May 6, 2016
Expectations for Michigan football’s 2016 season could hardly be higher, since the Wolverines are projected to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The only way projections really can increase in boldness is by tabbing Jim Harbaugh’s club as a lock to reach the four-team championship tournament.
However, that wouldn’t be a realistic forecast.
Barring significant injuries to key players, Michigan will be an excellent team. While that statement isn’t exactly breaking news, several top programs share a similar outlook.
But in terms of what the Wolverines can control, though, whether or not they survive the back-loaded schedule will be the difference between a Big Ten title with a likely CFP berth and falling short to a rival yet again.
Expectations for the Offense
The first half of the 2015 slate revealed an offense that simply did enough while the defense carried Michigan. Only against BYU did the Wolverines offense control an opponent from the opening whistle.
That should change this season.
Michigan returns four starters on the offensive line, which struggled in run blocking last year. But the 41-7 Citrus Bowl victory over Florida—a defense peppered with NFL-caliber talent—showed a unit capable of owning the trenches.
According to Nick Baumgardner of MLive, right tackle Erik Magnuson said the win boosted the O-line’s morale:
That game was, I think, big just for our confidence. [Florida’s] an SEC school, they had a really good defense, good stats and all that type of thing. And for us to go in there and put together a game like we did, I felt like we really played well. That built our confidence a lot. And now we’ve got to build on it.
If Ben Braden (LG), Mason Cole (moving from LT to C), Kyle Kalis (RG) and Magnuson (RT) improve this summer like they did during three weeks of December bowl practices, it will hardly matter that the Wolverines probably won’t have a star runner.
Still, there’s no Heisman Trophy candidate emerging from this backfield.
De’Veon Smith is a two-time leading rusher but not a dynamic player. Drake Johnson—assuming he recovers after getting hit by a forklift—could be a better option, although he only managed 54 carries in 2015 despite a wide-open job.
The wild card is Ty Isaac, who looked explosive during the spring game. However, the former top recruit hasn’t come close to his perceived potential, and an April scrimmage certainly doesn’t provide a definitive answer as to whether 2016 will be Isaac’s year.
Michigan also must break in a new quarterback to replace Jake Rudock, a sixth-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions. That competition is unofficially narrowed down to Wilton Speight and John O’Korn.
Fortunately, the winner won’t lack weapons. Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and Jake Butt—159 combined receptions, 2,154 yards and 14 touchdowns—headline a formidable pass-catching group.
Speight or O’Korn must develop the chemistry Rudock lacked with that trio—particularly Chesson as a deep threat—for a sizable portion of last season.
In 2015, the Wolverines finished 50th and 69th in scoring and total offense, respectively. While comfortable top-50 marks are sensible predictions, a top-25 attack nationally is their ceiling.
Should Michigan’s defense matches expectations, though, the Maize and Blue won’t require anything more than that.
Expectations for the Defense
It seems ridiculous to even consider the notion that the 2016 defense could be even better than 2015. After all, the Wolverines had an elite unit last year.
Nevertheless, improvement is actually quite likely.
Willie Henry and Mario Ojemudia—who missed the final eight games anyway—are the primary departures from the defensive line. But Maurice Hurst Jr. is a rising star at defensive tackle, and 5-star Rashan Gary will arrive this summer.
Chris Wormley is a potential first-round pick, Ryan Glasgow was a powerful run-stopper when healthy in 2015 and three notable pieces—Taco Charlton, Chase Winovich and Matt Godin—complete the unit.
Behind the stout defensive front lies Michigan’s possible weakness. Jabrill Peppers’ move to linebacker, combined with first-year coordinator Don Brown’s attack-minded scheme, has helped eliminate some concerns after losing three starters, however.
While spread offenses gave the Wolverines some trouble in 2015, Peppers’ hybrid-like spot gives them a faster group of linebackers without sacrificing the secondary.
Instead, Peppers’ position switch allows Michigan to play its top 11 defenders. Jourdan Lewis is a lockdown outside corner, while Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark are starting-caliber talents. Dymonte Thomas (FS) and Delano Hill (SS) are penciled in, too.
Now, the Wolverines don’t have a perfect defense, as evidenced by a mere 12 takeaways last year. But the primary reason for hope is that Boston College forced 23 under Brown.
Considering the talent level in Brown’s system—and barring a streak of injuries—anything worse than a top-10 defense in Ann Arbor would be stunning, especially following a tremendous 2015 campaign.
The Road to Indianapolis, the Playoff
Michigan will ease into the regular season, beginning its championship pursuit by hosting Hawaii, UCF and Colorado. Make it 3-0.
Although facing Penn State and Wisconsin is a tough way to start Big Ten action, the Wolverines host both foes. Conference play continues at Rutgers and home to Illinois, so a 7-0 record heading into the gauntlet is both attainable and probable.
Then it gets tricky.
Michigan State’s offense won’t match its performance under Connor Cook, but the Spartans defense will be trouble. MSU has earned seven victories in the last eight matchups, and the rivalry heads to East Lansing this year.
A potential respite awaits Michigan the following week when Maryland’s mediocre offense comes to Ann Arbor, but former U-M defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will lead a stingy Terrapins defense.
Next up is the big question mark: Iowa on the road. Are the Hawkeyes for real? Or will they return to playing average football? That question will be answered well before November 12, but not now.
The Wolverines shouldn’t repeat a high-scoring tilt with Indiana, but four of the series’ last five meetings were shootouts. Perhaps that trend will continue.
Last but certainly not least is The Game. Ohio State—which owns an 11-1 record against Michigan since 2004—must reload its roster but will have an established identity at this point.
After a 7-0 start, Michigan’s CFP aspirations will depend on beating top conference opponents away from the Big House while not overlooking a pair of pesky programs. The Wolverines figure to remain in the hunt for a conference title and CFP berth until the final weekend in Columbus.
What happens then…well, that’s anyone’s guess.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from CFBStats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.
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