You’re not going to believe it.
We are just four — I repeat: four — days away from Michigan’s 2017 season-opener.
The offseason is almost over, which means that the boredom of baseball is no longer contagious and we can all finally emerge from our bunkers. In case you weren’t tuned in to the news while barricaded away, here’s a brief update of what’s happened since we last spoke: the President of the United States is still a former reality-television star; La La Land won Best Picture for two minutes; Kendall Jenner and Pepsi solved racism; and we learned that “Hugh Freeze is cheating” may have two different interpretations.
Each of these topics has been discussed, analyzed, and critiqued extensively, but they weren’t the only ones. Another popular topic this offseason has been Michigan’s inexperience and whether it will cause the Wolverines to take a step back or two after three inches (and a bad spot) transformed the 2016 season from magic to mirage.
On the surface, this appears to be a fair question. Michigan lost 19 players from that 2016 team to the NFL — a program-record 11 were selected in the draft, while another eight signed as free agents — and returns only six starters, one of which is its Hammering Panda at fullback. If that seems like very few starters to you, you would be correct. According to Phil Steele, Michigan returns the fewest starters in all of FBS.
This stat has been cited often by experts and pundits when projecting that Michigan will regress in 2017. However, “number of returning starters” is not a comprehensive stat and only tells a short story. Just because a player was not a regular starter the prior season does not mean that that player did not produce on the field. Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Jr. is the perfect example. Hurst did not start a game in 2016, but he still recorded 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 12 games. Further, he’s the only returning interior defender to rank in the top 10 nationally in run-stop percentage and pass-rush productivity, leading in the latter category. Hurst will contend for All-American honors and could break into the first round of the draft.
Yet he’s not considered when “number of returning starters” is touted.
A much better measure is “returning production,” which SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has refined. It eliminates the charade of discussing whether a player started the prior year and looks directly at what all returners have done on the field. Connelly concludes that returning production in the passing game is more correlated with a strong offense than in the running game and continuity in the secondary is key to a strong defense.
Unfortunately for Michigan, this, like “number of returning starters,” is ominous. The Wolverines retained just 26.3 percent of their receiving yards after the departures of Amara Darboh (862 yards), Mackey Award winner Jake Butt (546), and Jehu Chesson (500). Slot Grant Perry (183) and H-back Khalid Hill (118) are the only returning receivers with more than 100 yards to their name. And, if that seems worrisome, the secondary is even more so with Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, Jeremy Clark, Delano Hill, and Dymonte Thomas all gone. Michigan returns 19.6 percent of its defensive backs’ tackles, 8.8 percent of its defensive backs’ tackles for loss, and, most alarming, just 3.9 percent of its defensive backs’ passes defensed (INT and PBU). Accordingly, Michigan is ranked 127th out of 129 FBS teams in “returning production.”
Those pundits may be citing the wrong statistic when claiming that Michigan will return very little this season, but they likely are not coming to the wrong conclusion. Any way you slice or dice it, this year’s Wolverines will be extremely inexperienced.
But only for the first few weeks.
The one element of experience that seems to have been forgotten is that it is not static. One who is inexperienced does not remain inexperienced. With each snap, each series, each quarter, and each game, Michigan’s new contributors will learn and grow. They should read schemes better, react to them quicker, and become accustomed to the speed of the game. The mistakes should decrease, big plays increase. And suddenly, it will be Week 11, and these players will have almost a full season under their belts.
So, returning to the original question, how much will Michigan's inexperience hurt this team? Not as much as you may think. The Wolverines will be inexperienced in the first half of the season or so, during which the quality of their performances are more likely to be inconsistent, leaving them more prone to blowouts to superior opponents and upsets by inferior ones. On the other hand, by the second half, they should steady out under Harbaugh's guidance and begin to consistently produce at their talent level.
This, for the most part, sets up well for Michigan. One issue is that this is not the year to be opening against a top-25 opponent in a neutral-site showdown. This is the year to be hosting a bottom-dwelling MAC program in Week 1, providing the newer Wolverines a massive margin for error while they still are inexperienced and knowing full well that a victory is all but guaranteed. Instead, Michigan will face off against #17 Florida in Jerry World, where the Gators should provide a stiff defensive test at the very least. If Michigan comes out flat and loses in an unpleasant — and apparently unfashionable — manner, it may set a poor tone for the year and shake its confidence.
On the other hand, if Michigan beats the Gators, the rest of the schedule molds exactly to what the Wolverines need. In their next nine games, only one is against a team that S&P+ projects to be in the top 40 (at #9 Penn State on October 21), while five are against teams projected to be 70th or worse. Emerging from a White Out in Happy Valley with a win seems unlikely, and there is at least one trap game to be found (at #41 Indiana on October 14). However, this long stretch of games should provide Michigan the experience and victories it needs to be chugging along come the final two weeks of the season. Michigan likely will be 9-1 by then and no worse than 8-2.
At that point, no one will talk about Michigan’s inexperience. Just about their talent.
Michigan should have lots of (raw) talent on this team. The Wolverines haven’t been recruiting at Ohio State’s level — other than Alabama, who has?! — thanks in part to its coaching transition in 2014-15. However, Jim Harbaugh has been recruiting at an elite level since arriving in Ann Arbor, hauling in the #8 class in 2016 — narrowly missing the top five — and #5 class in 2017, and Michigan will be relying heavily on those players this upcoming season. Eleven of them are projected to be starters, with many others spread throughout the two-deep. This is why S&P+ projects in its preseason rankings that Michigan, despite returning so little production, to be #10.
The caveat is that we still do not know for certain if this team is that talented. The inexperience that we have discussed at length above is masking that answer. We need to see these newer contributors play numerous meaningful snaps before we can gauge whether each individual will live up to his recruiting billing. However, on a larger scale, the odds are in the Wolverines' favor that they have the pieces to be a title contender.
If that is the case, Michigan will have the chance to prove it in its final two games: against Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium and Ohio State at home in the Big House.
Win both, and Michigan could march its way to a Big Ten title and the playoff.
Lose one or both, the reason will be that Michigan is not there yet talent-wise.
Not that Michigan is inexperienced.