the Wolverines bring back most of the key pieces from last year's No. 3-ranked unit.
The Wolverines return 14 sacks between standout ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. The team does lose All-America nose tackle Maurice Hurst, but former five-star prospect Aubrey Solomon is poised for a big year inside with veteran Bryan Mone and surging third-year nose tackle Michael Dwumfour.
The Wolverines have an All-America inside linebacker in Devin Bush and an All-America candidate next to him in Khaleke Hudson.
Michigan featured the best pass defense in America last season, allowing just 150.1 yards per game and 5.9 yards per attempt. Every starter in the secondary is back. Lavert Hill and David Long were graded as two of the top man-to-man cover corners nationally by Pro Football Focus.
Previewing Michigan Football's Specialists for 2018
Quinn Nordin had his hiccups a year ago, but a 19-of-24 performance on field goals from a first-year placekicker isn't too bad. Brad Robbins, like Nordin, had his problems, but he also showed flashes of why he was rated as the country's top-ranked punting prospect coming out of high school in 2017. Peoples-Jones was one of the best rookie punt returners in America last season.
This is a pivotal season for Harbaugh, whose struggles against his three main rivals are well documented. His fourth Michigan team will once again be outstanding on defense. If the offense, a trouble spot in recent years, shows any improvement, this team can compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff — even against a difficult schedule that includes the usual suspects from the Big Ten East as well as Notre Dame (on the road) and Wisconsin (the top team from West). However, if the quarterback play remains an issue and the offensive line doesn't progress, it will be more of the same in Ann Arbor.