No. 16 Michigan
Jim Harbaugh transformed Stanford from an irrelevant program to a national championship contender. He brought the laughingstock San Francisco 49ers within minutes of a Lombardi Trophy. He doubled Michigan's win total in his first season and delivered back-to-back 10-win campaigns in his second.
But Jimbo might be facing his most high-pressure challenge yet: Rebuilding a two-deep gashed by departures without losing a step in the Big Ten or playoff races. With high expectations, there's no room for rebuilding years in Ann Arbor.
2016 Record: 10-3 (7-2, Big Ten)
Michigan won 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2002-03. They won their first nine games, a streak that included victories over Colorado, Penn State and Wisconsin (in consecutive weeks).
The did, however, drop three of their final four games, including a double-overtime loss at Ohio State, giving anti-Harbaugh fans plenty of ammo.
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (3rd year, 20-6 overall)
The "Jim Harbaugh is overrated" talk is nonsense — Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press makes the best argument you'll hear on this asinine narrative. Sure, being winless against Ohio State with zero Big Ten titles or playoff appearances isn't ideal. However, in just two years, he's turned an extremely dysfunctional and self-destructing program into a legit title contender.
This is a dangerous game but let's play it anyway: One bounce in both the Iowa and Ohio State games and the Wolverines make the College Football Playoff.
"I think of myself as more of a construction guy," Harbaugh said the first day on the job nearly three years ago. "You build a home, and hopefully, it's a great cathedral. Then afterward, they go tell you to build another one. There's some dirt down there, go build another home. I feel like that again.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Wilton Speight, RB Chris Evans, RB Ty Isaac, RB Karan Higdon, FB Khalil Hill, WR Kekoa Crawford, WR Eddie McDoom, OT Mason Cole, G Ben Bredeson
Michigan's 14-13 loss to Iowa and 30-27 overtime loss to Ohio State created a narrative that the Wolverines' offense held them back all season. That's false.
Yes, obviously, more production in those games would've put them in the playoff, but the efficient unit averaged 40.3 points per game, first in the Big Ten and 11th in the FBS. They scored a combined 84 in back-to-back wins over Colorado and Penn State and were very balanced most of the season.
Wilton Speight is back at quarterback after throwing for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. Harbaugh insists Speight is in a "good spot" in an open competition with fifth-year senior John O'Korn and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters. It'd be downright stunning to see anyone but Speight under center on Sept. 2.
Speight will be protected by two returnees on the offensive line in sophomore guard Ben Bredeson and senior tackle Mason Cole, an All-Big Ten selection last year who fulfills coordinator Tim Drevno's desire for versatile linemen.
"Mason is a very talented athlete, great offensive lineman,” Drevno said. “We’re moving the deck around inside, and we’ll see how that all shakes out. He’s a guy that can play all five positions. That’s how talented he is. Did a great job this summer leading these guys. Great mindset. Just got an eye of a tiger, man. He wants to be the best, which is awesome.”
The skill players are led by a trio of running backs that combined for 234 carries, 1,456 yards and 15 touchdowns behind starter De'Veon Smith. At 212 pounds with a 4.67-second 40-yard dash, Chris Evans has added weight and improved his speed.
"All the competition in the room makes you compete at a higher level, you have to come to practice every day knowing your stuff," Evans said. "It's like a quiet competition in the air. It's in the air. No one's really saying anything about it, but that's the competition. That's just in everyone's head. You don't know what the next guy's thinking.
All of Michigan's experienced receiving threats are gone, leaving two sophomores with a combined nine career receptions to take over in Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford. McDoom was a dangerous jet-sweep weapon last year, though it remains to be seen if Drevno will try to reduce his workload running the ball.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Maurice Hurst, DE Rashan Gary, DE Chase Winovich, LB Mike McCray, S Josh Metellus, S Tyree Kinnel
Almost everyone from Michigan's top-ranked defense (No. 1 in the FBS in yards allowed per game) is gone. They yielded just 14.1 points per game, held seven opponents to 10 or fewer points and did not have a single weakness.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown could start as many as six sophomores, led by Rashan Gary on a defensive line that lost three draft picks but still might be their best and most experienced unit.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” Brown said of the 6-foot-5, 287-pound Gary. “Best I’ve ever seen combining speed, strength, change of direction, and the mental curve. He’s unbelievable. The sky is the limit."
Gary, the No. 1 prospect in the 2016 class, appeared in all 13 games and recorded 27 tackles, five tackles for loss and one sack. He's been lauded by his coaches and teammates for a relentless on- and off-the-field work ethic.
"There’s no air. He’s a humble guy, Just goes about his business every day," Brown added. "Not only is he a great player, he’s a tremendous young man to be around. Every single day he’s the same. I marvel how he carries himself on a day-to-day basis."
Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst — the best interior pass-rusher in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus — is also back, along with linebacker Mike McCray (below). The senior McCray is a big, tough player who could play either middle or weak-side linebacker. He ranked second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss in 2016.
“This year, he’s coming in having that background. He imposes himself on the other guys, and on the young guys," linebackers coach Chris Partridge said. "There’s an aura about him that is different than it was last year. That’s important, because guys look up to him."
Safeties Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel are two of those tasked with replacing a secondary that allowed an FBS-best 142 passing yards per game. Metellus was an under-the-radar hree-star recruit who had 15 tackles in five games as a true freshman in 2016.
Notable Player Losses
RB De'Veon Smith, WR Amara Darboh, WR Jehu Chesson, TE Jake Butt, TE Devin Asiasi, OT Erik Magnuson, G Ben Braden, G Kyle Kalis, DT Ryan Glasgow, DT Matthew Godin, DE Taco Charlton, DE Chris Wormley, LB Ben Gedeon, CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Channing Stribling, CB Jeremy Clark, S Jabrill Peppers, S Delano Hill, S Dymonte Thomas
The scary thing about that list? It could be longer with a few more key contributors who are gone.
Michgan didn't have 18 players drafted but they have a lot — 11 to be exact. And while they'll badly miss the likes of Jabrill Peppers and Taco Charlton on defense and Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson on offense, the departures of all-conference players like Ben Braden and Channing Stribling are notable too.
Also, tight end Devin Asiasi — who caught three passes for 40 yards in the Orange Bowl — was supposed to be the replacement for Jake Butt before transferring UCLA.
Notable Player Additions
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, DT Aubrey Solomon
Donovan Peoples-Jones was the crown jewel of a loaded class that ranked fourth in the nation. A five-star talent from Detroit, he's currently behind Kekoa Crawford on the depth chart but don't be surprised if the 6-foot-2, 193-pounder gets a ton of snaps.
Aubrey Solomon, another five-star 2017 recruit, will spend much of the year learning from Maurice Hurst but will still play immediately.
Michigan opens the season at AT&T Stadium against Florida in a game that leaves no margin for error in their playoff hunt if they lose.
Their early Big Ten slate is friendly but they face Penn State (away), Wisconsin (away) and Ohio State (home) in the season's second half.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Florida|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Cincinnati|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Air Force|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Purdue|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Michigan State|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Indiana|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Penn State|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Rutgers|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Minnesota|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Maryland|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Wisconsin|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Ohio State|