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The biggest Michigan storylines going into Big Ten Media Days

The conference champions return to Indianapolis.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Football season rapidly approaches, and the kickoff of the annual Big Ten Media Days on Tuesday symbolizes teams getting one step closer to the 2022 campaign. The event is taking place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, which is where the Michigan Wolverines locked up their first conference title in quite some time last December, of course.

Jim Harbaugh is bringing with him four of the key players that helped make this dream a reality last season. Quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All are two of the veteran leaders on offense, while defensive tackle Mazi Smith and cornerback DJ Turner will anchor a defense that experienced quite some turnover this offseason.

There will be plenty of league-wide narratives coming out of the event, including conference realignment, scheduling changes, the potential removal of divisions, and the growing concerns and uncertainty revolving around name, image, and likeness. However, there will be tons of Michigan-specific content as well coming out of Indianapolis. Below are three of the biggest storylines to watch for this week.

Can Michigan maintain the momentum?

Harbaugh finally got that elusive monkey off his back, beating Ohio State en route to earning his first Big Ten Title in year seven. The question now becomes, though: how does Harbaugh turn this into the start of something new as opposed to the peak of the mountain?

Michigan loses a bunch of key pieces both on and off the field this season, and the current recruiting outlook has been less than encouraging. Combine that with a reloaded Ohio State, a clear gap between the Wolverines and elite teams like Georgia, and a still abysmal record against rivals, and it is far from guaranteed that 2021 is not just an outlier.

The original goal of brining Harbaugh back to Ann Arbor was to turn the program around and he has absolutely done that. His performance in 2022, though, will speak a lot about how much further he is going to be able to take this program after a long-overdue breakthrough last season. Vikings job antics aside, Harbaugh absolutely must capitalize on this momentum going forward.

How is the defense going to respond?

Aidan Hutchinson is gone. So too are David Ojabo, Daxton Hill, Brad Hawkins, and Josh Ross. With Vincent Gray, Chris Hinton, and Donovan Jeter also choosing to depart, there are a ridiculous number of snaps at every position that will need to be replaced from a defense that was top-tier for much of last season.

As if this were not enough, Michigan also loses coordinator Mike Macdonald after just one very promising year with the program. His successor, Jesse Minter, has potential in his own right, but with a new coach and complete overhaul of the starting lineup, there is a ton of uncertainty heading into the fall.

It it telling that Smith and Turner are the two defensive representatives at Media Days. Both will lead their respective areas of the defense, but their ability off the field will be just as important. Losing All-Big Ten talents is difficult to overcome, but the hope is that the Wolverines can do so by being greater than the sum of their parts. Getting the most out of everyone is essential to piecing together a lot of unknowns across the unit.

Meanwhile, Minter will have to do his best to maximize his pieces. Michigan infamously has struggled in the past because stubborn coordinators have refused to adapt when the talent did not fit the scheme. This should not be a problem in 2022, but hearing a bit from the players about how the defense expects to be flexible and versatile could inspire some confidence amongst the fanbase.

What is the ceiling of this offense?

The situation on offense is just about night and day from that of the other side of the ball. The Wolverines do lose a few key pieces from an outstanding offensive line, as well as workhorse Hassan Haskins and coordinator Josh Gattis, but otherwise nearly everyone is back and ready to dominate.

Media Days are not the time to sort out who will start at quarterback, but it is pretty wild to win the Big Ten last year then return two capable passers at the position, then also two running backs with NFL potential, two tight ends with big-play ability, and at least five receivers that could start on most teams in the conference. This does not even count incoming freshmen or anyone who barely saw snaps last season.

All this talent on paper would suggest the offense can more than cover the new-look defense. However, fans have been calling for Harbaugh to modernize the game plan for a long time, and the duo of Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss may not be a revolutionary as some had hoped.

It would be great to hear Harbaugh and his players acknowledge the embarrassment of riches across the skill positions and promise to ramp up the offense to something previously unseen in his tenure. Not only would it be frustrating to yet again watch unrealized talent leave campus, but Michigan simply might not be able to survive if the offense is unable to take a big step forward given the question marks on defense to start the year.