Bill Bender has been a national writer with Sporting News for the last 11 years and started covering college football in 2012. He’s been in sports journalism since 2003 after graduating from Ohio University. He knows his stuff.
He recently shared some of his thoughts with Maize n Brew about Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s upcoming season, and the Big Ten conference.
I started out by bringing up questions and grumblings made frankly when NFL job opens up and if Harbaugh would leave Michigan. Is Harbaugh on the hot seat, or just how hot is it?
“That’s more of a media narrative than reality. It’s not hot at all.” Bender added. “If he’s interested in the NFL, then why didn’t he go to Indianapolis or Chicago this year? Who else is going to coach Michigan? Yes, the results need to be better, especially against Ohio State and Michigan State, but he’s not going anywhere.”
I transitioned back to the upcoming season and what he sees as their biggest challenge.
“The schedule,” Bender said. “It’s arguably the toughest schedule in the FBS. You have road games with three rivals, and Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin as crossover games. If Michigan wins 10 games against that schedule, then it’s a success.”
Bender also commented on the two biggest rival games if those are the only two losses.
“Of course, if those two losses are to Ohio State and Michigan State, then we know what the narrative will be heading into 2019,” he said.
We then discussed the offense and how they will compare to the last three seasons.
“The play-makers are more experienced. The receivers should be better, but how much of a leap do Tarik Black, Nico Collins and Donovan-Peoples Jones take in Year 2? Can they be consistent? If Shea Patterson takes hold of the starting job and the offensive line is better, then this will be their best offense under Harbaugh,” he said.
What players that will make the biggest impact on offense and defense? Bill took two guys that are true play-makers — Tarik Black and Rashan Gary.
I believe Michigan will have much improved offensive success this season, and Bill commented on what he sees as the biggest improvement this season.
“Quarterback, and it has to be. That was the missing piece last year. It wasn’t all Harbaugh’s fault, he had to shuffle in three different starters. The production, however, broke down at every level in the offense, and the loss to South Carolina exposed that one last time,” he said.
I then proposed this question: This will be the best defense Michigan has had since (fill in the blank), and why?
Bill pointed out two teams under Lloyd Carr that were championship-caliber, and comparing this defense to those has to get fans excited.
“The ’97 and ’06 defenses remain the standard, but this unit is capable of getting in that conversation. Gary, Winovich, Bush and Hudson will pop up on a lot of All-American lists, and the corners are underrated.” Bender said. “That was the key last year. The inexperience in the secondary didn’t matter. Don Brown knows how to coach on that side of the ball.”
Harbaugh and his staff won 20 games in the first two seasons, and Bill predicts another season with double-digit wins, but it could all be based on one game.
“Michigan will win 10 games and go to a New Year’s Day Six Bowl. The game at Ohio State will decide the Big Ten East champion,” he said.
Michigan has 3-to-1 odds of getting to the playoff, according to Westgate Las Vegas, but does Bill see the Wolverines as a contender for the Big Ten and their first birth to the CFP?
“That says Vegas has confidence, but it still comes down to whether they can win in Columbus.” Bender commented. “They haven’t done that since 2000. A win there unlocks everything else. They will contend, but there are four teams in the Big Ten East that can contend.”
I asked Bill what grade he’d give Harbaugh since arriving in Ann Arbor, and Bill gave Harbaugh a “B” due to bringing the program back to national relevance.
“But it’s winning time now,” he said.
Will the Big Ten overall be the most competitive and best conference based on quality teams?
“Yes, based on playoff contenders. They have five teams capable of reaching the playoff. Nobody else can say that,” Bill said.
You can follow all of Bill’s great work on Twitter (@BillBender92) and on Sporting News (@SportingNews).
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