There were plenty of highs and lows during the 2017 season for the Michigan Wolverines, and unfortunately it was the latter in the Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina on New Year's Day. Michigan was in control early and led 9-3 at halftime. However, five turnovers and some sloppy defense allowed the Gamecocks to come from behind in the second half and beat the Wolverines 26-19 in Tampa. It was a disappointing finish to an 8-5 season (5-4 in the Big Ten), but it wasn't all bad for Michigan in 2017 either.
Offensive MVP: Karan Higdon, RB
Limited options to choose here as the offense failed to move the ball with any consistency in 2017 — due mostly to the rotating door at quarterback. The one bright spot in the backfield was Higdon, who came from relative obscurity to become the team’s leading rusher this season with 994 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging more than six yards per carry. After starting the year as the team’s No. 3 running back, Higdon went on a tear in the second half of the season with two 200-yard performances against Indiana and Minnesota, and a total of nine rushing scores in the final eight games.
Defensive MVP: Devin Bush, LB
This award could go to a number of players, specifically defensive tackle Mo Hurst, but Bush was arguably the most important cog on a defense that yet again finished among the best in the entire country. After seeing limited snaps as a freshman, Bush started all 13 games for the Wolverines, accounting for 103 total tackles, five sacks and an interception. As a sophomore, Bush was named first-team All-Big Ten team and was a third-team All-American honorees as well. He should be even better in 2018, which is scary news for the rest of the conference.
Best Freshman: Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR
Michigan received contributions from a number of freshmen in 2017 but no true standout player. Wide receiver Tarik Black was well on his way to this spot before an injury cut his season short. Fellow wideout Peoples-Jones only caught 22 passes on the year and didn’t record a single touchdown, but showed plenty of flashes and steady improvement along the way — all that you can ask for from a first-year player. Peoples-Jones did his best work as the team’s top punt returner and was a threat to break one at any moment.
Best Newcomer: Quinn Nordin, K
With the offense struggling at the beginning of the year, Nordin was used far more than the staff would like, but the redshirt freshman was practically automatic, hitting 14 of his first 16 field goal attempts in addition to a perfect 17-for-17 on extra points. Nordin struggled to keep that going the entire season, as he missed three of his final four attempts in the regular season ,and got into a sideline spat with his head coach during the game against Maryland. But Nordin has a strong leg and rebounded in a big way in the bowl game — going a perfect 4-for-4 in the loss to South Carolina. Michigan appears to have its kicker for the next three years.
Best Play of the Season: Chase Winovich sack against Florida
Michigan’s best win of the year came in the opener at AT&T Stadium against Florida. Winovich sealed the victory over the Gators with a sack of Florida quarterback Malik Zaire in the end zone, resulting in a fumble. The recovery by the Wolverines' Noah Furbush put the finishing touches on a 33-17 victory.
Best Performance (Player): Karan Higdon vs. Indiana
Michigan’s offense had done little heading into the fourth quarter against Indiana in Week 6. The Wolverines were up just a field goal with 10:25 remaining in the game until Higdon burst through with a 59-yard touchdown run to put Michigan up 10. The lead was not safe though as the Hoosiers came storming back again, ultimately forcing overtime at 20-20. Higdon came through once again with a 25-yard touchdown run that wound up winning the game for the Wolverines. Higdon finished the day with 200 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.
Best Game: Beating Florida in the season opener
The Michigan defense was absolutely lights out in the opening week against the Gators, allowing just 192 yards of total offense and only 11 of those coming on the ground. The Wolverines stormed back after trailing Florida 17-13 at halftime and capped the game off with a bang as Chase Winovich came off of the edge and sacked quarterback Malik Zaire in the end zone. The ball came out and wound up in the hands of linebacker Noah Furbush, effectively ending the game as the 33-17 victory gave Michigan a 1-0 start.
Defining Moment: Home loss to Michigan State
The defining moment of the season for the Wolverines was not a good one. Michigan was rolling into the Michigan State game with a ton of confidence after a smooth 4-0 start. One downpour and five turnovers later and the Wolverines had their first loss of the season and yet another to their in-state rival. Michigan struggled the next two weeks with a narrow win against Indiana and then a blowout loss to Penn State. Had Michigan won against the Spartans, the Wolverines likely would have been playing for more than just pride in the final week of the season against Ohio State, and perhaps the outcome may have been different as well. That loss was the first sour note of what ended up as a disappointing season for the Wolverines.
Biggest Surprise: The secondary
I wanted to pick just one player but the entire group as a whole was impressive considering all four starters had to be replaced from last season. Tyree Kinnel was the only returning player in the group with any experience and provided stability and leadership at safety. Second-year cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill were excellent for much of the year, with Hill garnering a second-team All-Big Ten selection in just his first year as a starter. Sophomores Josh Metellus and Khaleke Hudson have both lived up to their reputations at safety and rover, respectively. Despite replacing the entire secondary, Michigan still finished the regular season with the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the entire country, allowing just 142 yards per game through the air. Unfortunately, the Wolverines weren't as sharp in the Outback Bowl, as South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 239 yards and had two big TD tosses in the second half to fuel the Gamecocks' second-half comeback.
Biggest Disappointment: Rivalry games
This still remains the biggest criticism of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan as the Wolverines went 0-3 in their big rivalry games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State this season. Penn State was the blowout most expected prior to the game. While most expected to lose to Ohio State in The Game, Michigan blew a 14-point, first-quarter lead as the offense went silent basically the entire second half. The Michigan State game was far and away the most disappointing of the three as the Wolverines were at home and favored, yet still couldn’t pull out a win in a downpour after committing five turnovers. Michigan has to start beating these rivals with regularity if the Wolverines are to reach their ultimate goals of winning a championship.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Maurice Hurst, DT
Michigan will lose just three (maybe four depending on Chase Winovich’s NFL decision) starters from this past season with Hurst, Mike McCray and Mason Cole all graduating. While the latter two were stable players and leaders in the locker room, Hurst was arguably the best defensive tackle in the entire country and was named a first-team All-American in 2017. The Wolverines have a replacement already on the roster in sophomore Aubrey Solomon, but the impact of losing an All-American along your defensive front will certainly be felt.
Player to Watch in 2018: Shea Patterson, QB
This one is easy, assuming Patterson is deemed eligible to play immediately instead of sitting out the customary year as a transfer. The former Ole Miss starter is being deemed the possible savior by fans as he gives Michigan their most talented quarterback during Jim Harbaugh's tenure. Patterson played well in seven games for the Rebels, completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns before his season was cut short due to injuries. As with any quarterback that comes into the program, most believe Harbaugh will be able to work his magic and iron out any issues to develop Patterson even further.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Quarterback
Shea Patterson, if he's declared eligible, will be given every chance to take over the starting quarterback job in 2018. But like every recruit that comes into Harbaugh’s program, Patterson was likely promised just one thing — a chance at competing for the starting gig. He won’t be given the spot with sophomore Brandon Peters coming back along with former four-star recruit Dylan McCaffrey. Peters showed enough promise in limited action that makes many think he will be able to challenge Patterson for the job. If a quarterback emerges from the pack, and performs to a higher level than what Wolverine fans have seen the last few years, this can not only be a title contender in the Big Ten, but for a spot in the College Football Playoff next year.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.