In the coming weeks, Brandon Vogel and Derek Peterson are running through Big Ten programs for a “Buy or Sell” kind of opponent preview. We’ll keep the list here for those just jumping in who want to recap:
One last season of Shea Patterson at quarterback, a talented collection of pass-catchers, something of a freshman sensation at running back, and an up-and-coming offensive coordinator meant Michigan was entering another campaign with high expectations. But once again the Wolverines were good, not great. Michigan played six teams in the top 15 and lost four times. Now it will have a new quarterback and a retooled defense. What do you make of Jim Harbaugh and Michigan in 2020?
Brandon Vogel: Buy
In truth, this would be a hold for me but holds are boring so I’ll buy a little bit of Michigan stock. Just a bit. I won’t be picking this Wolverine team to overtake Ohio State or Penn State, but it hasn’t been far off under Harbaugh. Of course, that’s the “problem” for Michigan—not far off just means you’re not there yet. This 2020 group is interesting, however. The defense has quite a bit to replace, but it would be a surprise if Don Brown’s group fell too far. Ambry Thomas might be one of the best cornerbacks in the country, and that’s always a pretty good starting point. But the real intrigue exists on offense. Should Michigan ever pair a top-40 run game with a vintage Brown defense, it would be even tougher to beat than it has been so far under Harbaugh. The Wolverines could have the backs to do it—Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins return after ranking one-two on the team in rushing last season—but must replace four starters on the line. The latter is worth watching as Harbaugh’s finally going to have a “home-grown” quarterback for the first time since he arrived in Ann Arbor. After three seasons with transfer QBs and two with a rotating cast of quarterbacks he inherited, this will be the first time Harbaugh has a guy who has come all the way through the system. Whether that’s Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton is to be determined, but quarterback play overall could be the key to the whole season. If it looks like Michigan finally has a precise fit at quarterback, and the departures on the o-line don’t do the Wolverines in, that could be the nudge this program needs. If this is more of a “if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one” scenario, things probably stay the same. That’s still pretty good, but it’s hard to stop and marvel at how high you’ve climbed on the ladder when the thing directly in front of your face is the rung or two left to go.
Derek Peterson: Sell
For two years Michigan was a Big Ten East darling. A confident pick in 2018 to topple an Ohio State team that wasn’t as good as it had been in years past, and then a team with a chance to go toe-to-toe with a much-improved Ohio State team in 2019. Both occasions ended with Michigan being firmly planted in the little brother chair. Jim Harbaugh at Michigan is 0-5 against the Buckeyes, and he’s lost two of the last three games against both Wisconsin and Penn State. For a few years now, Ann Arbor has been host for college football’s Groundhog Day. Michigan plays like a CFP-caliber team until late into the year when it gets crushed by the teams it needs to beat to cement its resume. Brandon’s last line, “… the rung or two left to go,” is key, because while I don’t think Harbaugh should be in danger of losing his job given how high up he’s brought Michigan, I do find it hard to, for a third year in a row, buy what Michigan is selling. Doing so means believing this season will be different from the previous. Read: they’ll win the games that matter instead of just beating up on the gimmes. With all respect to Don Brown, I’m not worried about him on defense so let’s focus on offense. Penn State and Ohio State both have known commodities at quarterback; Michigan could have really used spring ball to sort through what it has at quarterback. There’s a good chance the homegrown quarterback pays dividends in the way the transfers haven’t yet. Harbaugh is, after all, the previously-dubbed “Quarterback Whisperer” who turned a 3-star Andrew Luck into a top NFL selection and molded his offense in San Fran around Collin Kaepernick to chart a path to the Super Bowl. Shea Patterson in a Michigan uniform was not the game-changer people expected; a good quarterback who didn’t elevate the play of the team around him. Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton, both 6-foot-5, the former a junior and the latter a sophomore, might be better because of their grooming, or they might need time. Time to get acclimated in the offense they might not have, as Michigan opens the year on the road against Washington before playing Wisconsin and Penn State in back-to-back weeks right around the time Target starts setting out Halloween stuff. And time in the pocket they might not have after four All-Big Ten offensive linemen left for the NFL. Zach Charbonnet is really exciting, but even with all that talent on the line a year ago UM was 89th in yards per carry.