Here comes year five of the Jim Harbaugh era. And with it comes perhaps Michigan’s most opportune shot at a Big Ten title. Urban Meyer’s retirement has opened up a window, the thinking goes, for a shift in the paradigm of power in the Big Ten. Last year was the second in which Harbaugh took his team to the final week against Ohio State with an appearance in the Big Ten title game on the line. Instead of a trip to Indianapolis the team left Columbus with a seventh-consecutive loss to the Buckeyes.
This year, The Game is at home. Michigan returns a senior quarterback, four starting offensive linemen and three potential NFL wide receivers. Don Brown will pilot a young but talented defense. Hope is aplenty in Ann Arbor.
Can the Wolverines finally breakthrough and claim their first Big Ten Title since 2005 — and potentially more? The Daily football beat — Max Marcovitch, Aria Gerson, Ethan Sears and Theo Mackie — has some thoughts. Here are a handful of (surefire) predictions as the college football season rapidly approaches.
Marcovitch: Shea Patterson. To me, the difference between a Michigan offense that finishes top-15 in S&P+ and one that finishes top-5 is Patterson playing at a Heisman caliber level. (For reference, the Wolverines finished 25th in the category last year, their best mark of the Harbaugh era). In this offense, it’s at least plausible.
Gerson: Shea Patterson. Michigan has tons of weapons in its receiving corps, and Patterson is the most experienced quarterback in the Big Ten. This new offense plays to his strengths, and I see him taking a step forward this year.
Sears: Shea Patterson, if only because it’s pretty hard to argue for anyone else. The running back position might be the team’s biggest question, and Patterson will be on the other end of any wide receivers who put up numbers. More importantly, he’s a returning starter who threw for 2,600 yards last year and gets to play in an offense better-suited to his ability.
Mackie: Donovan Peoples-Jones. If Michigan’s offense is among the best in the country this year — which it should be — it will be on the back of an explosive passing attack that uses its trio of uber-talented receivers to their full potential. Peoples-Jones is the best of those receivers, even if he’s only displayed it in small bursts in his first two years. This should be the year he becomes an All-American-level receiver.
Marcovitch: Josh Uche. Double-digit sack potential on a defense with loads of production to replace.
Gerson: Lavert Hill. The defense lost a lot, and Hill — a third team All-American in 2018 — has played at an elite level in the past. He’ll anchor a young secondary and dares teams to target him.
Sears: Lavert Hill is easily the most dependable player on this defense right now. According to Pro Football Focus, Hill allowed just 0.64 yards per coverage snap last season, tied for the fewest among returning Big Ten corners. He’s the kind of corner that’s necessary for a Don Brown defense to succeed — steady, reliable and able to win 1-on-1 matchups against almost anyone.
Mackie: Lavert Hill. It’s the vanilla pick, but Hill is the quiet lockdown corner who got overshadowed by all of this defense’s NFL talent last year. He won’t be the key to Michigan’s defensive success, but he’ll be its best player.
Marcovitch: Does Mike Sainristil even count? OK fine, I’ll go with Brad Hawkins. Bonus pick (because I’ve awarded myself three selections and still don’t quite understand who qualifies as “breakout”): Mike Danna.
Gerson: Kwity Paye. The junior, who will step into one of the defensive end spots, got playing time even as a true freshman and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention as a reserve last year. Now, as one of Michigan’s presumed starters at defensive end, he gets the chance to truly show what he’s made of — and under the tutelage of Don Brown and Shaun Nua, he’ll do just that.
Sears: I liked what I saw from Aidan Hutchinson last year. With an increase in snaps and an expectation to replace a lot of departed production on the defensive line, it feels like he’s in line to put up some numbers.
Mackie: Aidan Hutchinson. With Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich gone, Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and Josh Uche will need to step up for Michigan’s defense to generate the pressure that made it so good for 11 weeks last year. Uche’s sack rate last year makes him the sexy option, but Hutchinson is a physical beast who impressed in limited snaps as a freshman and has been one of the most discussed names by both coaches and players all offseason.
Marcovitch: The Wisconsin game. Michigan hasn’t won in Madison since 2001, and for a ripening offense and a potentially-flawed defense that’s a tough ask in mid-September. It also represents a pivot point. Get by the Badgers there and you’re *probably* looking at a 6-0 team brimming with confidence heading into a night game at Penn State. At that point, buckle up.
Gerson: Josh Uche. He’s a sack machine, but the question is whether he can evolve into a pass-rusher who can play every down. With a depleted linebacking corps, his ability to do so may be the difference between another elite defense and one that’s just OK.
Sears: Zach Charbonnet. Michigan’s run game can probably survive just fine with a trio of Charbonnet, Christian Turner and Tru Wilson, but a breakout from the freshman — a top-five running back in the 2019 recruiting class by 247Sports’ composite score — would elevate the offense to another level.
Mackie: The linebacking corps. The absence of Devin Bush’s speed was on full display in the Peach Bowl as Florida ran all over Michigan’s depleted linebackers. No matter how good the offense is, that defense isn’t winning more than 9 games without major improvements from Khaleke Hudson, Josh Ross and Devin Gil.
Michigan wins the Big Ten if …
Marcovitch: The offense will take a step forward — the question is really how big. The defense will be just fine, if not immediately then soon thereafter. It’s all about Ohio State. The talent disparity between the two is no longer drastic. The Game is at home. Urban Meyer is gone. The coaching staff says they’ve learned from last year. This has to be the year.
Gerson: Josh Gattis solves Michigan’s previous problem of the offense disappearing in big games and installs a more efficient, modern system. Meanwhile, the new players on the defense step up and let the Wolverines forget about what they lost.
Sears: It clears the mental hurdle of beating Ohio State. On paper, this team has more than enough to go into Nov. 30 with a chance to make the playoffs with a win for the third time in five years under Harbaugh. On paper, Ohio State is weaker than ever, and it doesn’t hurt that the game is in Ann Arbor. Michigan just has to, you know, win.
Mackie: Its defense replaces Gary, Winovich, Bush and Long adequately. The offensive line should be Harbaugh’s best at Michigan, Patterson is a potential first-round pick and Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins could both be All-Americans. All the defense needs to do is merely be good, but that may be a tougher task than it seems.
Michigan doesn’t win the Big Ten if …
Marcovitch: There’s a sneaky possibility Michigan doesn’t even get to Ohio State with a chance. Playing at Wisconsin that early is going to be a massive test, especially for the question marks on the interior defensive line against that running game. Winning at State College in a whiteout game is never easy. Michigan State is Michigan State. Life’s never easy in the Big Ten, especially when replacing as many key contributors as this defense is.
Gerson: The loss of Devin Bush, David Long, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich proves too much to bear and the defense doesn’t play at the same elite level as last year. It’s the Peach Bowl all over again as the linebackers and secondary get torched against good opponents.
Sears: A quietly tough schedule strikes early, the losses on defense get exposed and the excitement around the offense turns to lingering questions as Harbaugh loses trust in Gattis fast. Good as this team is, it’s not hard to construct a disaster scenario.
Mackie: Everything doesn’t fall into place perfectly. This team is good, but it’s going to be really hard to win a conference with Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Michigan should be the favorite, but it still needs to navigate a daunting schedule, replace four of its best players on defense and successfully install a new offense. That’s a lot of things that need to go right.
Michigan season prediction
Marcovitch: 10-2 with losses at Penn State and at home to Ohio State. Insert “New Year’s Six bowl that no one really cares about” here. Wash, rinse, repeat. You know the drill by now.
Gerson: 10-2. I don’t think Michigan will be good enough to get through its gauntlet of various Big Ten teams and Notre Dame unscathed — but I don’t see any other team in the conference being good enough to do it, either. The Wolverines make a New Year’s Six bowl somewhere warm, which they probably lose, because that’s just what Michigan does.
Sears: 10-2, with losses to Ohio State and one of Army/Penn State/Notre Dame/Michigan State but with a win in a New Year’s Six bowl. That would be the best season of the Harbaugh era, but little enough that it will leave fans wondering if Michigan will ever really contend for a title.
Mackie: 11-1. The defensive losses are a major concern, but if Don Brown does what he does, only one Big Ten team has the offensive firepower to exploit them. Unfortunately for Michigan, that one team is Ohio State and yet another season will go bust the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
CFP final four
Marcovitch: Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Oregon
Gerson: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia
Sears: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia
Mackie: Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia
Marcovitch: *points at defender, pulls up from distance, yells “heat check”* … Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Gerson: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Sears: Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Mackie: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama