I have a feeling that I am going to contradict myself a little bit here, but I’m just not buying into the hype that the Michigan Wolverines are national title contenders in 2016.
Every week there are new preseason rankings being put out by various media outlets, and all of them seem to have Michigan in or very near the top five. I get that and I understand that. It’s part of The Harbaugh Effect. I don’t think it’s deserved or undeserved, it’s just fluffery.
But then the radio told me this morning that Michigan is receiving more national title betting action in the Vegas sportsbooks than any other school. On one hand I am shocked by this, yet on the other hand I get the need by Michigan fans to feel like this is a real and tangible possibility.
After all, the Wolverines won 10 games last year, and they should have won 12. That was in Jim Harbaugh’s first crack at things, so I can see why people are excited about the possibilities of Year Two.
The problem, however, is that the things that kept them from winning the national title a year ago are still the same problems they are going to have in 2016.
Can they run the ball and can they stop the run against a skilled team that loves to run the ball?
A year ago Michigan averaged over 5 yards per carry in a game against a P5 opponent just once – and that was 5.04 yards against the Indiana Hoosiers, who allowed 5.23 yards per carry to everyone else last season.
Oh, and the bowl game against Florida which folks like to point to as a positive sign for the running game? They averaged 4.89 yards per carry in that game. Over a season that would’ve ranked 33rd in the nation a year ago. It’s fine, but not, ‘Hey, wow, look at this!’
The offensive line is better and 5-star running back Kareem Walker will help, but can they take that 4.2 yards per carry average from last year and add at least another yard to it?
Of the last eight national champions, five of them averaged over 5.5 yards per carry. The three who didn’t? Alabama in 2015, 2011 and 2009.
So either you better average over 5.5 yards per carry to win a title, or you better be Alabama, and I’m not sure which is more likely to happen for Michigan.
Then there is the defensive side of the ball. The Wolverines finished No. 16 in the nation in run defense last year, allowing just 122.23 yards rushing per game.
Against teams ranked in the top 30 in rushing, however, they allowed 338 yards per game on the ground. Sure, that was just two opponents – Indiana and Ohio State, but they also happened to be the two teams on Michigan’s schedule that could actually run the ball.
Citing Michigan’s run defense as a weakness sounds silly, but we’re talking about the Wolverines when they are playing elite opponents — or Indiana. Over the last four years, Michigan has allowed 300.5 yards rushing per game to OSU. That’s not how titles are won. But that’s also in the past, though some might consider it a trend.
Can the Wolverine defense — with a new coordinator and new tweaks — improve on their standing from a year ago? They better. New DC Don Brown came over from Boston College — which has finished No. 2 against the run each of the previous two seasons.
The turnarounds that he has done at each of his stops have been amazing — just go look up his impact during his time at Connecticut, or how his various defenses were the year before his arrival and year after his departure. He is legit and his Barwisian hype from Michigan fans is justified, but a coach is only as good as his players.
As has been the case for the last several years, I don’t see enough difference makers. The defensive line will be fine because they were last year, but is there a rusher on the edge that teams are going to have to worry about? If Michigan is going to win it all, there needs to be.
If Jabrill Peppers can’t defend the run at his “linebacker” spot, will they continue to move him down seemingly in order to get him as far away from pass coverage as possible? I have no idea how Peppers is going to be used, but I can see him being a Jordan Kovacs with next level aspirations. He could absolutely excel in this spot, but what happens when he is attacked by a power running team?
Aside from Peppers and All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis, the rest of the back seven looks like it is going to consist of players who live in the Goldilocks Zone of football — not too hot, not too cold. They’ve played, but never at an elite level.
Where Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown are arguably better than anybody else at their respective positions, however, is getting everything out of the players they put on the field.
Michigan will have bodies, and they obviously have talent, but do they have enough of each to win a national title? I just don’t see it.
Every question about the linebackers comes back with an answer that starts out with an “If…” and ends with a “maybe?”, and the safeties are a stop-gap without an end.
And yet, somehow Harbaugh is going to make it all work.
The non-conference schedule — Hawaii, UCF, Colorado — is perfect for an offense breaking in a new quarterback and looking to gain confidence in the running game. The rest of the schedule isn’t much worse.
Penn State and Wisconsin at home should move the Wolverines to 5-0. But then comes a trip to Piscataway and their newfound rival Rutgers. That should have them at 6-0 before two byes — one of which is their homecoming game against Illinois.
So, yeah, Michigan will be 7-0 heading into East Lansing. You can call that game however you see it. Maryland follows that one in the Big House, then a trip to Iowa, then home against Indiana, and then off to Columbus.
This is basically a three-game schedule for Michigan, and if the Wolverines can just go 2-1 in those three games they could have a shot at playing for the Big Ten title. Or they could go 2-1 and still end up sitting it out.
Everything has to go perfectly in order for Michigan to win a title this season, and then they still have to beat Alabama and someone similar.
I think the Wolverines are still at least a year away from truly being good enough to win a title. That doesn’t mean they won’t be in the picture this year. Hell, Iowa was in the national title picture last year. And maybe the Hawkeyes are a good example of what I am talking about. They didn’t have the talent necessary to win it all, but they were about two seconds away from playing for it all.
Basically, the possibility is certainly there. I just don’t think the talent is.
It will take some time before Michigan’s roster matches the expectations, but it is only a matter of time.