If you ever check out the sports magazines this time of year at grocery stores and book stores, you’re likely to run into Phil Steele’s college football preview magazine. Steele spends all off-season putting together a comprehensive publication forecasting the upcoming season. This time of year we always catch up with Phil about his thoughts on Michigan, the Big Ten, and everything in between.
Here’s our Q&A with Phil.
Q: Who do you have winning Michigan’s quarterback competition?
STEELE: It was close. I went with Dylan McCaffrey, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Joe Milton gets up there, Cade McNamara, but I went with McCaffrey, I think he’s a smart, cerebral, hard worker. You know, he’s really good runner. And he probably doesn’t have maybe the arm talent that you want, but I think he’s going to be a good quarterback. And with Milton, you know, maybe the most talented guy back there arm strength wise and straight line speed and things like that but he needs to improve a little bit on his pocket presence, I think, to win the job. So I give the slightest edge to McCaffrey, but I think it’s a good situation for Michigan to be on.
Q: You have Michigan ranked last in your experience chart, which is not a good situation to be in. Have you ever had a team ranked that low and make it to New Years Six bowl game?
STEELE: There have been teams. Take a look at Alabama, for example, a lot of years when Alabama loses 14 starters to the NFL they’ll come in maybe 110, 115 on the experience chart and still contend for a national title. So some teams do reload, but for the most part, teams that find themselves down to that level are generally in for a little bit of a rebuilding year as far as it goes. I’m not talking about Michigan fighting for a bowl game or anything like that. But it is tough to to get to a New Year’s Day Bowl game, at number 130 on the experience chart.
Q: It’s year two for Josh Gattis as Michigan’s offensive coordinator. Michigan is going to have four new starting offensive linemen but you also wrote that you expect the running back and receiving units to be improved. How do you expect the offense to perform overall?
STEELE: Yeah, and that’s a lot of talent going out the door. Offensive line. I don’t think the offensive line played quite to the level I thought it would last year. So, you know, this one could surprise. And Ed Warinner, is a guy, OL coach, at Ohio State took some pretty inexperienced offensive lines to perform well. I think if you take a look at the overall talent Michigan has on offense... I like McCaffrey. I like Milton. I like McNamara. So they’ve got talent at the quarterback position. Running back, remember last year it was basically Zach Charbonnet. And then they all of a sudden they brought in Haskins from the defense and he played well. Well, those guys are both back. They’ve got Blake Corum, Christian Turner. Chris Evans comes back. And, you know, Chris Evans is a guy that is Rush for some big time yardage at Michigan. So I think it’s a deeper running back corp than what they had heading into last year when they were extremely inexperienced. Players like Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell, Nick Eubanks, the talents there. And it is the second year for Josh Gattis, I think Gattis is going to do a good job. But he has the inexperience of the offensive line to work with. So we’ll have to see how quickly that comes along. I think it’s going to be the key to the offense.
Q: On the other side of the ball Michigan also lost talent to the NFL, but then they return players that you rank highly. Do you think the unit has enough talent to rank highly or do you think they take a step back?
STEELE: Is Don Brown the defensive coordinator there still? The talent is there like you mentioned. I think when you look up front, if you get a guy like Kwity Paye who can rush the quarterback, but also hold the point at 6-foot-4, 277. Same thing with Hutchinson, he’s a big boy at six-foot-six, 278. I like defensive ends that have the size to hold the point, but also have the twitch to get to the pass to get to the quarterback. Carlo Kemp on the inside. You know, maybe the linebacking corps might be a little bit of a question mark heading into the year, but I still rated it the number 21 linebacking corps in the country, number 24 rated DB’s, number 9 rated defensive line. I do think Michigan will have a good defense this year. In fact, I rated the number six defense in college football at the end of the year.
With the Big Ten moving to a conference only schedule with the dates still not even released does it bring more unpredictability to the wins and losses?
STEELE: It definitely favors the experienced teams, so let me give you an example. There’s a team that you might be familiar with, Michigan State, I think, is an extremely tough situation. You know, they’ve got a brand new head coach in Mel Tucker, who took over the team late after Dantonio had signed the recruiting class, had the benefit of zero spring practices, only has 10 returning starters. So an inexperienced team and coach that really doesn’t know the players, hasn’t seen him on the field yet, doesn’t even know the freshman recruiting class because he didn’t recruit them. And now Michigan State’s coming off three straight bowl games, I think is one of the tougher situations in the country this year. So I I think it’s predictable in the fact that I think a lot of first year head coaches that had zero spring practices are going to struggle this year. And good head coaches that have been around a while and have an experienced team are going to thrive this year.
Q: What are your general thoughts about the college football season happening this fall?
STEELE: My general thoughts as I’m pretty bullish on it. And we had sports kicking off full time with Major League Baseball. We got NBA about to start. And if it’s just conference only, it doesn’t affect my magazine forecast at all because my magazine forecasts are based on conference play. So I’m looking forward to college football season. I think it’s going to happen in the fall.