This is the year. (Legal disclaimer: Unless it’s next year).
Based on prevailing midsummer opinion, this is the year Michigan finally wins the Big Ten and Jim Harbaugh finally beats Ohio State and reaches the playoff. This is the year Mark Dantonio fields one of the five best defenses in America and cracks open his offense and Michigan State returns as a contender. Oh yes, and this is the year Ohio State finally slides, with Urban Meyer gone.
You hear a lot of “this is the year” talk this time of year, and it cranks up this week when the Big Ten holds its football media days. Before you hear from all the impossibly optimistic coaches, I’m here to separate fact from fiction.
Topic: This is the year Michigan wins its first Big Ten title since 2004, beats the Buckeyes for the second time in 16 years and ends the angst about Harbaugh’s record. You know the particulars: 38-14 overall, 2-6 versus Ohio State and Michigan State, 1-3 in bowls.
Now, before fans resort to rival, primal instincts and suggest painful acts upon myself, let me explain. Since Harbaugh arrived, I’ve never picked Michigan to win the Big Ten. That was partly because of uncertainty at quarterback and the offensive line, and partly because Meyer was conniving his way to historic dominance and Dantonio was unwavering.
Now the Wolverines have a seasoned quarterback in Shea Patterson and a very capable backup in Dylan McCaffrey. They have four starters returning to the line, led by Ben Bredeson. They have a new offense directed by Josh Gattis that should make better use of dynamic receivers Tarik Black, Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Michigan also gets its three big rivals — Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame — at home.
While Meyer is busy lecturing impressionable minds about the virtues of leadership (a fictional course), Ohio State has a first-time head coach in Ryan Day and a new quarterback in Justin Fields. I’m aware the Buckeyes are a machine and Fields is highly touted. But unlike last year, when the Wolverines were favored in Columbus and lost by the tidy score of 62-39, they should harbor hunger and humility, and defensive coordinator Don Brown should have more answers.
Topic: Michigan and Michigan State’s schedules are too tough to ensure success.
All things considered, both teams’ schedules are manageable. Yes, the Spartans must visit Columbus and Ann Arbor, but neither venue has been a trap under Dantonio, who has won two in a row at Michigan. Other than trips to Northwestern and Wisconsin, the Spartans should be favored in eight games. Of course, you’ll have to subscribe to the theory they won’t suffer another raft of injuries and quarterback Brian Lewerke will return to play-making form.
Beyond its favorable home slate, Michigan has three land mines — at Wisconsin, at Penn State, home against tough Army. Be careful about the hype, but in way-early odds, Las Vegas has Michigan favored in every game. Respected college football expert Phil Steele has the Wolverines going 12-0 and reaching the playoff. Playing the schedule game sure is fun in July!
Topic: Michigan actually will go 12-0.
Some things are set up nicely for the Wolverines, as noted. But they lost six starters on defense and have to rebuild their front seven. The departure of linebacker Devin Bush Jr. is huge, and “Dr. Blitz” Brown will have to adjust elements of his uber-aggressive style.
But they’ve recruited well and have pass-rushing talent in Kwity Paye, Josh Uche, Aidan Hutchinson and Carlo Kemp. They also have an outstanding cornerback-safety combo in Lavert Hill and Josh Metellus. There are pieces, although we haven’t seen all the pieces in place.
One other point. As good as Patterson is, unless redshirt freshman Christian Turner, true freshman Zach Charbonnet, or former walk-on Tru Wilson breaks out at running back, the Wolverines could struggle to control the ball.
Topic: Dantonio merely rearranged the furniture and the offense won’t be much better than last season’s mess.
Oh it’s true Dantonio didn’t toss anyone out in his staff shuffle, and Brad Salem moved from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. With a 20-18 record the past three seasons, you’d think Dantonio would’ve showed a bit more urgency. I think he knows he can use the circle-the-wagons angle one more time, especially with what should be another fantastic defense.
With defensive stars such as Joe Bachie, Raequan Williams, Kenny Willekes and Josiah Scott, the Spartans merely need the offense to rise from awful to above-average. It’s a fairly significant leap and much depends on Lewerke’s health, but the Spartans return nine starters. Questions at running back and offensive line make it imperative Dantonio doesn’t revert to pound-away football.
Topic: Sorry people, the Buckeyes won’t slip under Day.
Yes, Day was Meyer’s coordinator the past two seasons, but the offense was Meyer’s creation and obsession. Day, 40, inherits an impressive foundation, but few jobs in the country are as big as this one. The run has to end eventually, right?
Topic: According to various sites, Michigan has the fourth-best odds to win the national championship, behind only Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. Most polls have Michigan ranked anywhere from third to 10th, and Michigan State from 13th to unranked. Should those odds be considered fact or fiction?
Listen, if you’ve held off buying into the Harbaugh hype, understandable. He’s won 10 games three of four seasons and has raised Michigan’s profile and expectations, perhaps higher than the record would warrant.
That bugs people who point to the big-game disappointments and strategic stubbornness.
He’s never lasted five years in one place and this is his fifth, and the confluence of circumstances — home schedule, senior quarterback, his own roster — obliterates any excuses. If it’s possible for Michigan to beat Ohio State with Meyer gone, then it’s possible to land a playoff bid. Harbaugh and Dantonio are both trying to re-create elements of their programs, primarily on offense, and that’s hopeful.
Topic: Michigan was 10-3 last season, Michigan State was 7-6. Both will post better records.
Verdict: Fact. But if you’re a staunch member of the fiction faction until you see evidence to the contrary, you’ve played this game before.