Optimism was brimming this time last year for fans of the Michigan Wolverines as they saw a returning roster chock full of upperclassmen ready to finally break through and make it not only to Indianapolis for the first time, but also to the College Football Playoff. Those dreams were dashed though in November with two late-season road losses to Iowa and Ohio State, effectively eliminating Michigan entirely from both opportunities.
Though not as high coming into 2017, the hopes for the Wolverines this season is that all of the recent success head coach Jim Harbaugh has had on the recruiting trail will now show itself on the football field. If that is the case, Michigan is set up not only this season, but for many to come as a perennial power in college football.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Veteran leadership at most important positions
The Wolverines will be undergoing a youth movement this upcoming season (see below), but do return a host of key starters at some vital spots. For one, junior signal-caller Wilton Speight is back as the starting quarterback. Steady but unspectacular, Speight got the job done (for the most part) in his first year as the starter, throwing for more than 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. His numbers trailed off towards the end of the season, but Speight should be much-improved in Year 2. Also back are left tackle Mason Cole, middle linebacker Mike McCray and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who all decided to return for their senior seasons.
2. Elite defensive line
Not often can a team lose three starters along the defensive front and be improved the next season, but that very well could be the case for the Wolverines. Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich, Bryan Mone and former prized-recruit Rashan Gary all return after receiving extensive playing time in 2016. Gary, who had just one sack as a freshman, could already be the best player on the team and is expected to take a big leap in production as a full-time starter. Finding the proper depth behind those four will be a challenge, but expect this group to carry the defense this fall.
There are those that are not the biggest fans of his antics or persona, but Jim Harbaugh’s ability to coach football and recruit at the collegiate level is unparalleled by few, if any, of his peers. Adding to that, he has by his side one of the best defensive coordinators in college football in Don Brown, who has now led a No. 1 defense in consecutive seasons at both Michigan and previously Boston College. Harbaugh also added former Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to the staff this past offseason as the team’s passing game coordinator. You would be hard-pressed finding a better collection of coaches that can recruit and develop talent than the ones in Ann Arbor.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Youth movement
The depth chart won’t look quite the same heading into 2017 as the Wolverines are losing as many as 17 starters (depending on your source) from last season’s squad that failed to make the College Football Playoff. On Athlon Sports’ projected two-deep, there are 12 sophomores in the starting lineup alone, with only one (guard Ben Bredeson) a a returning starter. Michigan also is expected to get a number of contributions this season from a heralded recruiting class that finished in the top 10 for the second consecutive year. Although the talent coming into Ann Arbor is the best it’s been in years, it may take a season or two to reach its full potential.
2. The State(s)
While some may look at this season as a possible “rebuilding” year for the Wolverines, that is certainly not the case for Big Ten East rivals Ohio State and Penn State, two teams that look poised to crash the playoff party. Both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have offensive talent littered across the lineup, including a pair of Heisman hopeful quarterbacks in J.T. Barrett and Trace McSorley. The schedule does the Wolverines no favors in each of the matchups either with Michigan having to travel to Happy Valley, likely in primetime. They then have to prepare for Ohio State after a massive road matchup against Wisconsin the prior week. Getting through each of those games unscathed would be a tall order.
3. Spotty secondary
Still to be determined, but the likelihood that a secondary having to replace all four of its starters will have its moments of struggles is relatively high. Former four-star recruits David Long and Lavert Hill are expected to start at corner, though most of their snaps came on special teams a year ago. At safety, junior Tyree Kinnel is expected to man the middle at free safety after seeing spot duty the last two seasons. Sophomore Josh Metellus, who started in place of Jabrill Peppers in the Orange Bowl against Florida State, is expected to start at strong safety. In total, that’s just one career start among those four.
Based on pure talent alone, the Wolverines still rank atop the conference with Ohio State despite losing a boatload of starters from last season’s team. The problem for Michigan is that talent is painfully inexperienced. The schedule will allow for some seasoning to take place following the opener against Florida as the non-conference slate isn’t the most daunting, but come late October, the Wolverines better be ready to roll or they might get left behind in the Big Ten race. Michigan looks to be a year away from being in realistic contention for a national title.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 10
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. For College Fantasy Football insight, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.