Few head coaches in recent memory have been able to come in and immediately provide the type of jolt that Jim Harbaugh gave the Michigan program in 2015. Seemingly overnight, Harbaugh made the Wolverines nationally relevant again and made Ann Arbor a realistic destination for the top recruits in the nation.
It will be tough to top a 10-win season that ended with a beat-down of an opponent in a bowl game, but the Wolverines look to be up to the task in 2016. Hopes and expectations are high, and for good reason. Michigan appears on paper to be one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten — if not the country. If the Wolverines’ hybrid quirky/fiery coach can harness the potential of that talent and navigate a rollercoaster schedule, there is a good chance that we could see the Maize and Blue in one of the two College Football Playoff games on New Year’s Eve.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Talent at the Skill Positions
If you count tight end Jake Butt, the Wolverines probably have the most talented group of receivers in the Big Ten. There aren’t man duos nationally that can compete with Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. These two combined for more than 1,500 yards receiving and 14 scores in a system that didn’t exactly lean on the pass. Running back De’Veon Smith also proved to be a capable pass catcher out of the backfield. Whoever ends up winning the starting quarterback job will have no shortage of weapons to distribute the ball to.
2. Elite Playmakers on Defense
You’d be hard-pressed to find a trio of defensive players at each level like the Wolverines have anywhere else in the country. Defensive end Chris Wormley, linebacker Jabrill Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis are all proven difference-makers and game-changers who figure to wreak havoc on opposing offenses and keep coordinators up at night as huge matchup problems. Game-planning around one player is one thing. Scheming against three of the very best defensive players in the country on the same team is another.
3. The Hiring of Don Brown
We all saw what Boston College’s defense was able to do a season ago under Brown with inferior talent compared to what he’ll have at his disposal at Michigan. His hybrid 4-3/3-4 keeps offensive linemen guessing and makes it extremely difficult for quarterbacks to read and react to. Those things lead to breakdowns that allow speedy defenders untouched access to the quarterback, which also result in errors and turnovers. We saw how effective Boston College was in implementing the scheme against a very talented Notre Dame offense last November. The thought of Michigan’s talent unleashing a similar attack in the Big Ten is scary for everyone outside of Ann Arbor.
Three Reasons Why Michigan Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. The Question at Quarterback
Forget for a moment that the job has still not been won. The fact of the matter remains that there wasn’t a quarterback on Michigan’s roster in 2015 good enough to beat out the second-best quarterback on Iowa’s roster in ‘14. Does quarterback play at the college level mean as much as it does in the NFL? Probably not, but you still need leadership and continuity at the position. Right now, Michigan doesn’t have either, and that could be a serious problem for Harbaugh’s bunch.
2. A Pedestrian Rushing Attack
The good news is that Michigan returns four starters on the offensive line. The bad news is that those four starters contributed to only 34.8 percent of Michigan rushing attempts going for five or more yards in 2015 – 107th nationally in that category. There are no obvious signs of anything being done to change that at this point, and that could be a problem. The lack of a dependable running game is going to lead to bigger growing pains for the eventual starting quarterback.
3. A Tough Road Schedule
The Wolverines will only play four true road games in 2016. The problem is, three of those will be against teams that played in New Year’s Six Bowl games last season. The second half of Michigan’s season includes trips to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. Without a seasoned quarterback and a solid running game to help close out those games late in the season, it's hard to imagine the Wolverines winning all three games. In fact, winning one of the three would be respectable and fairly impressive.
Overall, the Wolverines are one of the two or three most talented teams in the Big Ten. The question is going to be whether or not they are able to move the chains and put up enough points on offense to give their defense a break. That shouldn't be a problem in most games, but there are three key Big Ten road matchups (at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State) over the last month of the regular season that are all against defenses that will eat up an offensive attack that is predictable and lacking explosiveness. The Wolverines could only lose one game and still qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game, but it's hard to imagine them winning a third game over a quality opponent away from Ann Arbor — especially on a fast track. A safe bet for the outcome of the 2016 Michigan football season is a similar campaign to ‘15, perhaps with the addition of a division title. Progress is being made under Harbaugh, but the Wolverines are probably a season away from being realistic contenders for a national championship.
Athlon's Projected Final Ranking: 5
Athlon's Projected Final Record: (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.