Michigan's Schedule, & Questions
Of course, there's really only one question this year. Can Michigan compete with State and Ohio? Both teams are now top-five juggernauts, capable of sniping elite teams in other conferences. Michigan needs to reach that level, and there are plenty of opportunities for Michigan to sharpen its teeth before entering those two really important games - both of them at the Big House.
A second question - can Michigan win ten games? Can they gain consistency, and tenacious competitiveness? Under Jim Harbaugh, that's a good bet. So, here are the twelve games Michigan's set to play, with a quick summary of each team and some more questions afterward.
The opening game of the year (on a Thursday) is a visit to Salt Lake City to take on Utah, which beat Michigan 26-10 last year at the Big House. Utah went 9-4 behind a salty defense and Devontae Booker's 1,512 yards. This team will definitely be able to go toe to toe with Michigan in the trenches.
After that, Gary Andersen and Oregon State come to town. The Beavers went 5-7 last year, including 0-5 against the rest of the Pac-12 North. They're breaking in a new quarterback, but between an offensive line that returns almost fully intact, and a star running back in Storm Woods, OSU will probably be reminiscent of Andersen's Wisconsin teams with how much they try to run the ball. They just won't be able to do it as well as the Utes.
UNLV comes to Ann Arbor the next week, providing something of a bye for the Wolverines. The Rebels went 2-11 in the Mountain West, and they were one of the worst teams in the country on both sides of the ball.
A more exciting home game comes the week after, with BYU. Quarterback Taysom Hill has been called a dark-horse Heisman candidate, and while that probably won't turn out to be true, Hill is a very good player. Between his speed and accurate downhill throwing, Hill will give the defense a good test of what J.T. Barrett will do nine weeks later. BYU was 4-0 when Hill went down to a season-ending injury against Utah State, and later went 4-0 in November behind replacement quarterback Christian Stewart. They finished the year 8-5.
The Wolverines open Big Ten play against a division opponent, Maryland. The Terps' offense was unoriginal offensively with C.J. Brown, and was reminiscent of some of the plodding dual-threat attacks that the Big Ten adopted over the last five years. In comes Caleb Rowe, a more traditional passer with plenty of back-up experience. Rowe can throw the long ball and make good decisions, but he'll need to find some other targets with Stefon Diggs and Deon Long gone. This is a Maryland team that's solid but a little empty on talent, and that will make it difficult to keep up with Michigan.
Northwestern comes to town after that for Michigan's first home Big Ten game. By this point, Wildcats fans will have a good idea of what to expect from a squad that's disappointed for two years in a row. Fitz will be working with a new quarterback and new leaders on defense, but the new blood might be good for them.
The Cats defense is young and fairly talented, but they might have a hard time defending the pass. Unfortunately for Michigan, the quarterback spot is a big question mark, and the Wolverines might not have the tall, explosive athletes that would neutralize their fast but diminutive corners (if those guys are the listed 6'0" and 5'11", I'll eat my hat). Both of these teams went 5-7 a year ago, and both have good reason to expect a step forward in 2015.
At this point, Michigan will be half-way through its season. Now, the fun starts. Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor, giving the Wolverines their fifth home game of the season in its first seven games. If Michigan compete, or even win this game, that would mean a lot. It would also mean Dantonio's secondary hasn't found any replacements for Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes.
Win or lose, Harbaugh will use the bye week after that game to fix weaknesses. Brady Hoke was 3-3 at Michigan after a bye, starting 3-0 and losing his next three by a combined 87-33. Harbaugh will have a stiff test coming out of the bye with Minnesota on the road. Minnesota is looking more and more like the class of the West, sending draft picks every year to the NFL.
This will also be a bad time to meet the Gophers. Their passing game has a lot of young receivers that will start settling in, and they have a bye week going into this game just like the Wolverines. They could be ranked: if they split TCU and Nebraska, the rest of Minnesota's schedule sets up like butter, with Colorado State, Kent State, Ohio, Northwestern, and Purdue.
The following week, Rutgers comes to Ann Arbor. The Knights went 8-5 in their inaugural Big Ten season, and they might be better this time around. The offense has weapons at both running back and receiver, but it would be disheartening if their offensive line was allowed to open up plays. This is the first of four season-ending games against division opponents.
Indiana is difficult to gauge. On the one hand, this team has not won a lot of games with Kevin Wilson. On the other, there are positive signs that IU is starting to find its footing. A late-season game with OSU was closer than anyone expected until the 4th quarter, and the Hoosiers lost by a touchdown to Penn State. Both were without Nate Sudfeld, who returns from injury.
The last two games will be a big measuring stick. First comes Penn State in Beaver Stadium. Revenge should still be on the mind of Michigan's players after a heartbreaker overtime loss at Beaver Stadium last time. Franklin's offensive line should be improved, if slightly, and there will be more depth and talent to work with now that Franklin has a full assortment of scholarships. They also get a bye week before this game.
And, finally, the Ohio State Buckeyes come to town. This game is a chance for some quick therapy, but the Buckeyes have rarely looked stronger than they do now under Urban Meyer. Meyer has never lost in the month of November while at OSU. His teams get stronger as the season gets deeper, and they'll be prepared to give the Wolverines everything they can.
Which is the biggest trap game? Definitely Penn State. This team, under Hoke, struggled on the road. Harbaugh has to show his team's leaders how to prepare for road games and how to manage the locker room. This is a tough lead-in to Ohio State.
Where does Michigan stand in the Big Ten East? If Penn State's offensive line in 2014 was like Michigan's in 2013, then '15 will still be rough for the Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions. Just like we lost Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, Franklin has to see Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach walk out the door. They might be in better shape by late November, but Michigan will hopefully be a step ahead of Penn State.
Rutgers is also not to be taken lightly. They have tough draw out of the West, though, playing Nebraska and Wisconsin. Michigan is in the mix with Rutgers and Penn State for the Big Ten East's upper middle class - competing for about 9 wins and a spot in the Top 25. Ten wins is very much in play for Michigan this year, but it's elite company at the top.
Can Michigan start 6-0 and build momentum heading into Michigan State? Sure, but I doubt it. Either BYU or Utah will trip us up, and maybe both. This is a stronger out-of-conference schedule than we've seen in the past, and that's even without Notre Dame.
Who's the most talented player Michigan will face? Well, J.T. Barrett. Ezekiel Elliott. Jones. Miller. After that, it might be Taysom Hill. The guy can do a lot of the things J.T. Barrett can do between his open-field speed and accuracy down the field. He's run for 95 yards in almost half his career games, including 259 against Texas in 2013.
What's the most likely result of this season? Eight or nine wins. The Big Ten East is getting as deep as it is top-heavy; as confident as the players should be going into Maryland and Indiana, those games will not be free. The Terps made coaching changes to address their defense, and Indiana's offense will be dangerous with Sudfeld back and some better receivers.
And, Utah will probably be favored at home. Combine that with two meetings against top-five teams and road games at Minnesota and Penn State, and Michigan will have some great wins under its belt if it's 9-3 at the end of the year. That would also make it a top-20 team, easily, heading into bowl season.
Spring Roster Thoughts
Michigan's roster came out yesterday, and there were some notable changes, the full breakdown of which is here, courtesy of Josh Henschke. But hidden in the numbers, there were some very interesting subplots to keep an eye on.
Jim Harbaugh has unleashed his second surprise roster shuffle, moving Brady Pallante from defensive tackle to fullback. And, like Jabrill Peppers manning the safety position, this is a great move. The consensus was Pallante would take his wrestling background and apply it to the defensive line, but he will be competing there with a healthy Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, and Matt Godin.
Now, Pallante gets to use his 6'0', 276-pound frame and batter Big Ten linebackers. This isn't just a 240-pound man blocking a linebacker. This is Pallante blocking through the linebacker and on to the next one. Assuming he's quick enough to do the job, he will make other fullbacks jealous.
Another dynamic is the size of most of our running backs. Derrick Green, De'Veon, and Ty Isaac all added pounds. What Harbaugh sees in this offense, I don't know. But this will be a run game that physically dominates opponents, even if the line can't. If Green, Isaac and Smith each get 10 carries a game, they will stay fresh while the opponent's starting linebackers will be worn down. Michigan football is back.
And that's not the only physically intimidating position group. There are 9 linebackers on this roster who are 230 pounds. Four are 240 pounds. Even the defensive ends are big, too - Taco and Poggi are each 273 pounds. This raises some legitimate questions about a possible switch to 3-4. Durkin has the linebackers for it. He has the linemen for it. In fact, he has too many defensive tackles to work with. A 3-4 would have the benefit of some pass rush if Mario Ojemudia or Taco Charlton aren't able to generate enough by themselves. Durkin can play around with different packages knowing this defense will be stout against the run.
Hitting the Links Gets to See Mayweather-Pacquiao
This X's and O's breakdown of the Ohio State run game is made scarier by the fact that most of their offensive line returns intact. However, the passing game might not be as diverse next year, with deep threat Devin Smith, tight end Jeff Heuerman, and blocking demon Evan Spencer all graduating.
This probably means a switch back to a 4-3 defense. An internal hire, Keith Dudzinski does not have a stellar track record.
This writer is more dubious about Michigan State's chances to reload without Jeremy Langford.
This was a surprisingly honest interview about how Clemson recruits.
An interesting X's and O's feature, as always, from Football Study Hall.
This is some interesting background on Narduzzi's relationships with his new coordinators and how he ended up hiring them.
UNC didn't live up to its lofty preseason #23 ranking, but there's some reason to think 2015 is different.