Time to channel my inner Paul Heyman, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you, your reigning, defending, undisputed Big Ten Champions, the Michigan Wolverines!” After 18 long years, the Wolverines finally claimed their first out-right Big Ten title after dominating Iowa 42-3 in Indianapolis.
And for the first time in a long time, Michigan is fortunate enough to be in a position to embrace the difficult challenge of defending a conference championship. And with that challenge comes several teams attempting to dethrone the Wolverines. While three contenders already stand apart, an unexpected challenger could rise from the ashes, much like Michigan did last season.
Of the three notable challengers, Ohio State remains the most prominent. The Buckeyes are a perennial threat to claim the throne, but especially after being the first Buckeye team to lose to U-M since 2011, that team from Columbus will be hungrier than ever. Not to mention, Michigan thwarted Ohio State’s bid last year to be only the third team since 1970 to win at least a share of five consecutive Big Ten championships.
Accompanying the Buckeyes as a threat in the East Division is Michigan State. Michigan State was the only conference opponent to beat the Wolverines last year and Spartan head coach Mel Tucker is 2-0 against Jim Harbaugh. Although the game is in Ann Arbor this October, Michigan State will again be a problem.
From the West Division, Iowa is head and shoulders above the rest. The Hawkeyes return 17 starters from a team fresh off a conference championship appearance. Iowa is also afforded the luxury of hosting Michigan at Kinnick this season. The last time the Wolverines traveled to Iowa City was in 2016, and well...we all remember that.
While each of those three teams has a compelling case about why it is their year, the Wolverines also have their own case. Here are five reasons why Michigan can repeat as Big Ten Champions in 2022.
The Nation’s Best Offensive Line (Again)
Last season’s Joe Moore Award-winning group was one of the best offensive lines in school history and in 2022, they could be even better.
The Wolverines return three starters: left tackle Ryan Hayes, left guard Trevor Keegan and right guard Zak Zinter. At center, they replace Andrew Vastardis with a Rimington Award finalist, Virginia transfer Olu Oluwatimi. At right tackle, it is presumed the athletic and experienced Trente Jones will take over for the departing Andrew Steuber.
When the offensive line is the strongest, most experienced positional unit on a football team, wins are never far behind.
Two Worthy QB’s
Are you Team Cade? Do you value proven leadership, good decision-making and possess a penchant for the tweets of Don Thomas? Or are you Team J.J.? Do you value immense talent, high-level playmaking abilities and the intrigue of the unknown commodity?
For this exercise, both sides are winners because whatever quarterback wins the battle in fall camp will put the Wolverines in the best position to win. McNamara and McCarthy — despite differentiating skillsets — are both more than capable of leading this team back to Indianapolis.
Long gone are the Michigan quarterback battles of Wilton Speight vs. John O’Korn, or Dylan McCaffrey vs. Joe Milton. And not to mention with the aforementioned offensive line and the plethora of skill position talent surrounding the quarterback, it would be hard for a practice squad player not to experience some level of success this season.
There are more questions than answers facing a defense that has to replace seven starters, but with a potentially elite player remaining at each level, the cause for concern in Ann Arbor has been quieted.
Defensive tackle Mazi Smith will anchor a group of physical, athletic defensive linemen. Linebacker Junior Colson will be one of the leaders in the middle of this defense as a true sophomore and cornerback DJ Turner has the ability to eliminate an opponent’s best wide receiver like the Long’s and Lewis’s of the past.
While the answers facing the defense will be revealed in due time, having a winning-formula and three key variables goes a long way to finding the correct solution.
SPECIAL Special Teams
Everyone is back, literally. And before the players are mentioned, remember that Special Teams Coordinator of the Year Jay Harbaugh is also back to lead this unit.
Michigan’s first-ever Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Jake Moody is back for an encore season. Punter Brad Robbins is also back, whose 46.3 per-punt-average would have ranked him No. 7 in the Power Five last year if he had only punted more during the season. Champagne problems.
The Wolverines bring back their top 11 kick returners (everyone that ever fielded a kickoff in 2021 is back in 2022) and their top four punt returners. Wide receiver Cornelius Johnson, who developed into a punt blocking expert, also returns to frighten opponents.
While special teams is often the forgotten “third side of the ball,” it is pivotal for success at the highest level and can be weaponized to provide a spark or separation in any game.
Never forget the 2010 San Diego Chargers. The Chargers were ranked No. 1 in both offense and defense in the entire NFL and still missed the playoffs. Why? Their special teams unit was ranked dead last.
Scheduling Stars Aligned
The Wolverines did not lose one game at the Big House last season and now, Michigan is one of only a handful of teams to enjoy the luxury of hosting eight home games in 2022. While two of their road games are in meccas of hostility (Iowa and Ohio State), the other two are Indiana and Rutgers.
Besides two detours in Iowa City and Columbus, the path to the Big Ten Championship leads through Ann Arbor.