Michigan ended one of the funniest losing streaks in modern sports last season with a 42-27 win over then-No. 2 Ohio State in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh’s first victory over the Buckeyes since taking over as Michigan’s head coach in 2015.
The Wolverines went on to cruise to a 42-3 victory over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game (abolish the division format!), before falling 34-11 to the eventual National Champion Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff.
Harbaugh followed up what was objectively his best season at the helm of Michigan as only Harbaugh could, by interviewing for the head coaching job with the Minnesota Vikings.
At one point, it was even reported that he had reached a deal with the Vikings, before Harbaugh announced himself that he would be returning to Michigan. Apparently this decision only came after the Vikings declined to make him an offer following an interview.
Despite the bizarre offseason, a quarterback competition, and some big losses on the defensive side of the ball, the Wolverines still open as the No. 8 team in the AP preseason poll. We should know a little more about them by the time they come to town on October 8, especially since they head to Iowa City the week before.
Here’s what to expect from Michigan, based on what (we think) we know now:
Though Harbaugh declared that Cade McNamara would be entering camp as the favorite for the starter, he’ll now use both McNamara and J.J. McCarthy in the first couple of games this season. One player even suggested that we may not know who the full-time starter will be until Game 6 (against Indiana).
McNamara started 14 games for the Wolverines last year, completing 64.2% of his 327 attempts for 15 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. McCarthy saw limited action last year as a freshman, but appears to have the higher ceiling of the two and made some impressive plays when given the opportunity last year. He threw for five touchdowns versus two interceptions with a 57.6 completion percentage on 59 attempts.
Where McCarthy really stands out is his ability to use his legs to create and extend plays. McNamara’s .7 yards per carry last year was dead last on the team, while McCarthy averaged 4.6 yards per carry on just ten fewer touches. McCarthy also had two rushing touchdowns versus McNamara’s one.
Regardless of who ends up starting, Michigan’s offense should be in pretty good shape, as it returns eight offensive starters from last year’s group. Running back Blake Corum, an Athlon Sports preseason All-Big Ten First Team Offense honoree, should see a ton of carries this year, after averaging 6.6 yards per carry for 11 touchdowns and 952 yards last year.
Corum will be running behind a line full of Athlon preseason honorees with Ryan Hayes at Tackle (First Team All Big Ten), Zak Zinter at Right Guard (Second Team All Big Ten), incoming transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi at Center (Second Team All Big Ten), and Trevor Keegan at Right Guard (Third Team All Big Ten).
The Wolverines also get receiver Ronnie Bell back, who led Michigan in receiving two seasons in a row before going down with a torn ACL early last season. Erick All also figures to be one of the better Tight Ends in the conference, so either (both?) quarterback should have plenty of options downfield.
Michigan lost Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Daxton Hill, and Christopher Hinton to the NFL last season, so they are going to have A LOT of production to replace. Hutchinson and Ojabo combined for 25 sacks last season while Hill managed two interceptions and eight pass deflections in the secondary last season.
Not to mention losing defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald to the Baltimore Ravens.
Still, Harbaugh has been extremely optimistic about this group, comparing it to his offensive group from last season that overachieved despite the lack of obvious star power and led them to the College Football Playoff.
Mazi Smith may be the player that fans are most excited about, a senior nose tackle who first became a starter in 2021. He finished the year with 37 total tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and has apparently bulked up and embraced more of a leadership role in the absence of Hutchinson and Ojabo.
The secondary seems likely to see a lot of freshman getting significant minutes, which may not necessarily be a bad thing for this group. The top ranked player in Harbaugh’s 2022 recruiting class is five star Will Johnson, the 15th ranked player nationally and third best defensive back in the class.
This team is more talented than Indiana, straight up. Michigan’s defense has a lot to prove for me to consider them a legitimate top ten team, but they are probably the second best team in the conference behind Ohio State.
I think the most positive angle I can come up with for Indiana is that Michigan will have new coordinators, with quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore taking on co-offensive coordinator duties to replace Josh Gattis, who left for Miami.
Harbaugh also had to replace his defensive coordinator from last year, Macdonald. Jim kept things in the family and hired Jesse Minter, who held various positions on John Harbaugh’s Ravens staff from 2017-2020 before a one year stint as defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt.
Harbaugh also likes to flirt with upset losses to the Hoosiers, which, maybe along with new coordinators and lack of experience on defense makes it one of those weird games that stays closer than it probably should.
Indiana’s offense has a lot to prove for me to even feel optimistic about their ability to capitalize on what’s expected to be a “down” year for Michigan’s defense. And asking Indiana’s defense to play 32+ minutes, like they did last year, against this Wolverines offense will simply not work.
Probably wouldn’t bet on the Hoosiers in this one, if I were a betting man, but maybe something between now and October 8th changes that.