Another 2017 Michigan Season Preview

The world was one Michigan football season preview short. But not anymore. Other rightings: Ohio State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, Purdue, Rutgers.

Wolverines football in the 21st century is one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on Michigan Mankind.

No program has done less with as much as the Maize and Blue. Losers of 15 of this century’s 17 “rivalry” games against Ohio State. Dominated by MSU for most of the past decade. Winless in bowls of consequence save for a redemptive victory over Tim Tebow’s 4-loss Florida team on New Year’s Day, 2008, and a turvy win over Virginia Tech in the 2012 Sugar Bowl, the latter win sealed by a kicker who would visibly false start on the game-sealing play, and who would later be implicated in a sexual assault investigation and possible cover-up…

Jim Harbaugh is widely believed to be the return to form Michigan has sought since the day Bo Schembechler breathed his last. Still, he has not beaten Ohio State. By what other metric can a Michigan coach be judged?

Where was Jabrill Peppers against the Buckeyes? The Game had been promoted as a chance to cement Peppers’ place among Michigan’s spice cabinet of greats. Instead, the once-Heisman hopeful rushed five times for five yards; an average, to wit, roughly equal to “one yard and a mess of hype.” On defense, Jabrill had Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel dead to rights in the backfield on the crucial third down that would set up the contested fourth down play.

Instead, Samuel cut, crossed the field, and slipped away. Two plays later,

Anything Blue can do, Gray can do better. And it may not end soon — indeed, it may never end. Given the way the Buckeyes recruit, reload, and refine, it is entirely possible that the Wolverines will be fortunate to beat Ohio State once in the next ten years, or until Urban Meyer dabs his last upper lip. Last year may have been M’s best chance, with a team finally as good as OSU’s. But they gave that game away, literally, with galling turnovers at both goal lines.

A win would have meant everything. A loss means more grist for The Nothing, that gnawing feeling in the pit of every Michigan fan’s stomach that one’s fandom is, at last, an absurdity, an insignificant trifle, part of the grim farce of being the winningest bunch of losers in college football history.

This year, Michigan’s season again seems tailor-made for dreams expanded and deferred, of predictions, confidences, tragedies, and maybe-next-years, an overcommitment of emotional troops fated to die with the small comfort of having done so honorably, and the hollow intellectual condolence that it is, after all, only a Game.

Michigan must beat Ohio State, must, at home, this year, or the absurdity of the charade will reach gargantuan proportions; Wolverine fans will search their souls, finding only GIFs; and Jim Harbaugh will become what he may be already: the coolest loser coach in college football.

 

Best Case Scenario

Despite heavy losses, Michigan proves it can reload, rolling out a cool youth corps of receivers in true freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Nico Collins, and Oliver Martin, who prove to be beneficiaries of Wilton Speight’s big arm and refusal to take sacks. M survives closer than expected games against Cincy and Air Force, and a league-leading defense congeals in big wins over Purdue and Michigan State to start the Big Ten season. The road game at Wisconsin ends in a loss, but a cathartic win over the Buckeyes puts Michigan in the Big Ten Title Game, where they win the rematch against the Badgers. They advance to the college football playoff as the Big Ten’s representative, losing as the three seed in a not-close game, but it’s the most satisfying season Mich has had in 14 years.

 

Worst Case Scenario

The Wolverines spend the year as bit players in someone else’s highlight reel, surrendering a late lead to Florida thanks to some fluky turnovers. They do worse than split road games at Penn State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland, or let a bad Spartan team hang around and lose on a field goal, or let Luke Fickell exact vengeance for his loss at Michigan while interim Buckeyes coach when Cincy QB Hayden Moore completes a bomb down the sideline to shock the Wolverines at home. Speight never gets on the same page with who the coaches want to play at outside receiver, and the Wolverines, bruised early, get conservative with their playcalling. A great defensive line is neutered by a suspect linebacking corps, or the cornerback position becomes a rotating cast of victims. The Game at home devolves into a gross repeat of the Game two years ago. A 7-5 Michigan team crushes its opponent in a December 30th bowl game, proving it was better than its record, and embarrasses itself with by ending the year ranked 24th. The Wolverines shed coordinators in the offseason, costing them a few of the top-flight recruits that would have served as balm. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes play for another championship.

 

Most Likely Case Scenario

D-Line, baby. Forget about receivers, quarterbacks, RBs. Michigan’s defensive line, stocked with premier talents in Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst, feeds on lesser linemen, the force of its reputation instilling chaos and fear before the first snap. If the Wolverines do give away a now-more-winnable-game against Florida, likely thanks to the offense, the taste of loss will be bitter enough to motivate them through the rest of the preconference. The Wolverines win close against a motivated but thin Michigan State team, even closer against Penn State — where Saquon Barkley again gets nothing going on the ground — but cannot survive Camp Randall. A two-loss Michigan team goes into the Ohio State game with a key player nicked up, losing this close

…and winning the bowl to go 10-3…again. Nuts.

 

Did You Know?

Despite its recent stumbles, Michigan secured the first sponsorship of Nike’s Jumpman, the fabled image of Michael Jordan dunking, securing its place as the coolest football team in college basketball.

 

Fantasy Preview

Quarterback

When Wilton Speight jogged onto the field for the first series last year, a collective sigh of relief could be heard in Big Ten fantasy front offices nationwide. Speight won Harbaugh’s secret quarterback competition, and Michigan’s willingness to run up the score on lesser opponents–and even some decent ones–made Speight a fantasy steal. His efficiency may not break any fantasy scoring records, but you can take 15+ points to the bank each game. The loss of his 3 best receivers may lower Speight’s ceiling, but he still figures to be a top-6 fantasy QB. Last year’s backup, John O’Korn, returns and should be on your waiver wire watch list given Speight’s injury history. Heralded redshirt freshman Brandon Peters is supposedly a legitimate challenger for the starting job, but at this point he’s too much of a risk to warrant a draft pick, even a last rounder.

Running Back

The running-back-by-committee approach has worked for Harbaugh’s Wolverines, except when it hasn’t, and for fantasy owners it can be a nightmare. Having said that, last year’s performance and the graduation of De’Veon Smith make sophomore Chris Evans a darkhorse first-round pick on some boards, but he’s probably more of a second-rounder. You don’t get points for carries, so Evans’s breakaway speed and big-play potential are tremendous fantasy assets. Ty Isaac and Karan Higdon figure to round out the committee, and their draft projections depend pretty much entirely on whether you think Evans gets 50% of the total carries. If it’s less, Isaac and Higdon are 6th or 7th rounders; and if it’s more, they’re 9th or 10th. Newcomers Kareem Walker and O’Maury Samuels may push for some playing time, so put them in the wait-and-see category as potential free agents. The Wolverines’ most intriguing RB prospect, however, is Khalid Hill. A Weisman Award candidate, Hill was misclassified as a TE in our Fantrax league last year, and Petya exploited that Hammering-Panda-sized loophole to win a title. Hill’s proper classification as a running back significantly diminishes his fantasy potential, but Michigan’s bizarre propensity for stalling at the one-yard line may just make Hill worth a precious roster spot.

Wide Receiver

The losses of Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt are terrible news for the Michigan offense, but potentially wonderful news for shrewd fantasy analysts. The much heralded freshman duo of Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black are between third and fifth round picks, and if you said one of them will have 900 yards and 7 TDs, we’d believe you. Behind DPJ and Black, it gets a little dicey in terms of fantasy output. Irish scaremonger Eddie McDoom says humans have 50 years left, tops, and is unproven running routes that aren’t sweeps. He finished the season with more rushing yards against MSU than receiving yards all year. Sophomore Kekoa Crawford (3 career catches) wears the #1 jersey, which of course at Michigan has the distinction of meaning nothing.

Tight End

Devin Asiasi transferred. Junior Ian Bunting looks enough like a Butt to cause double takes, and could be in for a productive season. Backup Tyrone Wheatley, Jr., five career catches and all, made the preseason Mackey Award watch list, and converted QB Zach Gentry is 6’7 and New Mexican. If your league is Michigan-fan heavy like ours, all three may get picked, but probably only Bunting deserves the speculative selection.

Kicker

Replacing departed veteran Kenny Allen is former top recruit Quinn Nordin, a western Michigan kid who’s expected to step right in as an above-average kicker in the biggest stadium in the country, no pressure.

Defense

This is not last year’s defense, but it still could be pretty damn good. Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst are among the best D-linemen nationwide, and Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich will be capable parts of a rotation that includes rising stars in true freshmen Kwity Paye, Aubrey Solomon, and Luiji Vilian. The secondary has gone from a formidable strength to a large question mark, but there’s been positive camp feedback on Lavert Hill at cornerback and Josh Metellus at safety. At linebacker, Mike McCray ought to be on every defensive award watch list, and Devin Bush, Jr. had a productive freshman season. Michigan should be the third or fourth defense off the board in most fantasy drafts, behind Wisconsin and Ohio State for sure, and maybe Penn State. They could outperform tempered expectations; but the schedule may prove to be a challenge.

 

Suggested Viewing

A strange, exciting win over Colorado

 

M’s loss to Iowa, which changed everything

 

Garrett Moores’ acceptance speech after winning Holder of the Year