By Adam Braunstein
2015 Record: 10-3 (6-2 B1G), beat Florida 41-7 in Citrus Bowl
2016 WNUR Sports Staff Prediction: 11-1 (8-1 B1G), 2nd in the B1G East
Key Returning Players: Jake Butt (TE), Jourdan Lewis (CB), Jabrill Peppers (CB), Wilton Speight (QB), Jehu Chesson (WR)
Key Departing Players: Jake Rudock (QB), Graham Glasgow (C), Willie Henry (DT), Joe Bolden (LB)
At this point in the offseason, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to indicate who the team’s opening day starting quarterback will be. Houston transfer John O’Korn and senior Shane Morris remain in the running to lead what is expected to be a potent offense, but it is junior Wilton Speight who seems to have the edge at this point in the summer. Speight is considered a game manager who struggles to push the ball downfield but excels at protecting the ball.
Whoever is under center for the Wolverines should benefit from the many talented players he will be lining up next to. 2015 All Big-Ten first team tight end Jake Butt, along with receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, will provide whoever plays QB for the Wolverines with plenty of weapons to torch defenses with.
The Wolverines will certainly look to improve their ground game. Michigan ran for less than 100 yards four times last year and lost all but one of those games. Four returning offensive lineman should pave the way for Michigan running backs to gain big chunks of yardage, even against tough Big Ten defenses.
Michigan’s defense was outstanding in the first year of the Harbaugh era, and there is no reason to think that will be any different in 2016. In December, the Wolverines stole Don Brown away from Boston College to become their defensive coordinator, and the accomplished coach will have plenty of talent to work with. Former five-star recruit Jabrill Peppers is expected to play more linebacker than he did in years past, while 2015 First Team All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis will lead a crazy-talented secondary. Sports Illustrated ranked Lewis as the 14th best player in all of college football, so there will be plenty of eyes on the senior from Detroit this fall.
The Wolverines were fourth in the nation last year in terms of total defense (trailing now defensive coordinator Don Brown’s Golden Eagles’ defense by just over 26 yards per game), and the only defensive position where they lost key contributors is at linebacker. Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan combined for 154 tackles last season, and neither will be back in 2016. If they’re able to replace the production that they will lose at the linebacker position, Michigan’s defense has a chance to give offensive coordinators across the nation nightmares.
If there is any team in all of football worth reading a special teams preview, it is the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan would love to forget losing to Michigan State on a fumble by punter Blake O’Neill, which the Spartans returned for a game-winning touchdown as time expired, but that memory will almost certainly never exit the Michigan football memory bank. Despite his blunder against MSU, O’Neill was a 2015 Big-Ten honorable mention member, so fifth-year senior Kenny Allen will have big shoes to fill with O’Neill graduating.
Regarding the less traumatizing side of special teams for the Wolverines, Peppers is one of the most intimidating kick returners in college football. While it is pretty crazy to think that a guy who is expected to play linebacker this year could be a productive kick returner, Peppers is athletic enough to do just about anything he wants on the football field. Jourdan Lewis is also an outstanding kick returner. Lewis returned 15 kicks last season and averaged 25.2 yards per return. Anytime Peppers or Lewis gets the ball, they have a chance to take it to the house.
If things go right for the Wolverines, nothing is out of reach. Looking at the schedule, Michigan’s toughest home game is against the Wisconsin Badgers, so the Wolverines should be able to go undefeated at The Big House. On the road, Michigan will have three very tough tests: at MSU, at Iowa, and at OSU. It is hard to believe that any program could win all three of these games on the road, but as talented as Michigan is, it is not out of the question. If Harbaugh’s squad can get two of those three games, the Wolverines will likely be headed to Indianapolis to play in the Big Ten championship in what would likely be a rematch against either Wisconsin or Iowa. If Michigan can win 12 of its first 13 games, including the Big Ten championship, the Wolverines will have a very good chance to compete for the national championship.
Michigan will likely end up with three to four regular season losses in a worst case scenario. An incredibly tough schedule along with unproven candidates to play quarterback are what seem most likely to hold back the Wolverines. However, the defense is so good that anything less than eight regular season wins is unrealistic. It is hard to call an eight-win season a worst case scenario, but Michigan is just that talented.