The Wolverines have questions to answer, but they’re still set up well in 2017. Our writers answer five pressing questions facing the Wolverines going into the season.
1. What will Michigan’s overall and Big Ten record be?
Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
After the opening neutral site game against the Florida Gators, the schedule favors the inexperienced but talented Wolverines. They must be careful with Michigan State and Indiana, but Michigan should go into the tough Penn State game undefeated at 6-0.
If Michigan gets by Penn State, they will then need to beat Wisconsin on the road and that school down south in the Big House.
Until Harbaugh proves he can win a big game (see below), the Wolverines will lose two of those three contests.
Upon examination of Michigan’s 2017 schedule, there are four games that quickly stand out from the rest. While both the opener against Florida and the November trip to Wisconsin could each easily spell defeat for Michigan if they’re not careful, I would choose the Wolverines if forced to pick those games today. With that said, and for as much as Wolverines fans may loathe to hear it, the most likely outcome for this year appears to be another 10-2 regular season, with defeats coming at the hands of rivals Penn State and Ohio State. If Michigan is to win both of those toss-up games and then defeat either Penn State or Ohio, they will potentially be in line for a run at the college football playoff. Until further notice, however, that reality remains a long way off.
Overall, Michigan will go 11-1 and 7-1 in the Big 10 East with a loss at Penn State on October 21st. The Wisconsin game hurts from a schedule standpoint coming right before the Ohio State game but Michigan wins a close one again. Opening with Florida will really test this young team but Michigan wins going away.
2. Is Wilton Speight the starting quarterback at midseason?
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh loves quarterback competition and keeping everyone on their toes. With that in mind, we won’t know who Michigan’s starting quarterback is until the Wolverines take the field against Florida on September 2.
This year’s battle is billed as a competition between redshirt junior Wilton Speight, redshirt senior John O’Korn, and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters.
At this point, reports are that the competition is down to Speight and Peters, despite what Harbaugh says about a three-way competition.
Speight started 12 of 13 games, missing the Indiana game with an injury as O’Korn filled in. Peters has not played in a college game.
Realizing he couldn’t work with his quarterbacks from the end of spring practice until the start of training camp on July 31, passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton left his group with this, “Continue to work to master our system,” he said. “It’s not just mastering the X’s and O’s, but master the rhythm and the timing that we’re going to need to be successful in our passing game. Really what that boils down to is developing continuity with the players that are going to be here working out through the summer. We have a ton of talent at the receiver position but a lot of the guys are inexperienced, so it’s important for Wilton, John and Brandon to get out there and work with those guys and gain some trust in the routes and things that they do, so they can stay on schedule with the throws.”
“It’s my job to coach them all up the same and make sure whoever he sends out there in the first play of the Florida game is ready to play.” Peters went on, “Coach Harbaugh, this is totally a decision that he’ll make and our staff we’ll support whatever decision he makes with regard to who plays quarterback for us.”
“Overall spring, he did a ton of good things,” Hamilton said of Speight. “But there is a learning curve with regard to Wilton getting acclimated to some of the younger receivers that we had out there. You’ve got to think about the receivers as well as Jake Butt, the guys that he lost from last year. So it’s a new crew of perimeter guys that he has to get acclimated with for the most part.”
Peters has wowed everyone during the spring with his cannon for an arm and his accuracy. The big question concerning Peters is his quiet demeanor and soft voice. Can he assert himself enough to lead this team?
In Harbaugh’s past he used reliable, steady Alex Smith in San Francisco. He used him until Smith suffered a concussion. Then he went to the compelling Colin Kaepernick. Speight will start right up until when/if he gets injured and then Peters will get his chance to prove his worth.
Ultimately, Harbaugh’s history and trust in Speight will rule the day. Barring injury, Speight will be Michigan’s starting quarterback from the first snap until the last.
If there’s one thing we all know about Jim Harbaugh’s coaching tendencies, it’s that he is wholly unafraid to make bold and unconventional decisions in the name of gaining an advantage for his team. After all, this is the same coach who infamously replaced a perfectly-competent Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick amidst a red-hot 7-2-1 start to the 2012 NFL season. Replacing a starting signal caller on a playoff-bound team midway through the year was a massive risk, but one that paid off for Harbaugh in spades as Kaepernick led his 49ers to an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII. While certainly not a perfect comparison, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Harbaugh decides that the ultimate potential of his team is greater with young Brandon Peters at the helm than it is under the direction of Wilton Speight.
Yes, Speight threw for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns last year in his first year as a starter. He will only get better with another year of tutoring from Harbaugh and with John O’Korn and Brandon Peters pushing him. I expect Michigan’s offense to flourish.
3. What are Michigan’s offensive strengths and weaknesses?
The Big Ten’s best offense last season (40.3 points per game, 66 touchdowns) returns its experienced starter at quarterback, Wilton Speight, Running back Chris Evans ran for 614 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman last year and is expected to be a dominant player this season.
The Wolverines signed four-star quarterback recruit Dylan McCaffrey who will most likely be red-shirted, spending the year becoming an expert of the Maize and Blue system. McCaffrey threw for over 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns his senior season. He’ll definitely be in the mix next season.
There are very few skill position returnees and in total, the Wolverines have lost seven starters and 14 letter winners from the offense. That includes Jehu Cheson and Amara Darboh at wide receiver, Jake Butt at tight end and running back De’Veon Smith.
There are exactly zero returning starters at wide receiver but this is shaping up to be the best wide receiver recruiting class in Michigan history. The wide receivers that could see a lot of playing time are five-star recruit Donovan Peoples-Jones and four-star recruits Oliver Martin, Nico Collins and Tarik Black.
The top returning receiver is junior Grant Perry, and his status is uncertain until his legal case stemming from an incident outside a bar in East Lansing last October is finalized. Perry has plead guilty to one felony count of resisting a police officer as well as a misdemeanor charge of assault and battery and he is due to be sentenced in early August. He had 13 catches,183 yards and a touchdown last season, the most by any returning wide receiver.
The offensive line returns sophomore left guard Ben Bredeson and left tackle Brian Cole, who both could have left to play on Sunday’s but decided to stay. Michigan finished last season second in yards per game and scored 41 rushing touchdowns which led the Big Ten. The Wolverines were fourth in the conference, giving up just 22 sacks in 2016.
Freshman Michael Oneweu and sophomore Jon Runyan should take over on the right side despite having never started a college game. Senior Patrick Kugler will be the starting center starting center after threatening to transfer.
The talent on the offensive line is there but it remains to be seen if the can gel together.
The biggest fear for the young maize and blue offense is injuries. To say Michigan has limited depth is an astronomical understatement. There is no depth. Just about everything must go right for the offense if the Wolverines are going to win the Big Ten and be a playoff team.
With a gaping hole at right tackle and a bevy of first and second-year players who will be relied on for major snap totals in the trenches, Michigan’s offense may endure some growing pains in the early going. In addition to their inexperience up-front, the Wolverines will also be facing a great deal of turnover in the passing game after the graduation of Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. In their place will step an enormously talented group of young wideouts led by Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
On paper, Michigan will be replacing their best weapons on offense with even higher-rated talent, at least from a recruiting perspective. How those receivers gel as a group and adjust to college competition will tell the story of just how prolific Michigan’s offense can be in 2017.
The quarterback and a solid group at running back will be strong but an almost new receiving corps will be tested early against a tough Florida secondary. The offensive line has been a source of weakness over the past five-plus years and with three starters graduating it will again be a source of concern. Michigan moving the ball will be directly tied to how fast the offensive line comes along.
4. What are Michigan’s defensive strengths and weaknesses?
The Jim Harbaugh defenses have been tremendous. The Wolverines finished in the top three in each of Harbaugh’s first two seasons. The 2016 unit had several NFL draft picks, including linebacker Jabrill Peppers, in the front seven.
Almost all of Michigan’s starters on defense are gone. The secondary has no returning starters and all but one of the linebackers have left. Only defensive tackle Maurice Hurst remains from the first-team line. Altogether there are nine starters leaving, with only two remaining for coordinator Don Brown.
Despite all the losses on defense the Wolverine’s should be able to trot out a top ten unit. Michigan will be solid up front again this season and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The losses of Lewis, Stribling, and Hill in the secondary will be difficult to overcome.
With each passing practice, the excitement surrounding Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary appears to grow. After stepping into the rotation as a true-freshman in 2016, Gary is poised to take over as a central catalyst of the Wolverine defense. Now paired beside fellow future NFLer Mo Hurst, Gary should lead the way for one of the nation’s strongest defensive lines in 2017. In their second year under the direction of defensive coordinator Don Brown, one can also expect many of the team’s returning players to take a significant step forward. Mike McCray, Khaleke Hudson, and Josh Metellus were largely rotation players in 2016, but will now be pressed into key roles as veteran leaders of the Michigan defense. Their ability to build off last year’s success will be the determining factor in the Wolverines’ ability to produce another elite defensive campaign.
The defensive line will dominate teams with Mo Hurst and Rashan Gary wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. The linebacking crew is solid with Mike McCray and Devin Bush returning but the secondary is VERY young and will have four new starters but it is a fast, athletic group and the defensive line will give them time to grow up.
5. Can Coach Jim Harbaugh win a BIG game?
The 2016 season ended with a bruising defeat 33-32 to the Florida State Seminoles in the Orange Bowl. This was the third loss in four games against top competitors. The three losses were heartbreaking as Michigan lost by a combined five points. Through two seasons with Harbaugh, the Wolverines are only 3-5 in one-possession finishes. This has been a persistent problem in Harbaugh’s short tenure as Michigan coach.
Let’s be clear, this is not an exemplifying trend and will never be. For Harbaugh and Michigan to ascend to the elite team level, they must find a way to win tight games against top-flight programs.
Yes, Jim Harbaugh can and will win big games. Once again in 2017, he will have his team on the precipice of competing for a national title.
While Michigan is better positioned to withstand the tremendous attrition of this past offseason than they have been at any point over the past fifteen years, I am still keeping my expectations in check for 2017. With a schedule boasting both an experienced Ohio State squad and a road showdown against Penn State, a team whose offense features arguably the best QB/RB-combo in all of college football (Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley), another 10-2 regular season certainly appears the most likely result for 2017.
My answer to this question should be very different at this point next year when Harbaugh’s team will return a huge majority of starters and feature a roster solely comprised of players signed under his watch.
He won an Orange Bowl with Stanford and an NFC Championship with the 49ers so I am always confused by the “can’t win a big game” tag. He will get his first win against Meyer and the Buckeyes this year and win a Big Ten Championship if not this year then within the next two. I also expect that he’ll win a National Championship or 2 before his time in Ann Arbor is done…so YES, he can win a big game.