The college football season is underway (after going Down Under), but 126 FBS teams still have yet to kick off their first game. So college football columnists, pundits, and analysts still are delivering their opinions, projections, and predictions for this year.
After an unexpected 10-3 mark in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, Michigan unsurprisingly has been the subject of many of those opinions, projections, and predictions. Some have showered the Wolverines with glowing praise and set the bar very high. SB Nation’s Jason Kirk, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman, and 247Sports’ Barton Simmons have picked Michigan as a College Football Playoff participant. Others have Michigan falling just short but still playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Then there are others like ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, who riles up his audiences for a living, who declare Michigan will be the most disappointing football team in the preseason top 10.
We will find out in a few months who was right and who is eating crow.
However, there is one opinion that has been shared that is just flat wrong. It has been uttered by more than one person, but the biggest spokesperson for it is ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who last week stated, “I personally think [Michigan is] about a year away.”
No. No no no no no.
Michigan is not one year away.
Last August, Matt Hinton of Uproxx and Saturday Down South — but back then of the now-deceased Grantland — inked a column which listed the five traits that the prior 10 national champions (2005-2014) shared. Those five traits were: (1) elite recruiting; (2) a first-term coach; (3) a defensive line of doom; (4) a stellar secondary; and (5) creative scoring.
What wasn’t one of those five traits was having a proven quarterback:
In fact, in the past decade, the championship has been more likely to go to a team led by a first-year starter, as it did in 2007 (LSU’s Matt Flynn), 2009 (Alabama’s Greg McElroy), 2010 (Auburn’s Cam Newton), 2011 (Alabama’s AJ McCarron), 2013 (FSU’s Jameis Winston), and 2014 (OSU’s Cardale Jones, running the last leg of the title race in place of another rookie starter, J.T. Barrett). The losing teams in the championship game featured first-year quarterbacks in 2007 (Ohio State’s Todd Boeckman), 2010 (Oregon’s Darron Thomas), 2012 (Notre Dame’s Everett Golson), and 2013 (Auburn’s Nick Marshall); last year, Alabama earned the top seed in the playoff behind first-year starter Blake Sims.
Last season, Alabama’s quarterback was Jake Coker, a former three-star prospect who transferred from Florida State after 2013 and didn’t win the job until 2015. Thus, in the past nine years, the national champion has been led by a first-year starter at quarterback seven times.
So, to those that are discounting Michigan’s national title chances because Wilton Speight (let’s just assume) is a former three-star recruit that has yet to start a game at quarterback, know that hasn’t stopped teams in recent years. And, given Harbaugh’s track record as a quarterback guru, Speight likely will be just fine for the Wolverines.
But let’s move on to the five traits that do matter and see how they apply to Michigan:
(1) Elite Recruiting
According to Hinton, elite recruiting is classified as being one of the “top dozen recruiting teams over the past four years ... according to 247Sports’ composite rating.” Every national champion since 2002 was in the top 12 of this list in its title season.
Box #1: Check.
(2) A First-Term Coach
Hinton defines a coach’s first term as the first four years a coach is at a school. Since 2000, all but one coach that has won a national championship at a school won his first national championship at that school within the first four years of his tenure. This accounts for Nick Saban, who has won national titles in his third, fifth, sixth, and ninth years at Alabama. The only exception to this trend: Texas’ Mack Brown in 2005 (8th).
Hinton also added this tantalizing nugget:
Even more remarkably, aside from [LSU’s Les] Miles and Miami’s Larry Coker, who inherited one of the most stacked rosters ever assembled in 2001, none of the coaches who won a ring in the same span took over a team that finished in the Top 25 the year before his arrival. Coaches who wind up winning championships go from zero to 100 very quickly, and they don’t take any detours en route to their destination.
This will be Jim Harbaugh’s second season as Michigan’s coach, and he took over a Wolverines program that floundered to a 5-7 record the season before his arrival.
Box #2: Check.
(3) Defensive Line of Doom
But the one area where that man-for-man advantage has held the most consistently is along the defensive line, where blue-chip dominance is the necessity, not just the norm. Of the past 10 champions, all except Florida in 2008 have featured at least one All-American on the D-line, and all except Auburn in 2010 (a team anchored by one-man wrecking crew Nick Fairley) have featured multiple future draft picks from that unit who went in the fifth round or higher
Last season, Alabama DT A’Shawn Robinson was on the AP All-American first team, and Robinson and DT Jarran Reed were taken in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
So now 10 of the last 11 national champions fit each of the above criterion.
It may be tough for Michigan to fit this criteria because the Wolverines do not have a surefire candidate to be an All-American defensive lineman by season’s end, even if Chris Wormley cracked Athlon Sports’ preseason All-American third team. However, there is little doubt, if any, that Michigan’s defensive line features multiple draft picks who will go in the fifth round or higher. CBS Sports projects Wormley as a second- or third-round pick, Ryan Glasgow as a third- or fourth-round pick, and Taco Charlton as a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Pro Football Focus includes all three of them in the top 105 of 2016’s best college football players as well as Maurice Hurst, Jr, whom Pro Football Focus loves at #27. And, of course, there is Rashan Gary, 2016’s #1 overall prospect.
Even if the Wolverines do not have an All-American defensive lineman, they have an All-American defensive line. Pro Football Focus ranks Michigan’s defensive line as the nation’s best returning defensive line and third-best returning unit at any position, and FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman also believes the Wolverines own the best defensive line.
Defensive Line of Doom? Think so.
Box #3: Check.
(4) Stellar Secondary
Based on Hinton’s research, 10 of the last 11 national champions ranked eighth or better in Pass Defense S&P+ and 13th or better pass efficiency defense. Last season, the Crimson Tide were the best in the former stat and squeezed in at eighth in the latter one.
In 2015, the Wolverines led the nation in pass efficiency defense but just missed out on being in the top eight of Pass Defense S&P+ (13th). This season, Michigan should contend to satisfy both categories. The secondary returns three starters in Jourdan Lewis (arguably the country’s best corner), Channing Stribling (graded out positively by Pro Football Focus in 2015), and Delano Hill (made Pro Football Focus’ All-Big Ten second team in 2015). Dymonte Thomas will fill in for the departed Jarrod Wilson at free safety and, by many accounts, is in line for a breakout season. Jeremy Clark has proven he can be a viable starter at corner in the Big Ten and will earn snaps. And, though he has officially moved to SAM, Jabrill Peppers will show off his skill at nickel.
Again, Pro Football Focus ranks Michigan’s secondary as the second-best returning unit in the Big Ten — and just missed the cut to be one of the ten best in the country — and FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman lists the group as the nation’s fourth-best secondary.
Box #4: Check.
(5) Creative Scoring
Another common link between championship outfits is their penchant for supplementing their always efficient and frequently explosive offenses with points on defense and special teams. Every champion of the past decade has generated multiple non-offensive touchdowns, and most of them have produced at least four; the last two champs, Florida State and Ohio State, combined for 17 defensive and special teams touchdowns, two of which — a 100-yard, go-ahead kickoff return by FSU’s Levonte Whitfield in the fourth quarter of the BCS title game against Auburn, and Steve Miller’s pick-six for Ohio State versus Alabama — proved indispensable in securing their titles.
Last season, Alabama notched 10 non-offensive touchdowns (four interception returns, five punt returns, and a kickoff return). That’s 27 combined for the last three champs.
Michigan has not been nearly as productive in this department. The Wolverines posted two non-offensive touchdowns in 2015, and both were in the same game (Jehu Chesson’s kickoff return and Jourdan Lewis’ interception return against Northwestern).
However, Michigan has three things working for them. The first is that, even though the Wolverines were 118th in takeaways in 2015, it is a category that is very volatile and very difficult to predict. So just because they struggled to force turnovers last season does not imply that they will again this season. The second is that Michigan brings back its primary kickoff returner (16th via S&P+) and punt returner (29th via S&P+). And the third is that Michigan has Jabrill Peppers, and no other team does.
Box #5: Half-Check.
So, of the five traits that have been prevalent in each of the past 11 national champions, Michigan’s 2016 team appears to essentially have all five of them.
Then you add in that Michigan’s non-conference slate may be its easiest in the last century, Michigan opens its first five and six of its first seven games at home, the numbers suggest that Iowa’s 12-0 start last season was very fluky, and Michigan’s two biggest obstacles in the Big Ten — Ohio State and Michigan State — are 127th and 122nd, respectively, in returning production after suffering key personnel losses. Even if Michigan must travel to East Lansing, Iowa City, and Columbus, 2016 is set up nicely.
Yet Michigan is one year away? False.
In 2017, the Wolverines will lose seven offensive starters (RB DeVeon Smith, WR Amara Darboh, WR Jehu Chesson, TE Jake Butt, OG Ben Braden, OG Kyle Kalis, and OT Erik Magnuson) and eight defensive starters (DE Taco Charlton, DT Ryan Glasgow, DT Chris Wormley, MIKE Ben Gedeon, CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Channing Stribling, SS Delano Hill, and FS Dymonte Thomas) to graduation. Plus not only will key senior contributors in DT Matt Godin and CB Jeremy Clark graduate, underclassmen such as OC Mason Cole, SAM/NB Jabrill Peppers, and DT Maurice Hurst, Jr. could head to the NFL Draft early.
That is potentially 20 starters or key contributors gone, including at least four defensive linemen and maybe all six components of Michigan’s defensive backfield.
Though Harbaugh is recruiting very well now, the classes that will be relied upon to fill these vacancies will be from 2014 (20th) and 2015 (37th) — small ones that suffered in quality due to the coaching transition — unless the 2016 class explodes in a hurry. But that’s still 20 spots that need to be filled. Spots that are currently stocked with NFL-ready talent. Harbaugh is an excellent coach and player developer, but the odds Michigan will be able to fill that many spots with more NFL-ready talent is very slim.
So Michigan likely will say goodbye to its defensive line of doom and stellar secondary and could no longer have its Swiss Army Knife to deploy in all three phases (Peppers).
In 2017, the Wolverines will find themselves in a very similar predicament to the predicament in which Ohio State and Michigan State currently find themselves: talented, but young and inexperienced. The Buckeyes and Spartans will use 2016 as a season to gain experience and learn from their mistakes before taking a step forward in 2017, much like Michigan should do in 2018. Except, if one thought Michigan’s road schedule in 2016 was difficult, just wait until the Wolverines head to South Bend, East Lansing, and Columbus in 2018 when those teams will be at the height of their powers.
So all of this talk about Michigan being “one year away” must stop.
Michigan is not one year away. Michigan is here now. The Wolverines possess the essential characteristics of the past 11 national champions, and S&P+ projects Michigan as the second most likely team to make the College Football Playoff this season (37.5%) behind only Clemson. MGoBlog’s Brian Cook echoed the same sentiment in his 2016 preview on Monday. Michigan may or may not attain a national championship or the level of success projected by many pundits and analysts this year, but the idea that Michigan won’t be ready for the moment until 2017 is preposterous.
Because the moment has arrived. And 2016 is the year.