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Michigan better be awesome again, because the schedule certainly is

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Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season could be a lot like his first two: top-10 quality and close games against other elites.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina
Jim Harbaugh
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

There’s a difference between living through a rebuild year in the present tense and the future tense. In the future tense, we understand that there is short-term pain on the horizon. In the present tense, while we’re living through something we knew would happen, we freak the hell out.

Heading into the 2017 season, it was easy to predict that Harbaugh’s third season would be a retooling effort. He and his Wolverines had come within about an inch of the Big Ten Championship and a potential spot in the College Football Playoff in 2016, but they entered last fall with an almost completely new defensive lineup and receiving corps.

S&P+ projected about a 9-3 record for Michigan. With pretty much any projection, there’s the understanding that, if, for instance, you lose your starting quarterback injury a month into the season, you’ll probably underachieve by a game or two. Indeed, Wilton Speight played just four games, and the Wolverines technically underachieved, going 8-4 instead.

The year ended with a late-game bowl collapse against South Carolina and a No. 27 final S&P+ ranking, lower than projected. The Wolverines still finished in the Def. S&P+ top 10, but the offense, projected in the 40s, plummeted to 85th instead.

If this were a less consequential program, led by a coach who grabs less attention, we would have explained this easily: the team had a new set of receivers (with one go-to freshman getting hurt early in the season, the No. 1 target became a different freshman) and a revolving door at quarterback. That’ll make just about any offense underachieve.

We would have concluded that Team A needed to get healthy at QB, and with extreme continuity elsewhere — a couple of good running backs return, and the defense that was so young last year returns almost literally everybody — that might be all it takes for this team to clear last year’s bar, perhaps by quite a bit.

This is Michigan, however, one of the sport’s original blue-bloods. And this is Harbaugh, the khaki-loving, khaki-hitching, dad-bodied, milk-drinking, peanut-obsessed, Iverson-jersey-wearing, opera-singing, steak-eating, clipboard-tossing, subtweeting, full-clothes-pool-jumping (multiple times), butt-shaking, piccolo-playing, tree-climbing, Corvette-driving, RAW-attending, sleepover-having, Peru-visiting, Rick-Ross-quoting Judge Judy fan, friend of Ric Flair and Wale running mate. Every time he speaks in public, every sports website in America draws page views. He is a walking, talking meme.

He’s also a narrative magnet. He’s 0-3 against Ohio State and 1-2 against Michigan State, and as any college football fan knows, he has yet to finish higher than third in the Big Ten East.

Mind you, he’s only been there three years. Doesn’t matter. The combination of his immediate success, his achievement elsewhere — building Stanford from scratch, taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl — and the power of his personality skewed expectations.

But if we take the expectations off the table and simply look at what Michigan has, everything still appears to be on track. At the end of last year’s preview, I said this:

Throughout the writing of this preview, I couldn’t stop thinking about 2018. ... You can’t take a “wait ‘til next year” approach when you’re still projected as a top-10 team, but if Michigan does lose a couple of late games and keep the “Never better than third in the Big Ten East!” meme alive, you should get your laughs in while you can. Because this program is probably a year away from ignition.

Speight didn’t return — he elected to transfer to UCLA after Harbaugh brought in Ole Miss transfer and former blue-chipper Shea Patterson — but that’s an upgrade, and everything else has followed the plan. On paper, last year’s pain could still flip around to a top-10 performance this year.

Of course, with a schedule that features five games against teams projected in the top 12, a top-10 performance might still result in a 9-3 record or so. The narrative potential of this program is, at all times, off the charts.

Offense

2017 Michigan offensive radar

In February, Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator, Tim Drevno, left for a job at USC. An aggrieved OC finding a new position isn’t a surprising move. But Harbaugh’s response was half-inspired, half-confusing.

To replace Drevno the OL coach, Harbaugh brought in Ed Warinner. On paper, that was a great move. Warinner was an outstanding OL coach at Ohio State during the Buckeyes’ 2014 national title run, though the Buckeyes’ offense began to slip when he replaced Tom Herman as coordinator.

To replace Drevno the OC, however, Harbaugh ... did nothing. Harbaugh has spoken about “great collaboration” between Warinner, passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, and new receivers coach (and former Alabama OC and Florida head coach) Jim McElwain. But he has not yet revealed who might actually be calling the plays. Not going to lie: that’s weird.

We do know two things:

1. It won’t take much to exceed last year’s efficiency.

2017 Michigan offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Though the run game provided some big plays here and there, Michigan’s 38.4 percent success rate ranked just 109th in FBS and 10th in the low-efficiency Big Ten. The Wolverines still had a baked-in efficiency advantage thanks to Brown’s ridiculously aggressive defense, but they gave away a lot of those gains, and whichever quarterback happened to be healthy was dealing with far too many second- or third-and-longs.

2. QB got an upgrade when Patterson was deemed eligible.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Auburn
Shea Patterson
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Speight, O’Korn, and Peters ended up producing remarkably similar numbers in 2017. They all completed between 52.8 and 54.3 percent of their passes, with between a minus-0.1 and minus-1.7 percent marginal efficiency, and after sacks they each averaged between 4.6 and 5.9 yards per pass attempt. For good measure, Harbaugh has strangely brought in Illinois grad transfer Jeff George Jr. as well; George almost precisely replicated the trio’s work, albeit on a team with far less talent.

Patterson, on the other hand, showed quite a few flashes of his blue-chip potential. A former five-star prospect, Patterson completed 64 percent of his passes with a plus-5.6 percent marginal efficiency and 7.6 yards per attempt, and he had more touchdowns (17) than Speight, O’Korn, Peters, and George combined (16) despite missing five games, and with a better interception rate (3.5 percent vs. the foursome’s 3.8).

When he got hurt, his Ole Miss replacement, JUCO transfer Jordan Ta’amu, came in and produced even better numbers, which might suggest that the Rebels’ system is pretty QB-friendly. Of late, Michigan’s has not been. We’ll see if that changes with Collaborative Committee calling the plays.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan
Karan Higdon
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

System aside, there’s no doubting that this year’s supporting cast trumps last year’s. At running back, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans both return; the duo have combined for 2,718 yards (5.9 per carry) and 27 touchdowns over the last two years. And while the line does lose four-year starting tackle Mason Cole, it still returns six players with starting experience, including second-team all-conference guard Ben Bredeson.

The receiving corps is infinitely more stable, too. Former blue-chipper Tarik Black had 11 catches for 149 yards in three games before missing the rest of the season with injury, and he joins another former five-star (sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones), senior slot receiver Grant Perry, and tight end Sean McKeon.

There are also plenty of young four-stars — junior tight end Tyrone Wheatley, sophomore Nico Collins, redshirt freshman Oliver Martin, true freshman tight ends Mustapha Muhammad and Ryan Hayes — who could emerge.

Still, so much depends on Patterson and a system that remains somewhere between uncertain and stodgy. The Wolverines proved in 2015 and 2016 that they could play elite-level ball without elite-level quarterbacking, but a strong season from Patterson would give them a margin for error that they haven’t yet enjoyed under Harbaugh.

Defense

2017 Michigan defensive radar

Brown is a national treasure. The 62-year-old served as head coach at Plymouth State, Northeastern, and UMass and coordinator at Mansfield, Dartmouth, Yale, Brown, UMass, Maryland, UConn, and Boston College before getting a call from Harbaugh in 2016. With each passing year, it appears his defenses get more aggressive.

Brown’s front is crafted around nastiness, and he has weaponized the nickelback position like no one else in college football. In 2016, Peppers became a Heisman finalist with 15 tackles for loss and a bunch of strong returns. In 2017, with Peppers playing for the Browns, sophomore Khaleke Hudson topped his defensive production (without the return magic), combining 17 TFLs with 11 passes defensed.

Despite an almost entirely new lineup, Michigan produced such extreme efficiency that the Wolverines remained in the Def. S&P+ top 10.

That was also despite some pretty impressive glitches. On the rare occasion that you beat the Michigan defense, you likely got a huge gain.

UM remained first in the country in success rate but fell from 23rd to 112th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays you allow). But that was with freshmen and sophomores accounting for two of the four primary spots on the line, two of four at linebacker, and six of nine at defensive back.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Indiana
Rashan Gary
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Experience will tamp down those glitches, and Michigan should remain as absurdly aggressive and efficient as any defense in college football. The list of assets is just ridiculous.

  • Hudson is a monster.
  • Ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary combined for 30.5 TFLs, 14 sacks, and three forced fumbles last year.
  • Middle linebacker Devin Bush led the team in tackles and combined 9.5 TFLs with nine passes defensed.
  • Safeties Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus combined for five TFLs and 14 passes defensed.
  • Corners Lavert Hill, David Long, and Brandon Watson combined for 8.5 TFLs and 22 PDs.
  • Blue-chip redshirt freshmen like end Luiji Vilain and linebackers Drew Singleton and Jordan Anthony and sophomores like linebacker Josh Ross, cornerback Ambry Thomas, and safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell are waiting their turns.

Brown crafted an elite defense at Boston College without much top-shelf talent. He’s taken quite well to life in a pool of four- and five-stars, and his 2018 defense should be another masterpiece. The best thing the offense has going is that the defense should constantly produce good field position.

Michigan v Rutgers
Khaleke Hudson (7)
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Special Teams

Losing Peppers’ returns might have hurt more than losing his defensive prowess. Michigan ranked just 126th in kick return efficiency and 76th in punt return efficiency. And the Wolverines had to break in a couple of new punters (first sophomore Will Hart, then freshman Brad Robbins) and fall to 98th in punt efficiency just in time for an increase in punts.

Everybody’s back except kickoffs specialist James Foug, and place-kicker Quinn Nordin is as big-legged as he is volatile (6-for-8 on long field goals, but with three missed PATs). Michigan should top last year’s No. 58 Special Teams S&P+ ranking, if not by a ton.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Notre Dame 7 -5.5 38%
8-Sep Western Michigan 87 24.6 92%
15-Sep SMU 74 21.8 90%
22-Sep Nebraska 60 18.9 86%
29-Sep at Northwestern 38 9.3 71%
6-Oct Maryland 80 22.5 90%
13-Oct Wisconsin 12 3.1 57%
20-Oct at Michigan State 11 -2.2 45%
3-Nov Penn State 8 0.6 51%
10-Nov at Rutgers 84 18.9 86%
17-Nov Indiana 58 18.6 86%
24-Nov at Ohio State 1 -11.2 26%
Projected S&P+ Rk 10
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 45 / 4
Projected wins 8.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 13.6 (11)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 15 / 22
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 4.8
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 78% (74%, 83%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.3 (-0.3)

Michigan’s defense could be Brown’s best yet, and the offense has its most high-upside QB since Harbaugh’s arrival. After ranking fifth and third, respectively, in S&P+ in Harbaugh’s first two seasons, there’s every reason to believe the Wolverines will re-enter the top 10 this year, at least if its starting QB stays upright.

It’s good that UM will be better because the schedule should be harder. The Wolverines are projected 10th in S&P+ but play five games against teams projected 12th or better, three of them on the road. A top-10 team might only go 9-3 against that slate.

This being Harbaugh’s Michigan, losing three or more games again — likely with another loss to Ohio State — would further the idea that Harbaugh just isn’t getting the job done. That would be unfortunate and perhaps inaccurate, but ... at some point you’ve got to beat your rivals.

Harbaugh all but did so two years ago, beating Penn State and Michigan State with relative ease and coming up millimeters short of Ohio State in Columbus, but then had to start all over. Is this the year he gets it done?

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