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Roundtable: Evaluating a season of growing pains

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Air Force v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Ed: So, guys, the regular season is over — how close was your preseason prediction to the reality of the season?

Dan: I think I had us with one or two losses so definitely far off. I will say that I hadn’t considered the chance of our #1 QB going down early, #2 QB getting hurt half-way through the Wisconsin game, and #1 receiver missing the majority of the season. Don’t even get me started on the MSU game. At this point though, I’m happy with the development a lot of these guys showed.

Von: I had the Wolverines in the same 8-4/9-3 area that most had them. With all the roster and experience turnover, it was expected to happen.

However, what I was not expecting was U-M to stay competitive once Wilton Speight suffered his season-ending injury in Week 4. Then O’Korn limped the Wolverines along the way before being replaced by redshirt freshman Brandon Peters. Once Peters went down at Wisconsin — a game in which the young Wolverines were beating the undefeated and senior-led Badgers halfway through the third quarter — everyone watching that game knew it was practically over.

But the fact this team had a fighting chance in every game this season, minus Penn State, was very good to see out of, quite literally, the youngest team in college football. Get consistent QB play and this team can go as far as they want.

Jared: I’ve kind of echoed this in some other podcasts and discussions, but we are a Michigan State win at home away from being exactly where I thought we would be this season. I had us at 9-3, with 8-4 being the floor. All things considered, that’s a pretty acceptable floor. I saw a poll recently that labeled Michigan’s season as the second most disappointing season behind Florida. Florida State had NATIONAL Championship aspirations coming into the season and could potentially miss a bowl game because they lost one quarterback. We lost two quarterbacks, our starting left tackle, two running backs, our leading receiver; and we are a few plays away from another 10-win season.

There is not one reasonable person with their finger on the pulse of this program that expected us to go 11-1 and get into the playoffs this season. That is just not realistic with the volume of players we lost and number of guys that were new to their starting position. Are you allowed to be upset about dropping winnable games vs MSU, Wisco, and OSU? Certainly. Is this season a disappointment as a whole? Certainly not.

Colman: I am always pretty optimistic coming into the season and I was one of the few that predicted a one-loss season. I didn’t think the young receivers would struggle as much and figured that the QB whisperer would have all his ducks in a row. I said the loss would come at Wisconsin, although I went back and forth on losing to PSU as well.

Jared, I consider myself (mostly) reasonable and have a pretty good pulse on the program as a guy who has followed it pretty closely for my whole life. Was I wrong? Sure was! Been wrong before too. However, MSU was a very beatable team and most expected us to win. Wisconsin and OSU were winnable games too.

I firmly believe that had Michigan had even just AVERAGE QB play in those three games they would have won them all which would have still met my preseason prediction of one loss. So even with a young team, it wasn’t that unreasonable of an expectation. Penn State put all trickery on the table and blasted Michigan. That happens sometimes and once those plays were on tape they were much less successful down the stretch.

I thought the offense on the whole was going to be further along at the beginning of the season but I think it got a lot better in the second half outside of the QB play, although Peters does look good. No one can predict injuries and unfortunately Michigan had big ones at the positions they could least afford.

The reality is, they lost 4, but even with tougher schedule next year I think they improve on that significantly.

David: Had someone said this team would have to start three quarterbacks at the beginning of the year, I would say it's likely to see four losses based on the schedule. Knowing the youth we had starting this year it was likely that they would lose a game they shouldn't and a chance to win one of the last two.

I think if Harbaugh stays and doesn't leave for the NFL in the near future, this will be his worst season when it comes to the amount of losses. He would never be in a position to drop below to a 3-9 kind of season like last year with Michigan State. I was impressed with the development of the team over the last half of the season and hung in there with the last two opponents clearly with more veterans.

Ed: This was definitely a season of growing pains. Michigan came into 2017 as the youngest team in the nation, and there were certainly times when that was obvious. But this team really seemed to start developing down the stretch. Overall, how would you rate the season? What are the biggest takeaways?

Dan: I think this season deserves a solid B. Besides the Michigan State game, the team didn’t lose any games that it should have won. They weren’t able to pull off any upsets, but they were also without their top two quarterbacks for 13/16 quarters for those four games. They showed a lot of true glimpses into their potential, but there’s still A LOT that needs to be shown.

Von: I will grade this season a “C” simply because of the loss to Michigan State at home. That was a game most expected the Wolverines to win. It was a prime time home game against an in-state rival who was coming off a 3-9 season. That loss hurts, and I’m sure Harbaugh is very aware of that. Everything else was expected, but the fact that Michigan did not defeat an opponent who ended the regular season with a winning record also gives me justification to have my grade be where it’s at.

My biggest takeaway is how elite the defense is, especially with all but one starter graduating or heading to the NFL after the 2016 season. Devin Bush is a Butkus Award finalist. Khaleke Hudson set the all-time Big Ten record for most tackles for loss in a single game. Lavert Hill and David Long combined for 4 INTs (1 for touchdown), 7 TFLs and 11 PBUs. Aubrey Solomon really began to come along near the end of the season. And Gary...I think we all know how he did. As long as Don Brown is Michigan’s defensive coordinator, the defensive side of the ball will NEVER be an issue.

Jared: I’ll split the difference between my colleagues and say B- or C+ type range. The youth was evident right out of the gate, and we did look lost at times against Michigan State and Indiana. The offensive line did not come together like I hoped, and the pass catchers really struggled for most of the season. Those two things combined, plus the injuries, incline me to give the quarterback position a pass. The running backs and tight ends really had a solid season for the most part. Brandon Peters, Karan Higdon, and Donovan Peoples-Jones all look like they are going to be ballers next year, and they grade out really well for the year as far as their development.

The defense was pretty much money all season, minus a few lapses and the Penn State anomaly. The only possible knock on that side of the ball would be the safeties giving up too many big plays, and the linebackers occasionally over-pursuing and getting out of position. Really though, they kept us in games and guys developed all over that defense. Guys like Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson, and Lavert Hill should all get extremely high marks for their development.

Colman: I’d give this season a B- if we’re handing out grades. Michigan lost winnable games but was a young and flawed team on offense. The defense would get an A for sure. The job Don Brown has done this year is really incredible after what Michigan lost from last season. I will not worry about that side of the ball as long as he is the DC.

The offense gets a C at best. The running game came along halfway through the season but even the receivers who weren’t freshmen struggled to get open and catch the ball and the QB situation doesn’t have to be rehashed. Development on both sides of the ball occurred so that is really great looking toward next season.

My biggest takeaways are:

  1. The defense is going to be great again next year
  2. Michigan needs to find two tackles and develop the pass blocking
  3. Harbaugh’s QBs will be good to great players

If Michigan can get better on the offensive line, specifically with pass blocking, the rest of the offensive problems become small to nil and the offense takes off next year like I predicted it to this year.

Minnesota v Michigan Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

David: I expected some position units would struggle along the way, so I give the following:

Offense: C-

Part of the struggles I think are due to having three starting quarterbacks. The five turnovers against Michigan State in the monsoon was the only game I felt that they had a solid chance of winning had that been only one or two.

They created monster yards on the ground as well by Higdon and Evans in games they should have won. The offense at the beginning of the year had red zone issues that seemed to dissolve in the second part of the season as well. The tight end/receiver group became more involved on offense after the second half of the year when the run game had issues in the last two games. The offensive line also showed progression with better blocking and pass protection.

Defense: A-

The defense ended the season as third best overall in the country. While they had struggles avoiding a few big plays in big games, they kept the team in the final two games. Penn State was the toughest game of the season in a very tough road environment. The fact they had one returning starter and still developed a top five defense is amazing. Don Brown and the defensive staff did very well, especially with the secondary ending with the best pass defense in the country.

Team: B-

The amount of penalties, mistakes, and turnovers dropped over the last half of the season. You can blame play calling, refs, players, or all of them, but not one thing caused this team to win a game they were underdogs. A great team is defined as getting the job done when against the ropes in pressure situations. Their opponents in the three close losses found a way to get it done in the end.

Takeaways looking at the future:

  1. The offensive line will improve in 2018, if healthy.
  2. Defense is only losing two, maybe three if Winovich leaves, so they will be very solid in 2018 as one of the best again.
  3. The team will be more veteran with many returning starters losing mainly Hurst, Cole, Kugler, and McCray.
  4. Quarterback play is the heavy focus with Harbaugh recruits battling for the job.
  5. The direction and future of the program will be determined in 2018 if they can make the jump and win against ranked teams, especially on the road.

Ed: Several young players really stepped up this year. Give me a guy or two who surprised you the most this season.

Dan: I’ll leave Peters to someone who was on the bandwagon earlier than I was, so I’ll throw out Khaleke Hudson and Tarik Black as my two that really popped. Despite DPJ being the higher ranked prospect, I know a lot of people even going back to high school that thought Black might be better. He showed speed, size, and body control while healthy and my goodness I’m excited to see what a full offseason in the strength and conditioning program can do for him.

Hudson is arguably the team MVP. He set Michigan, Big 10, and NCAA records during his one-man demolition of Minnesota. He had more tackles for loss, sacks, and interceptions than Jabrill Peppers. I’m not sure there’s a position besides defensive tackle that Hudson didn’t play this year and it was clear he was improving as he got more and more comfortable in the Viper role.

Von: Kareem Walker surprised me, but not in a good way. I thought he had a chance to be really, really special. Now, I’m not so sure. He redshirted in his first season due to academics. No issues there for me; school is more important than football. But he didn’t begin seeing consistent carries until the latter half of the season. He rushed for his first score against Rutgers and had 75 total rushing yards on 20 attempts. His longest run went for 16 yards. He clearly needs to get better.

Someone who surprised me in a good way was Chase Winovich. We all knew what he was capable of, but I didn’t really know what to expect out of him having to replace a stud defensive end like Taco Charlton. I surely wasn’t expecting 8 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and 74 total tackles. What a year he had. I’m sure I can speak on behalf of all Michigan fans when I say I hope he returns for one more season.

Jared: I kind of touched on some guys that impressed me above. The most impressive are definitely on the defensive side of the ball. Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson, and Lavert Hill are going to be/already are absolute monsters. If Bush or Hudson were pursuing me, I would just give up and accept my fate as a dead man. David Long was a pleasant surprise, as he seemed like he had a ways to go early on, but he came on incredibly strong as the season progressed. I expect he and Lavert to form one of the best corner tandems in the country next season.

There were a few guys that underperformed as well. Ian Bunting and Ty Wheatley disappeared this season, and I had extremely high expectations for both of them. That was not all bad though, as they gave way to Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon, who both look like impact guys.

Everyone who gave right tackle a go was extremely underwhelming, and Ben Bredeson did not quite round into form like I thought. John O’Korn did the opposite of develop. Kekoa Crawford came in as the No. 1 receiver, but will not be going into next year. I would also agree with Von that I expected Kareem Walker to emerge late in the season and was disappointed with his lack of growth.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Colman: I’ve got to go with the young corners, Hill and Long, as the biggest pleasant surprises for me. Watson played well this year too but development from older guys who have had some playing time is less surprising even if they struggled early in their careers. Myself and many others pegged the cornerback unit as the biggest or second biggest weakness on the entire team. WRONG. Hill is an absolute baller and Long developed as the season went on and has the athleticism to be special as well. Michigan is in amazing shape moving forward at these spots and no one could have expected more from these guys—most expected much less.

My biggest unpleasant surprises were the lack of a right tackle that could pass block, a competent backup QB, and some of the offensive playcalling. I’ll be shaking my head to my grave at 5-wide sets with a struggling QB in a monsoon...

David: The guys named several above that came to mind. I think each game brought up a few names to be in the conversation. I'll go with the following:

Offense: Karan Higdon (929 total yards, 6.3 yards average per carry, 11 touchdowns, with 200 yards against Minnesota)

Defense: Devin Bush (94 total tackles, 20 more than any player, and season high was 12 tackles against Air Force)

Ed: Alright, and finally, there’s still one more game to be played by this team. How much stake are you going to put on the impending bowl game? Do you need to see more strides forward, or have you seen enough to keep your eyes trained on 2018?

Dan: I’m obviously excited for 2018, but this is a potentially big bowl game for this team. Offensively, besides Ty Isaac, there isn’t anyone I see getting extra burn for NFL tape, and that could lead to some real glimpses into next year’s offense. Is Tarik Black playing? Would love to see Peters and he connect.

All of these young guys getting another month of practice with this coaching staff has to have implications going forward. And I’ll say this before Von gets in, if Peters struggles in the bowl game the #FreeDylan mob is going to howling over the next 8-9 months.

Von: Dammit, Dan, you beat me to it! #DCaff2018

Anyways, I would really like to see this season end on a high note. That surely did not happen last season, and it felt real good to beat the living daylights out of Florida in the Citrus Bowl a couple years ago to put a real nice end to Harbaugh’s first year.

The offensive line still needs to greatly improve upon its pass protection. The receivers need to consistently create separation with defensive backs. And the QBs need to make quick reads and make a fast decision, something O’Korn truly lacked and something Peters struggled with at times. I don’t really care if it’s a quality opponent or not; this team needs something to hang its head on heading into the offseason so they realize there is a lot of unfinished business.

Jared: You may have both beaten me to the #RunDMC mention in this particular post gentlemen, but that has been my dude since he committed. In no way would I be surprised if he beats out Peters next year. Harbaugh’s big knock on Peters seemed to be from a leadership and effort standpoint. You are not going to have concerns about either with McAffrey, plus he is a better athlete with a higher ceiling. Unrelated to initial question, but Joe Milton has a higher ceiling than both. Just saying.

Peters will get the last crack at making an impression before 2018 though. Not sure if Tarik Black will play, but that would be really dumb. He should redshirt at this point. I would be more interested in seeing if Grant Newsome was healthy enough to see the field. That would make for an incredible story with what he has been through. Also hoping Ty Isaac gets one more chance to show what he can do. He looked great at times this year.

I’m not going to put a ton of stock into the bowl game, as we have already learned everything we are going to learn about this team. I do, however, expect this team to look extremely good against whoever we face. Ignoring the final scores, the best this team played all season was against Wisconsin and Ohio State. If you think I am crazy, go back and rewatch the entire season from start to finish and let me know your thoughts on the matter. I think we get a preview of what is to come next year, and we are going to like what we see.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Maryland Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Colman: Bowl games are significant for a several reasons. First and foremost the practice time you get leading up them. It’s also a chance to end your season on a high note, and get more national exposure. If you win it cools down the Hot Take Patrol, which is nice, but if you lose it’s not that big of a deal IMO. As of me writing this, it’s looking like the Outback Bowl and S. Carolina for Michigan so bragging rights over the SEC would be at stake as well.

It’s also a chance for some of the young guys to get some extra playing time. I’m with the other guys in saying I’d love to see Black and Peters on the field together before next season so I really hope they are both healthy and ready to go. I also want to see Walker some additional touches because I think he could be a really good back by the time his career is over at Michigan. I’d love to see backups play at most positions (without burning any redshirts) on both sides of the ball, but I think I’ve seen enough this year to be confident going into 2018 win or lose.

David: Any time you are bowl eligible and add practices it's a good thing. I know that fans may not be very excited for wherever they are being predicted or their opponents in the conversation, but it helps to give the younger players more time for development before the spring and the 2018 fall camp. I won't take much stock in the overall outcome of the game, but want to see how some of the players approach the added opportunity to beat a solid opponent. It would also be their first win against a team with a winning record, so there's that.

I really want to see Higdon rush for over 1,000 yards since he needs only 71 more yards and watch Hurst/McCray in their final game for the Wolverines before playing in the Senior Bowl. Bring on the bowl season!