Jim Harbaugh brings back a roster full of talent that can compete for championships this fall, but will these Wolverines rise or fall short?
Looking back, this offseason for the Michigan Wolverines was not all that different from a year ago.
Satellite camps (I promise we won’t cover this below), quarterback competition and Jim Harbaugh at the forefront of everything Maize and Blue dominated the college football headlines yet again, and that will assuredly continue as we trudge through the summer months towards the start of the season.
But unlike Harbaugh’s first season, expectations are sky high that this year’s version of Michigan football can not only compete for a spot in their first Big Ten Championship Game, but also challenge for a place in the College Football Playoff.
The Wolverines came in at No. 5 in Athlon Sport' preseason Top 25 and whether or not they finish the season near the top of the rankings will depend on a few things falling their way in 2016.
Why Michigan Will Meet (or Succeed) Expectations
- The Stache
Those who follow the program had a general sense that former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin would get a shot at a head coaching gig at one point. But in true Harbaugh form, he found a replacement that can only be looked at as an upgrade. Former Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown was hired to replace Durkin after leading the Eagles to the No. 1 overall defense in college football in 2015. Boston College was sixth in pass defense last season and second to only national champion Alabama against the run.
Brown steps into a cushy situation with the Wolverines who return six starters on defense, including All-Big Ten defenders Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers, and potentially the best defensive line in the country that will go as many as eight deep. Brown will also get to work with the No. 1 recruit in the country next season in Rashan Gary who is versatile enough to start anywhere along the line.
If Brown can find some capable linebackers (more on that later), this is likely the best defense in the conference and will challenge the Alabamas of the world for the top group in all of the college football.
- Supporting Cast
We will get into the quarterback concerns later on, but any trepidation regarding the position can be alleviated based upon the supporting pieces on that side of the ball, not to mention we have evidence of new quarterbacks thriving under Harbaugh's guidance as proven last season.
Whomever comes out as the starting quarterback in Week 1 will have an array of All-Big Ten talent across the board including 2015 first-teamer Jake Butt at tight end, the top receiver duo in the conference in Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, steady senior running back De’Veon Smith and an offensive line that features four returning starters.
All of the above pales in comparison, though, to having quarterback whisperer as a head coach in Harbaugh. I mean the guy turned Jake Rudock into an NFL Draft pick! You couldn’t ask for a better situation if you are a college quarterback.
- The Schedule
There is a lot to like in regards to the Michigan schedule in 2016. The Wolverines open non-conference play against three lesser opponents in Hawaii, Central Florida and Colorado that combined for a 7-31 record in 2015. Michigan will stay at the Big House for the next two weeks as the open against Penn State and Wisconsin before hitting the road for the first time against Rutgers in its first national primetime game of the season.
The Wolverines return home to face Illinois for their homecoming game in what is likely to be a tune up for the following week against the Spartans. All in all, Michigan will leave the state just once before a Nov. 12 tilt against Iowa as the Wolverines close with two of three on the road.
Why Michigan Will Fall Short of Expectations
- Quarterback Quandary
Headway was made during the spring as junior Wilton Speight vaulted into the lead to be the starting quarterback in 2016, but the competition is far from over as Harbaugh wouldn’t have it any other way.
What the spring did show us is that this will not be the three-horse race many originally anticipated. Senior Shane Morris is unlikely to be a factor in the competition as the majority of the reps he had in the team’s spring game were at wide receiver, leaving Speight to battle it out with former Houston transfer John O’Korn. Both have better physical traits than Rudock, but it will take more than that to win over Harbaugh and become the starting quarterback he wants to lead this offense. How this position performs in 2016 will dictate whether or not the Wolverines are a championship contender.
- Linebacker Shortage
To say the Wolverines are short on linebackers would be an understatement. The top four linebackers who combined for 229 tackles from a season ago all exhausted their eligibility, leaving Michigan with just one true linebacker returning in junior Ben Gideon, who has not received considerable playing time other than on special teams.
To help with the transition, new defensive coordinator Don Brown will move Jabrill Peppers to strong-side linebacker, though the star junior will likely be moved around all over the field as he is the team’s best overall athlete on defense. Stepping in on the weak-side will be oft-injured senior Mike McCray, who entered this spring as healthy as he has been in years. Outside of those three, there isn’t another linebacker on the roster that has played meaningful snaps in a game. It will be imperative for the coaches to develop depth at the position this fall or one injury could hinder the defensive performance.
- The Schedule
Whereas the schedule could be the reason Michigan reaches the heights it aspires to in 2016 as stated above, it also could be a hindrance. Yes, the Wolverines open their first three games against non-conference opponents who went a combined 7-31 last year. Yes, the Wolverines open with their first five games all at the Big House. And yes, the Wolverines only leave the state of Michigan once until mid-November.
That said, the season will really come down to how Michigan fares in three games – AT Michigan State, AT Iowa and AT Ohio State. And if recent success is any indication, the Wolverines could be in for a disappointment as they have just one win against each opponent dating back to 2010. If Harbaugh and company are to make it to Indy, they will, at the very least, have to win two of those three road games against arguably the three best teams in the conference.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and current writer for CollegeFootballGeek.com. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.