The indomitable Fielding Yost once said, “Football games aren’t won; they’re lost.” Speaking generally, he means lack of preparation, lack of execution. Get dialed in, and you won’t lose. This team is dialed in with something to prove, and I think they’ll do great things.
I already predicted Michigan would make the College Football Playoff; let’s wrap up my other predictions for the 2016 season.
Looking back at the spring game, I grew more and more impressed with Speight’s intangibles as a quarterback. People have talked about John O’Korn’s “physical intangibles,” and it’s certainly true that he does have the instincts and athleticism of a guy who can scramble for first downs effectively. But when it comes to passing the ball, reading all the minutiae that goes into getting a completion, Wilton Speight is more instinctive and puts his receivers in a better position to make plays. And that’s all that matters, isn’t it?
As for the 3,000 yards threshold, Speight would have to be a workhorse and complete a few bombs downfield if Michigan does indeed lean more on the run this year. But yeah, it’s possible: ~1,100 for Chesson, ~700 for Darboh, ~600 for Butt, ~300 for the other tight ends and ~200 for Grant Perry. Throw in a couple hundred in spare change that usually goes to the tailbacks and reserves, and you’ve got a pretty good passing attack.
I don’t think many people need convincing here; you’ve got Don Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers, a killer starting front seven and the #1 Power 5 pass defense from a year ago all converging for 2016. It’s not even really fair.
The only thing that could derail this flow of optimism is the linebackers’ depth, but as I’ve argued before, I think they’ll be all right if forced to lean on guys like Michael Wroblewski and Devin Bush. It’d be terrifying, but I think they’ll be all right. I’m much less concerned about the new starters, inexperienced as they are, so long as they stay healthy.
And, not to diminish the linebackers, but the combination of Michigan’s secondary and its defensive line - a group led by Jourdan Lewis patrolling behind a fantastic pass-rushing run defense - will minimize some of the requirements on Gedeon, Jabrill, and McCray. The linebackers don’t have to do all that much; just stay healthy, guys.
It’s so easy to go overboard with superlatives over a player like Gary. He’s fast, he’s smart, he spent some of his time in high school training with a line coach so he could get on the field faster in college.
“The thing that excites me probably the most about that,” adds his position coach, Greg Mattison, “is he’s with a great group of guys that can mentor him and get him into that freshman year. One thing I’m real proud of is these seniors. They’ve become real men and they see a talented kid and they’ll make sure he does all the right things and we’re going to help him get as good as he can be.”
In general, players show up to college lighter than they end up when they leave, and Gary will be no exception. This staff wants him to pack on a little muscle for future seasons as he transitions to defensive tackle. But this season, he’ll be at his lightest, and he’ll have every opportunity to wreck havoc and make plays in what could be a weak year for tackles in the Big Ten.
Poll voters can be very stubborn to change their preseason expectations, especially when it comes to dominant programs finding their footing in a new season. Alabama, Clemson - these teams will be almost impossible to knock off their perch.
But Michigan isn’t far behind them in the polls, and they will have opportunities to make the kind of weekly statements required of a stalwart underdog. First, in Week 1, Michigan faces Hawaii, a team that went 3-10 in the Mountain West last year. Following that, the Wolverines host a UCF team with an intriguing new coach (Scott Frost) and a roster that survived a completely winless season in 2015.
It gets steadily tougher from there, but the 2015 record of all of Michigan’s opponents leading up to Michigan State is 33-55 - and that includes 10-3 Wisconsin. Also worth noting: Michigan will host six games at the Big House, with a bye, before the October 29th meeting with Little Brother.
Speaking of Michigan State: Sparty will be fantastic defensively this year, but there are more than a few questions about an offense that replaces Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donavon Clark. This is right around the time Clemson plays Florida State, and Alabama faces both A&M and LSU.
In most years, 51 catches and 654 receiving yards are enough to win the most prestigious award for a college tight end. But Jake Butt happened to be competing with Hunter Henry last year, who finished the season with 51 and 739.
Butt’s biggest competition this year will come in the form of O.J. Howard, the Alabama tight end who returned for his senior season after finally breaking through for 602 yards on 38 catches last year. Other competition includes Clemson’s Jordan Leggett (525) and Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges (530).
All three of these teams have bolstered their receiving corps with more depth and experience heading into 2016, so it’s probably fair to say Jake has the inside track. This will probably come down to Michigan vs. Alabama for the trophy.
One of the more interesting storylines for this season is special teams, where Chris Partridge fills in for the great John Baxter to coordinate alongside Jay Harbaugh. Luckily, Baxter left the program in great shape, in fact much better shape than he inherited it.
Kenny Allen returns for his redshirt senior season, and will be backed up by a redshirt freshman in Andrew David. Kick returns will be even better thanks to this team’s athleticism, and kick return defense will be even better thanks to its depth. As long as Kenny Allen can replicate the 18-22 field goals he produced last year, we’re in good shape.
Jourdan Lewis, of course. Jabrill Peppers, in what might be a weak year for linebackers. Jehu Chesson. Mason Cole. Chris Wormley. Rashan Gary. Ryan Glasgow. Jake Butt. Oh, is this one too crazy for you? Well, deal with it.
Feel free to make fun of Rutgers and “The Rivalry” all you want (and we probably will do that a lot), but Chris Ash will have his team ready to fight Michigan like it’s The Game all over again. And, Ash might actually be good at this coaching thing. He’ll probably get some help from Urban Meyer in the week leading up to this game, too. (It’s Week 6, by the way, right between Wisconsin and our bye.)
Not only that, it’s also the only game in the first half of the season that’s on the road. Rutgers hasn’t established much of a home-field advantage in the last few years, and the talent level will not be in Rutgers’ favor. But they also have a very similar defense to Michigan, in that the secondary and defensive line will be strong while the linebackers are all fresh faces. A good group of running backs, a strong center in Derrick Nelson... this team will come ready to fight, and they’ll be able to find a couple advantages if they work hard enough.
Michigan will still win, of course. But pride is worth a lot, and Rutgers will play for it against Michigan.