Most valuable player, offense: Running back Karan Higdon was a unanimous All-Big Ten third-team selection, and the stalwart back ran hard for his 929 regular-season yards and team-leading 11 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry, ranking him fourth in the Big Ten. He emerged as the team’s leading rusher from a tailback-by-committee approach before Ty Isaac was injured, although Chris Evans came on late this season. Evans was Big Ten honorable mention. Higdon gained more than 150 yards rushing in three games this season, including two of 200 yards or more.
Most valuable player, defense: Fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst is projected as a top pick in the upcoming draft and has been absolutely vital in Michigan’s defense this season. Hurst drew double teams much of the season and had 59 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss. Hurst has tremendous explosion off the ball and that has been legend among the Michigan defensive players. He was a dominant interior force for the Wolverines and was snubbed as the Big Ten’s top defensive lineman of the year
Most improved player, offense: Tight end Jake Butt left big shoes to fill, twice winning the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year Award and the Mackey Award last year, but Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry emerged this season. McKeon improved as a blocker and he had a team-best three receiving touchdowns. McKeon (and Gentry) should be expected to take on an even bigger role next season.
Most improved player, defense: A year ago at this time, then-future NFL player Chris Wormley said defensive end Chase Winovich would be the player to watch this fall. Wormley was prophetic. Winovich, who is weighing his options about his future after the bowl game, led the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 17 and also led the league in sacks with eight. Winovich was pretty much everywhere on the field and had 74 tackles, third on the team, and also forced two fumbles and had a fumble recovery.
Unsung hero, offense: Senior Mason Cole, voted a co-captain by his teammates, started his first two seasons at left tackle and is finishing his Michigan career at left tackle, after starting last season at center, where he felt most comfortable playing and where he likely will play on the next level. It was a selfless move for Cole who anchored a largely inexperienced offensive line. He has made 50 consecutive starts, tied with Jon Jansen among offensive lineman, and with his start in the bowl game, Cole will be tied with Craig Roh for the consecutive starts record.
Unsung hero, defense: Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush set the tone in the season opener against Florida when he recorded seven tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He led the team with 94 tackles and had 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He got his lone interception in the 11th game of the regular season at Wisconsin. Bush was voted first-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and second-team by the media. He is a Butkus Award finalist.
Key player arriving: Joe Milton, a four-star quarterback ranked No. 6 at his position, plans to enroll early and get a headstart on his college career. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Milton has good mobility. Although untested at this level, he adds depth to a position that has lost two quarterbacks to transfers (Alex Malzone and Wilton Speight) and will compete with redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, who made three starts and freshman Dylan McCaffrey, who is redshirting this year.
Key player departing: Quarterback Wilton Speight, who won the starting job the last two seasons but whose season was cut short earlier this year when he suffered three fractured vertebrae in the Big Ten opener at Purdue on Sept. 23. While redshirt freshman Brandon Peters emerged late in the season as the starter before his concussion at Wisconsin and likely goes into the offseason as the favorite to win the starting job next season, Speight, who has a year of eligibility remaining, would have given the Wolverines much-needed experience. Speight made 16 starts during his Michigan career.
Season highlight 1: Michigan didn’t finish the season with the No. 1 defense for the second year in a row under defensive coordinator Don Brown, but he also didn’t have the boatload players headed for the NFL as he did last season. Despite returning one starter from last year, Brown had the defense ranked No. 1 for a good portion of the year. It finished third behind Wisconsin and Alabama, and is tied for 21st against the run and 14th in scoring defense. With an all-new group of starters in the secondary, Michigan finished first in passing yards allowed.
Season highlight 2: It looks like Michigan has a good feel for where it’s going at quarterback next season. Presumably redshirt freshman Brandon Peters will start the bowl game. He saw progress after taking backup snaps in practice when starter Wilton Speight was injured, and Peters can only continue to improve taking starter’s snaps during bowl practices. He would have to enter spring practice with the edge and will be challenged by current freshman Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton, who will be an early enrollee freshman.
Season highlight 3: An early season highlight was freshman receiver Tarik Black, who before breaking his foot the third game of the season, was the team’s leading receiving. He still wound up sixth on the list after the regular season. Meanwhile, freshman receiver and returner Donovan Peoples-Jones, who didn’t have a fast start like Black, was showing improvement toward the end of the season. Youth wasn’t reserved just for the offense, either. Aurbrey Solomon earned significant time on the defensive line and Ambry Thomas worked in some at cornerback.
Season lowlight 1: Losing against in-state rival Michigan State, when Michigan was ranked No. 7 nationally and the Spartans, coming off a 3-9 season the year before, were unranked, was the lowest moment of the season, perhaps even lower than the 29-point blowout two weeks later at Penn State. The Wolverines were coming off a bye, or as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh calls it, an “improvement week”, and had lost their starting quarterback, Wilton Speight, in their last game before the bye and MSU. In driving rain and high wind in the second half, MSU played to protect its lead while Michigan had backup quarterback John O’Korn throwing in the nasty conditions. It made little sense then, and still no sense now.
Season lowlight 2: Michigan built leads at Wisconsin and against Ohio State in the regular-season finale and couldn’t hold on. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters looked poised and had a handle on what to do offensively against the Badgers before he was knocked unconscious. Michigan had a really sound game plan and built a 14-0 lead, but quarterback issues were too much to overcome. With the chance to drive for the lead, he threw an interception that effectively ended the game, and the Buckeyes won for the sixth-straight year.
Season lowlight 3: There has been much made, and rightfully so, about the fact Michigan did not beat a team with a winning record this season. And then there’s the fact the Wolverines have been unable to beat a ranked team on the road since 2006 – they had two opportunities this year against Penn State and Wisconsin. Michigan will get one last shot this season in the bowl game to beat a team with a winning record.