Has Michigan Reloaded?
After losing ten of eleven starters on defense, and returning only five total, it looked to be a rebuilding year for Jim Harbaugh. But after dismantling Florida, it might be time to reset expectations.
The Formidable Challenge
No way, no how. You don’t return just five starters total, including having to replace ten of eleven on defense and not feel some growing pains. There’s absolutely no way the Wolverines can be as good as they were the last couple of years under Harbaugh. Right?
Think again. The horses still seem to be there.
The narrative of the rebuild in Ann Arbor has been thrown around more than week old pasta, and it’s not a story that’s hard to argue.
There aren’t that many teams that can absorb the type of wholesale losses Michigan had to endure and still remain viable in discussion of playoff-worthy teams. Alabama, Ohio State. Maybe Clemson. The discussion typically end there in today’s college football arms race.
Then again, we might want to pause and reassess after Michigan’s dominant 33-17 win against SEC foe Florida. After all, the state of things normally change over time. In fact, the only constant in college football is change.
Yes, even big, bad Alabama will at some point fall of the perch it sits upon. It is inevitable just like the USC and Miami fall of a few years ago.
Before we go any further, there are obvious caveats here. First, we are only talking about one week. We have a tendency to go knee-jerk and elevate teams after a great performance one-week, only to bash them when they fall short of expectations the next.
It’s just a way of life in media-frenzied college football where everyone’s looking for an instant reaction piece.
Secondly, the Gators came in a few eggs short of a dozen thanks to some off-the-field issues. Arguably its most dynamic playmaker, WR Antonio Callaway, as well as best running back Jordan Scarlett were left at home with their nose in the corner thanks to some student credit issues with bookstore items.
Clearly the team would have had more punch on offense with those two and eight other suspended players in tow.
But the gap was more than that. Much more.
In fact, after an opening drive field goal, you got the impression that Florida would’ve had a hard time scoring more points offensively if the game went on for three days. Case in point — the Gators only touchdowns came via charitable contributions from Michigan QB Wilton Speight who threw two pick-sixes.
There will be no tax write-off this time around.
The Turning of the Roster
Okay. Disclaimers aside, this Michigan team looks to be fantastic again. And yes, I know it only finished third in the Big Ten East last year, but you and I both know how this team was a break or two from getting into the College Football Playoff.
Here’s the deal. Just like Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson, Michigan has recruited its tail-off under Jim Harbaugh. You want a blue-print for staying among the elite despite personnel losses. Start with shopping for the groceries, then rinse and repeat.
The last two years — the two Harbaugh can take credit for — Michigan finished 8th (2016) and 5th (2017) according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. That included 35 total four and five star recruits. For comparison’s sake, Ohio State had 37, and Alabama hauled in 41. That’s flat getting it done with the best of them.
That means there’s plenty of talent sitting patiently, waiting to be funneled into the Michigan machine Harbaugh has been building. Heck, a lot of it got some playing time already last season.
So while clearly there are some key pieces and leadership to replace, the inventory that’s left behind is far from merely spare parts to get the engine simply able to run again.
The Talent that Returns
Reserve defensive linemen Rashawn Gary and Maurice Hurst could have started on almost any college football squad last year. They’ll be going high in the NFL draft when their careers at Michigan are over, and they are anchoring a dominating D-line for the Wolverines this year.
That’s just one example. The point is, many of the players that rotated in last year and were on the field in pressure situations, are now on the front-lines poised, ready, and able to be Michigan men this year.
I’m not ready to say the defense is as good as last year. After all, Michigan finished as the No. 1 defense statistically in all of the FBS, so there’s really no where else to go but down.
But it did look like the players on that side of the ball were a wee-bit faster and aggressive than last year. Bottom line? There’s doesn’t appear to be much drop off there.
Also lost in all the hubbub of replacing so much is the return of QB Wilton Speight to lead the offense. It’ll be the first year Harbaugh has a seasoned QB to rely on, and he’s throwing to receivers that are more than capable, like Grant Perry and Tarik Black. They’ll be more than serviceable this year.
You’d expect freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones to show flashes of his promise at some point as well. He was the nation’s top ranked receiver coming out of high-school.
And then there’s the running back situation.
Ty Isaac and Chris Evans look to be a solid one-two punch. Despite the suspensions, this was an extremely athletic front to try and wiggle through on the ground. Isaac in particular showed game-breaking ability, going well over 100 yards on the ground on just 11 carries.
This will be a balanced team, and it’ll make life difficult on opposing defenses.
Resetting of Expectations?
So yeah, maybe most of us had this all wrong, and maybe Michigan is now to the point of reloading rather than rebuilding. It’s been a long time since you could say that in Ann Arbor. It didn’t happen under Brady Hoke, and it certainly was a pie-in-the-sky idea under crazy mad-scientist gone rogue Rich Rodriquez.
Ultimately, time will tell whether this team is a unit truly worthy of contending for its first Big Ten Championship under Harbaugh. There’s still a very tough road to navigate with games against an improved Michigan State, At Penn State, At Wisconsin, and home versus Ohio State.
And frankly, we’ve yet to see just how good the Gators and their offensively-challenged program really are.
But one thing is clear. This Michigan is not the Michigan that experienced a significant slide with personnel losses like what we saw under the last two head coaches. No, this is a Wolverine team that is now able to plug and play and still be solid in almost all phases of the game.
All that’s left now is to get a break or two in some of the key games coming on the schedule. Of anything, that seems to be what’s missing under Jim Harbaugh.
The horses are off and running …
Phil Harrison is the lead Big Ten writer for College Football News. Get his opinion and analysis all year long. Follow him on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB