Wojo: It might be too soon for UM’s lofty expectations

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Another day, another list, another poll. This is how college football sustains the hype, with imaginary competition. It’s mostly harmless, but it does perform one important function — it affixes targets.

And for the first time in a decade, guess who’s being fitted for a target? Like the guy digging through his closet for an old favorite suit, Michigan is dressing up again. The thing is, getting dressed up isn’t far from getting set up, and six weeks before the season begins, it’s hard to fathom some of the predictions.

Pundits and bettors believe the Wolverines will be really good, and there’s evidence to suggest they will. But good enough to win the national championship? Uh, let’s slow down a bit. Vegas odds list Michigan anywhere from second to fifth, with Alabama the consensus No. 1, which is staggering for a Wolverines program that hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2004, and isn’t even sure who its quarterback will be.

This is Big Ten Redux, vaguely nostalgic and confusing. Michigan is getting so much acclaim, it feels overrated. Michigan State is getting less attention, and feels underrated. And Ohio State is sitting to the side, stripped of massive talent — five NFL first-round picks — but again with the best coach and best quarterback.

The college football season unofficially opened this week in Alabama with the Southeastern Conference meetings, the annual event where coaches try their dad-gummiest to evade questions about players’ off-field transgressions. It’s a cherished tradition down there, I understand.

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This time, there was no angry discourse about satellite camps and recruiting boundaries. Jim Harbaugh has stirred things up, but now we find out if his rebuild timetable truly is way ahead of schedule. Most of the hype comes from the outside, and for all his manic moments, Harbaugh isn’t the one making bold proclamations.

Home cooking early

Everything Michigan hopes to do has been done by Michigan State and Ohio State for several years, and there’s pressure at the precipice. Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer have experienced it all, while Michigan last won a true road game against a ranked opponent in 2006 at Notre Dame, a tidy 0-12 since.

That might be less applicable now, with Harbaugh in charge, but it’s relevant because the Wolverines probably have the toughest closing schedule in the country, after opening with the easiest. Michigan starts with five home games and six of seven in Michigan Stadium, wrapped around one little trip to Rutgers.

The Wolverines should be 7-0 headed to East Lansing on Oct. 29, and if preseason forecasts are accurate, they might be No. 1 in the country then. Three of the final five games are at Michigan State, at Iowa and at Ohio State, and Michigan would have to win at least two to be in the hunt. Harbaugh and his staff are seasoned and driven, and the talent on defense could be overwhelming, but to pick Michigan as a national title favorite with such a daunting gauntlet seems foolish.

If I’m doing a preseason poll, I’d rank Michigan somewhere around seventh, just behind Ohio State and just ahead of Michigan State. According to a composite compiled by Bleacher Report of 11 polls by various outlets and national writers, Michigan is fifth, Ohio State is seventh and Michigan State is 13th. The top four sound about right — Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Oklahoma.

Because the Buckeyes have Meyer and the Big Ten’s best returning quarterback, J.T. Barrett, they’re the favorites. And while the Wolverines seemingly have more star power, they’re in a similar spot as the Spartans.

Defensive foundation

Michigan has three players on the major awards lists — cornerback Jourdan Lewis, tight end Jake Butt and linebacker Jabrill Peppers, who even shows up in Heisman debates. Michigan State has two names on most lists — defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Riley Bullough.

Michigan’s defensive line was labeled the nation’s best by Fox Sports (just ahead of Alabama), and the rotation possibilities under new coordinator Don Brown are endless — Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst, Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow, No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary. The same media outlet pegged Michigan State’s linebacker corps No. 2 in the country, with Bullough, Jon Reschke and Ed Davis, if he’s granted a sixth year of eligibility. Both teams should have excellent secondaries.

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Great defenses make up for a lot. Go to 2013, when Michigan State was still uncovering Connor Cook’s talent and the defense led the way to 13-1. Once again, the Spartans will try to tap unproven ability in Tyler O’Connor, the presumptive starter. Dantonio has won 11-plus games five of the past six seasons, and if three starters can be replaced on the offensive line, they’ll be good again.

If Harbaugh’s quarterback blueprint continues, Michigan’s upside is higher. Last year, a rejuvenated Jake Rudock led the team to 10-3. Another transfer, John O’Korn, had a year-and-a-half of starting experience at Houston and coaches rave about his leadership qualities, but he still has to beat Wilton Speight. Michigan’s offense returns four starting linemen and all three receiving weapons — Butt, Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh.

There are more similarities than differences between Michigan and Michigan State, right down to the potentially fearsome defenses and the O’Somebody at quarterback. Early polling and prognosticating have the Wolverines dressed up for a spot near the top. That’s easy to say now, in the middle of the summer, long before they hit a road rarely traveled.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter @bobwojnowski