The talent is there for the Wolverines to make the playoff, but will their schedule hold them back from doing so?
Despite a vastly underwhelming 2017 season, expectations are considerably high for the Michigan Wolverines entering next year. Coming in at No. 5 in Athlon Sports' Top 25, the Wolverines bring back 14 starters and are littered with experience after being forced to play so many underclassmen a season ago.
The pressure is still firmly on Jim Harbaugh and his staff entering 2018 as he is now 1-5 against his closest rivals and has yet to make an appearance in the Big Ten title game. With potentially his best roster since arriving in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh needs to have his team squarely in the mix to compete for a championship this season.
Will that be for a Big Ten championship? Or is this Wolverines’ squad capable of more?
Below are reasons why Michigan can or cannot compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2018.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Dominant defense
The No. 3-ranked overall defense in college football last season brings back eight starters in 2018 with playmakers at every level. Defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich return after combining for 14 sacks a year ago. Former All-American Maurice Hurst departs on the interior, but former 5-star recruit Aubrey Solomon showed glimpses late last season of being a capable replacement and junior Michael Dwumfour was a standout performer in spring practices.
The Wolverines also have two All-American candidates at linebacker with junior Devin Bush and viper Khaleke Hudson. And in the secondary, all four starters return from the best pass defense in the country last season, allowing just 150 yards per game through the air. There is very little reason to think that Michigan won’t duplicate last year’s defensive effort once again.
2. Shea Patterson is adequate
This isn’t to say that Patterson will be just adequate in 2018, but that might be all Michigan needs from its quarterback to potentially make the College Football Playoff. They don’t need Tom Brady under center to win big this season, not with this defense.
The Wolverines won eight games last season where their quarterbacks combined for just nine touchdown passes on 346 attempts. Navy had more passing touchdowns (10) running the triple option while attempting 244 FEWER passes. Yikes. If Michigan is able to merely double that number from last season, you would have to figure the Wolverines will be in good shape considering their defense.
3. Skill positions are loaded
This group doesn’t get the pub it probably should because of the struggles at quarterback, but this is one of the better collections of skill players in the Big Ten. Running back and tight end are in stable hands with the top two options returning at both spots. Veterans Karan Higdon and Chris Evans are back after rushing for a combined 1,679 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2017. At tight end, Sean McKeon led the team last season with three touchdown receptions and is joined by 6-foot-7 junior Zach Gentry, who was just behind with two TD grabs.
The unknown is at wide receiver where Michigan has four former 4-star recruits entering their second season, who have combined for a total 36 catches and one touchdown. Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones reportedly had outstanding spring camps and are expected to start on the outside. Nico Collins and Oliver Martin will have every chance to make an impact. And don’t forget about senior Grant Perry, who is reliable in the slot.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Brutal schedule
The Wolverines have their work cut out for them with an unforgiving slate of games in 2018, starting immediately in Week 1 with a road trip to South Bend. Michigan will actually face all three of its biggest rivals -- Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State -- on the road this season, while also taking on Big Ten powers Wisconsin and Penn State at home. In total, the 2017 win percentage for Michigan’s opponents next season is .616. If Wolverines are to make the playoff, they will have to earn it.
2. Questions along the offensive line
Just two spots are solidified up front as the Wolverines near the start of fall camp with sophomore Cesar Ruiz at center and Ben Bredeson at left guard. Junior Michael Onwenu probably starts at right guard but has struggled with inconsistencies in pass protection and is being challenged by Stephen Spanellis. Regardless of who wins that job, Michigan should be just fine on the interior.
The major question marks reside at the tackle spots where Michigan needs to replace former starter Mason Cole at left tackle, and solve the revolving door on the right side. Veterans Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan are competing along with a trio of redshirt freshmen, but aside from Bushell-Beatty, all options here are very green in terms of experience. Given the amount of talent at the skill positions, and improvements at quarterback, if the Wolverines falter on offense in 2018, the line could be the main culprit.
3. Safety play
The one downside to defensive coordinator Don Brown’s physical man-press coverage is the susceptibility to the big play. Whether it was the blowout loss to Penn State or late in the second half in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, the safeties for Michigan were the frequent target for opposing quarterbacks. When the Wolverine defense faltered in the second half comeback for Ohio State, it was three passes of 25 yards or more that played a huge role. The back end of the defense needs to be shored up if Michigan is to make that playoff push.
Upperclassmen Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus both return in 2018, but will face competition from five incoming freshmen as well as Utah transfer Casey Hughes who could compete for time.
While the Notre Dame matchup in Week 1 will be important, it is not do or die. We have seen plenty of cases already where a team can lose in the opening game and still make it to the College Football Playoff. But should Michigan fall, the Wolverines would not have any wiggle room with their remaining schedule, and there are far too many landmines with the other four Big Ten powerhouses looming. This is arguably Jim Harbaugh’s most talented team since arriving in Ann Arbor, but it will be a rigorous road to make the College Football Playoff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 5
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. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.