Sometimes it seems like the best idea is to forget that 2020 ever happened. With the Big Ten canceling — then restarting — the conference season, multiple key contributors sitting out, and just about nothing going according to plan, Michigan football would be better off completely turning the page from last season.
Even excluding the Covid-related challenges, it looks like Jim Harbaugh is trying his best to give his team a complete makeover. With a host of new coaches and a handful of impact freshmen and transfers making their way to Ann Arbor, optimism is up compared to last fall.
However, as exciting as the new out of camp can be, there is no way to really know how good the team is until it takes the field. Here are three of the biggest questions that the Wolverines must answer when the season starts next weekend.
Will the secondary again be the Achilles’ heel?
Last season was absolutely torture on the Michigan secondary, starting with the shocking Week 2 loss against Michigan State. No corner looked capable of even average level of play, and this essentially led to each of the Wolverines’ four losses. It was abundantly clear that Don Brown’s schemes were no longer going to cut it with the available personnel.
There is some hope that incoming defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald can turn the secondary into more than the sum of its parts with his multiple looks and willingness to move between man and zone coverages. That does not ensure he and Steve Clinkscale can turn corners like Vincent Gray, Gemon Green, and DJ Turner into reliable cornerstones necessarily, but the hope is that they can get there quickly.
Clinkscale was not exactly effusive with praise for the position group, so it will really come down to their play on the field:
But I think what they all have done is they’ve shown me that they have the capacity to learn our defense. They have the ability to execute the things I know they can execute and I need them to execute and I’m excited about continuing to challenge them.
How will the quarterback competition play out?
Harbaugh has never really waivered from declaring Cade McNamara the starter all offseason, which was the right thing to do after last year. McNamara was surprisingly more capable than Joe Milton, and he earned the right to carry the job into camp this fall after taking over the job midseason and getting some valuable experience.
However, do not think for a minute that this competition is completely over. McNamara did not exactly light the world on fire with his play last year, and though he was fairly reliable with the ball, the Wolverines are going to need a quarterback that can truly grab hold of the offense if they are going to succeed this year.
J.J. McCarthy is brand new, but has as much preparation as a true freshman could possibly have. He will have to fully earn the role, but if it becomes clear that he gives the team the best chance to win, the coaches will have no choice but to hand the offense over to the five-star phenom.
Meanwhile, Alan Bowman looks like a depth addition at most, but the is no telling what can happen once the season begins (see: 2020 Michigan quarterbacks). It is nice to hear everything the coaches say during camp about the post important position, but until we see them actually play, we cannot assume anything about any of the quarterbacks.
Can Harbaugh do enough to keep his job?
This is the four million-dollar question. Michigan is giving Harbaugh the chance to overhaul his staff and prove that there are still greater things to come, but it is hard to imagine that leash being any longer than one or two seasons. 2021 will have to show tangible hope for him to earn another year.
The biggest theme throughout his tenure is underperformance, but this manifests itself in the biggest narrative which is his struggle against top teams, particularly on the road. (Un)fortunately for Harbaugh, Michigan will likely get a couple shots at ranked away games (Wisconsin, Penn State), with teams like Washington, Indiana, and Ohio State potentially ranked at home.
It is unrealistic for the Wolverines to win all of theses contests, but it is likely Harbaugh needs to nick at least a couple to keep his job. This is obviously no easy task, but too many times Michigan has fallen short in these games, often embarrassingly. Fall storylines and positive press conferences are nice, but if the results on the big stages stay the same then what good are they?