Wolverines are highly thought of by publications heading into Year 4 under Jim Harbaugh, but a quick fix will be difficult in 2018
Michigan football’s collapse in the second half of the Outback Bowl was a fitting final chapter on a disappointing 2017 season.
The defense was again among the nation’s best, while Jim Harbaugh’s offense lagged at record levels and had issues at every juncture.
But the book is closed on 2017, and it’s time to look to 2018 — which means the Michigan hype machine is already beginning to churn.
The first batch of way-too-early Top 25 rankings have Michigan ranked as high as No. 7 (Athlon Sports), though most websites place them in the teens.
And in the 2018 national title conversation, Bovada gives Michigan 9/1 odds to win the title, the fifth-best odds, behind only Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.
At this time last year, the Wolverines were ranked as high as fourth in USA TODAY Sports’ way-too-early Top 25, despite losing 17 starters from 2016, the most of any FBS team.
Going into the fall, there is reason for optimism, led by Don Brown’s defense, which returns nine starters from a unit that ranked first in fewest passing yards allowed per game and third-down defense, third in yards allowed per game, seventh in sacks and 13th in points allowed per game. Offensively, there is talent and depth all over the skill positions.
However, many are buying the hope of “next year,” Year 4 of the Harbaugh regime, as “The Year” Michigan returns to dominance. We’ve seen this before.
The fan base is beginning to lose patience, and there are more obstacles awaiting in 2018 than any other season under Harbaugh.
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Who is the quarterback?
As of now, this looks like a three-man competition featuring returnees Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey and Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, whose eligibility to play in 2018 may not be decided until February.
What do we know about McCaffrey? Not much, other than the praise he earned on the scout team. The promising freshman did not see action this season.
As a redshirt freshman, Peters took meaningful snaps in five games, four of them starts. He wasn’t asked to do much and was competent against inferior opponents, but appeared overwhelmed in spots against Wisconsin and South Carolina. He should benefit from the 2017 experience and potential first-team reps this offseason, but does he inspire confidence if he’s the quarterback in 2018?
Shea Patterson threw for 3,139 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 10 career games at Ole Miss. (Photo: AP)
Patterson intrigues the most, as a former five-star recruit. Playing in a spread system, he showed flashes of brilliance in 10 starts over two seasons with the Rebels, but had his sophomore year cut short after seven starts due to a knee injury.
Having Patterson eligible is the first hurdle. If that happens, the question becomes — as Free Press sports writer Nick Baumgardner laid out in a must-read film study on the QB last month — how quickly can Patterson pick up Harbaugh’s pro-style, multi-formation, pocket-passing offense? Patterson is most dangerous when he uses his mobility to extend plays out of the structure of the offense. Can he succeed in a more structured, complex scheme?
And if Patterson earns the starting job this spring, as many think he will, would Harbaugh and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton adapt to Patterson’s strengths by running more spread formations, like Harbaugh did when he had Colin Kaepernick as his quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers? (That’s not to say Patterson is Kaepernick.)
There are so many questions at the most important position, and as of now, no clarity.
The rest of the offense
The Wolverines’ offensive line troubles have been written about. They did not open enough holes in the run game, and had two quarterbacks injured on their watch.
The team is losing its best lineman in left tackle Mason Cole, and will have to fill that opening, along with developing someone at right tackle. Second-Team All-Big Ten left guard Ben Bredeson returns, and U-M has recruited plenty of talent in the trenches, with four-star prospects in Michael Onwenu, Cesar Ruiz and Chuck Filiaga.
Whether it’s those guys or someone else, the unit must play to its capability and form continuity. Don’t overlook the O-line growth as perhaps the biggest key to a turnaround in 2018. If they play similar to this year, you’ll want to close your eyes again.
Donovan Peoples-Jones was the nation’s No. 12 recruit in the 2017 class out of Cass Tech, according to the 247Sports composite. He had 22 catches for 277 yards as a freshman this season. (Photo: Leon Halip, Getty Images)
The highly-touted skill players, aside from Karan Higdon, underachieved. Did anyone improve significantly from 2016 or over the course of the 2017 season? You can go down the list, from Eddie McDoom to Kekoa Crawford to Donovan Peoples-Jones to Grant Perry to Chris Evans to Kareem Walker.
Of the six underachievers above, only Perry will be a senior, so they are young and talent-laden, with four-star depth behind them, especially at wideout. And the return from injury of promising receiver Tarik Black will be welcomed.
Young players don’t automatically improve by being a year older, but another year learning the system will help, and adding a position coach in Dan Enos could provide a boost in a multitude of areas.
Speaking of coaching, there has been turnover as expected, with four staffers leaving thus far. Harbaugh, Hamilton — if he does not bolt back to the NFL — and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno have self-scouting to do regarding the play calling and installation of the offense. Perhaps paring it down (Mark Dantonio said Michigan ran 40 formations in the first half against Michigan State this season) would allow a young offense to focus better.
The Big Ten’s East Division has vastly improved the past few seasons with Penn State’s emergence, and may again be the most top-heavy division in college football (along with the SEC West).
The Wolverines face challenging road games at Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State, with Wisconsin and Penn State at home. That’s six 10-plus win teams from this season and three New Year’s Six bowl winners (OSU, Wisconsin and PSU).
Watch: An early look at U-M’s 2018 schedule
A look at the Wolverines’ 2018 regular-season schedule, which opens at Notre Dame on Sept. 1, and finishes at Ohio State on Nov. 24. Video by Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press
Of that group, only the Buckeyes won’t return their starting quarterback. (Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the bowl game, so his status for the start of next season is unclear. U-M visits Evanston, Ill. on Sept. 29.) Michigan saw first-hand what OSU’s backup Dwayne Haskins can do, when the redshirt freshman rallied the Buckeyes in the second half at Michigan Stadium. Urban Meyer’s group also returns its top six receivers and standout running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber (Detroit Cass Tech).
Michigan was fourth in the division this year and third the previous two seasons under Harbaugh, so it will take an upset or two to climb out of that rut.
Of course the Wolverines can meet the early expectations. These January rankings mean even less than the meaningless in-season rankings. Look at what Dantonio did, albeit in a different situation, at MSU this season. The raw ability is in Ann Arbor to make a leap. But it won’t be as easy as “get Shea Patterson eligible.”
And it will take improvement in every facet of the program, especially at the top, if Michigan is to see it through.
Stripping away the noise and looking at this roster critically puts it at the bottom of the Top 25 because of the question marks. Anything more right now is buying the hype, which has yet to come to fruition the past three years.
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