No one would argue that the 2019 season went to plan for the Michigan Wolverines, with a 9-4 record representing another good, but not good enough season for Jim Harbaugh and company. The Wolverines did have plenty of bright spots with some big wins over conference opponents and promising play from younger players, though, and the hope is that 2020 might bring better results.
However, an abbreviated offseason may work against a team that has lost pieces across the offensive line, cornerback group, and wide receiver corps. For Michigan to find success in this crazy 2020 season, the team will have to find ways to eliminate the big mistakes that kept occurring last year, especially in each of the four losses.
Error 1: The fumbles need to stop
It may not feel this way in hindsight, but the Wolverines were in the bottom 20 in the country last season with 11 fumbles lost. Combining this with a middle-of-the-pack interception total, there were simply too many turnovers allowed with not enough forced. Michigan ended the year exactly even in turnover margin, and this will not cut it against quality competition.
The raw turnover numbers are not the only problem; when they occurred is just as impactful. While the Wisconsin game ended fairly lopsided, perhaps the outcome might have been different if the Wolverines had some better ball security. A red zone fumble on the first offensive possession ended a chance to answer the Badgers’ opening score, and three additional turnovers kept Michigan from having any real chance to respond. The interceptions may continue with a young quarterback at the helm, but the running back group absolutely must stop putting the ball on the ground.
Error 2: The offense cannot be asleep during the first quarter
This is unfortunately not anything new for Michigan, but for whatever reason the team has just been slow to start many games. Against Army, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Indiana — the middle competition of last year’s schedule — the Wolverines averaged under four points per opening quarter. While ultimately the team scored enough points to win most of these games, the task was made more difficult than necessary.
The Penn State game is a reminder of what happens when the hole becomes too big to escape. Yes, Michigan was just one dropped pass away from tying the game in the final minute, but really the contest should not have come down to that situation. The Nittany Lions raced out to a 21-0 lead in the second quarter before the Wolverines were able to start chipping away. This left very little margin for error, which means there cannot be dropped passes or long touchdowns conceded in the fourth quarter. This roster should be good, but it will not be perfect. Constantly having to dig out of double-digit holes is one way to ensure that the performance will need to be just about perfect to win, and that is a dangerous game.
Error 3: Paper cuts add up to become fatal wounds
Maybe this could be called the Ohio State Rule, but it was certainly true in last year’s Wisconsin and Penn State games as well. As mentioned, Michigan is a good enough team to beat decent opponents even when not everything is clicking. But when it comes to playing a top talent or traveling to a hostile environment, the Wolverines have a bad habit of completely falling apart, and typically this starts with a bunch of avoidable mistakes.
The 2019 edition of The Game has plenty of examples on its own: a missed extra point, an inexcusable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a terribly timed offsides on a punt, etc. Michigan probably loses this game even without those things, but why provide more ammunition to deadly opponents? Looking at the 2020 schedule, there are probably three or four games where Michigan can make some mistakes and still be fine, but against Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, and of course Ohio State, there is no room for basic miscues and empty-headed decisions. This has happened way too many times in recent years.
Bonus Error: Missed big play opportunities
This does not come down to just Shea Patterson, but the Michigan offense last season lacked the explosiveness needed to break games open and change the momentum. Wisconsin had a 72-yard touchdown run, Penn State had a 53-yard catch and run for a backbreaking score in the fourth quarter, and Ohio State and Alabama combined for five touchdowns of at least 30 yards in the final two games of the year, but the maize and blue struggled to return the favor.
The Wolverines failed to hit on deep shots time and time again despite having Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones on the roster. Though those two receivers will no longer be on the field, Michigan has plenty of players that can fill this role. Joe Milton has the arm to get Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, A.J. Henning, Roman Wilson, Chris Evans, and Blake Corum the ball basically anywhere on the field. If Michigan is going to be a successful team, then explosive plays must be a routine part of the offense. The pieces are in place to do so, but it would be a big change to see this actually become a regular occurrence.