ORLANDO, FL — The Michigan Wolverines finished the season 9-4 after a 35-16 loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. It was pretty much a carbon copy of pretty much all of their other losses from the last three seasons, so I’m not going to retread or plow into new territory here.
About midway through the season, I turned the takeaways after the game over to Trevor Woods and he did a tremendous job. I found it easier on me to take a step back and reflect instead of rushing to gather coherent thoughts after a game, especially a tough loss. After some time to think about it in the hours after the game, here are a few brief thoughts on what’s coming next and some questions we’ll explore coming out of the 2019 season.
It’s time to do something different defensively
Don Brown’s defense is not terrific like some paint it to be nor is it a totally broken an irreparable system like Greg Robinson’s a few regimes ago. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s a good, but not great unit and the lowlights typically come against teams that are actually talented offensively. At a certain point, it is just time to start something different. Jim Harbaugh did it with the offense (more on them next) and by season’s end, the modernization and meshing of different ideas were just what the doctor ordered. Brown is a good man and a good coach, but it’s time, especially if it’s going to come at the cost of losing a Chris Partridge. Harbaugh has typically addressed flaws staring him right in the face once the offseason rolls around. It is time for something new.
The offensive growing pains were worth it
Michigan had to take a step back offensively coming out of last year to set itself up for a more prosperous future. It was very dicey early for Josh Gattis, but Harbaugh gave him the license to grow and never stepped on his toes in his development as a playcaller. The team’s limitations offensively outside of a change in system lie in self-inflicted wounds and inconsistent quarterback play. Gattis is the real deal and another offseason to pull back the layers of this system is going to make 2020’s team fun to watch grow.
It’s time to turn the program over to a Harbaugh QB
Michigan is comfortable with the quarterback situation heading into next year, so one would not expect them to hit the transfer portal here. If they do, it’ll be a depth or filler guy. This is very much the Dylan McCaffrey vs. Joe Milton battle we have been waiting for. It is impossible to gauge who has the edge when it is all said and done, but one would have to think that McCaffrey will get the first crack at it. His floor is higher than Milton’s and they can probably replicate 9-10 wins with him under center. It just remains to be seen what the ceiling is. That is where Milton’s progress could be fascinating. He is a tremendous athlete that looks the part and has a missile for an arm, but is still working on throwing curveballs and changeups instead of four-seam fastballs. If he is able to beat out McCaffrey, that would tell me (again, just my two unasked-for cents) that he blew the staff away and was able to upend what they believe is a somewhat-known commodity. The guy that loses this job probably winds up transferring.
Fans don’t want to hear it, but they are close under Harbaugh
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Michigan is not what it should be with the resources it has available to them and regardless of what is said during press conference settings, Harbaugh knows this is not good enough. But he’s also an incredibly hard worker who typically goes all-in to fix a problem despite having a reputation for being stubborn and “wearing people out.”
For whatever reason, his Wolverines often cannot stay out of their own way, which feels liek the source of a lot of their problems. A talent gap between them and the nation’s elite exists and they have made some philosophical changes, but when they play well and execute, they can hang with the big boys. We saw it in both the Ohio State and Alabama games before mistakes began to pile up.
How the 2019 season went does not require an overhaul, but it does necessitate changes in certain areas. People will question Harbaugh’s desire to make said changes, but sometimes you just need to alter some variables. Next year’s schedule sets up fairly nicely to go into Columbus again with the Big Ten East title on the line and once again, it’s all hands on deck starting now to position themselves to do so. Anything less than that 10-win plateau in 2020 is going to start generating some real discussion about just what the heck it is we’re doing here.
Michigan might just be a quarterback away. Or a defensive stop away. Or heck, even a fourth down spot away. But they’ve got to figure it out on the field and between the ears to have a shot. Once again, whatever they did to prepare in their biggest moments this season was not enough.
So try and make a change and be better. Or don’t and it will be more of the same.