The Michigan Wolverines finished the 2019 season with a record of 9-4, which is not what anyone expected or signed up for when the year began. They were installed as the favorites prior to the season to win the Big Ten and were eliminated from contention before Halloween. There is no way to sugarcoat it and this year was a step backward for a program still trying to find its footing among the nation’s elite.
In hindsight, perhaps more of us should have expected struggles in installing a new offense, losing some of the team’s best players on defense and the costs that came with all of it. Part of the reason a step forward was expected was the thought process that Ohio State would trend downward without Urban Meyer. Instead, what emerged was a team that may have given Meyer’s squads a run for their money.
These are not excuses and are simply an examination of where things are at right now. The 2019 season is (thankfully) in the past and all that matters now is what happens next. Here are my five biggest questions heading into the offseason.
What does the quarterback situation look like?
No more grad transfers or stop-gaps.
For the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, two of the guys he recruited as high school players are going to compete for the starting job in Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton, starting this spring. This is a battle that has further-reaching effects than just the 2020 season, as both guys have multiple years of eligibility remaining. On the flip side, that also means that whoever comes in second may seek to transfer to place where he will actually play.
McCaffrey and Milton bring very different skill-sets to the table and the guy who wins will determine the direction of the offense. To compare things to our friends to the south of the border in Columbus, McCaffrey might be more of a JT Barrett-type of signal-caller as a dual-threat in the offense, whereas Milton’s big arm might be more in line with Dwayne Haskins. Again, these are based on archetype as opposed to direct comparisons and expectations.
McCaffrey is a terrific pure athlete and one that, prior to his concussion at Wisconsin, Michigan was making an effort to get on the field. Milton, a very good athlete in his own right, has been a project who throws a beautiful deep ball and has a cannon for an arm, but is still learning how to throw his “secondary pitches,” to use a baseball term. If I had to guess who leads as of now, I would give the nod to McCaffrey due to the time he has put in and how the coaching staff views him, but he has to develop more as a passer. We have not seen enough there quite yet.
The Wolverines are quite honestly perhaps just an elite quarterback away from being in a much better position to reach their goals. Of these two players, I believe Milton to have a higher ceiling, but the floor is higher for McCaffrey. We’ve seen a battle between Wilton Speight and John O’Korn, but, well...yeah. This will be a legitimate fight with two talented guys that are ready to play and is by far the biggest storyline for Michigan this spring.
How will Josh Gattis develop in year two as a playcaller?
Things were ugly for Gattis early on as he went through some growing pains as a first-time coordinator. It took Michigan almost half the season to develop any sort of identity offensively, but problems there were compounded by turnovers and inconsistent quarterback play that did not even give them a chance to get rolling. At some point, something clicked with Gattis and we finally saw the speed in space and some of the pro-spread concepts that we were promised.
Again, the theme for 2020 is going to be that the offense will look as good as the quarterback who is leading it. Even after losing Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, Michigan brings back Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell, talented young wideouts and running backs and the return of Chris Evans next season. They have an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions and it will give Gattis an opportunity to throw some different wrinkles in there to utilize the talent that Michigan has.
Can the offensive line sustain losing four starters?
Michigan feels as good about its offensive line depth as it has in a long time. Yes, it’s going to hurt to lose the guys they are losing, but that provides opportunities for players that have been waiting for a shot. Ryan Hayes, Chuck Filiaga, Zach Carpenter, Nolan Rumler and Andrew Stueber all figure to be in the running with Jalen Mayfield as the returning starter at right tackle in 2020. It may take some time for them to gel, but Ed Warinner is one of the very best offensive line coaches in the country and there should be little doubt he will have this group ready to roll.
What exactly is the deal with Don Brown’s defense?
Listen, I get the takes about Don Brown. To a certain extent, I’ve even validated many of them by saying that perhaps it’s just time to move on and change variables. I still believe that, but Brown sticking around in 2020 does not change the outlook all that much. His defenses have struggled in some big moments and in the Ohio State games and he has to wear that. He is the poster boy for their struggles against the Buckeyes despite the fact that it really is a systematic and program-wide struggle against OSU. If he’s going to be here, and that certainly appears to be the case through 2020, he has to do his part in closing that gap. That means developing the front four and generating some pressure there, mixing in some coverages and overall just leading a more disciplined and accountable unit. Far too many times we see a conversion on a third-and-long in those big moments or a player jumping offsides in a critical situation. He did a better job this year of mixing man and zone coverages, but his guys have been overaggressive and undisciplined when the lights shine brightest. Brown has been good, but exploited and out-coached by better teams. If he’s here, he’s got to find a way to offset some of this or the results will stay the same and the venom towards him from fans is only going to grow.
What’s the outlook for 2020?
Right now, we can only go by what’s on paper, but the 2020 schedule is much kinder to Michigan than the one that came before it. Washington will be breaking in a new coach and quarterback and is not quite what they have been in recent years, so if you can go out west to start the season and get that game, you might be setting up to go on a bit of a run.
Michigan gets Wisconsin and Penn State at home and takes on what will likely be a putrid Michigan State team in East Lansing. They will also travel to Minnesota. Other than that, everything sets up nicely for them heading into the last game of the year in Columbus. It’s impossible right now to know what their chances in that game might be, but it would not be a shock to see them go in there at 11-0 or 10-1 if things break the right away. Depending on how things shake out and they lose to Washington and then a conference game, they could still head down there at 9-2 with the Big Ten East on the line.
People are tired of hearing this, but they are close under Jim Harbaugh. The body of work suggests in the big moments they are likely to come up short, but to his credit when he has seen a glaring flaw with his Michigan program, he has taken big swings to rectify it. Assistant coaching hires fall under this category and he’s batting nearly 1.000 on the staff decisions he has made. When the 2017 season came and went with the quarterback disaster that plagued that season, he went out and grabbed a former five-star recruit in Shea Patterson.
For someone that fans complain to be complacent, he’s made a heck of a lot of attempts to change things.
Question his ability to prepare his team. I won’t fight anyone there, but he is trying. And he’s close. Michigan’s 2020 hopes hinge on not only making the right decision at quarterback, but also that guy coming in and being a star. That’s where college football is right now and for Michigan to make the jump, Harbaugh will have to push the right buttons and then hope his signal-caller is good enough to give themselves a shot at a Big Ten title and more.
Things are not nearly as toxic as fans would make it out to be behind closed doors. The Wolverines aren’t winning enough of the big ones and Ohio State has gotten better.
The resources are there across the board and heading into year six, Michigan needs more from everyone if it wants to be elite. A good start would be finding ways to stop shooting themselves in the foot.
If this team wins less than nine games next year, we can probably start having other conversations. But for now, where they’re at is what they are. The conversation for what would be acceptable in 2020 is a more nuanced one we will have at a later date, and certainly not one that anybody can have on Twitter.
What are some of the questions you have about the direction of the program and next season? Share those and some predictions in the comments below.