Someday in the future when Jim Harbaugh has finally stopped wearing cleats, which likely means he’s no longer coaching, the 2016-17 stretch will be a fun one to reexamine with the benefit of what happened afterwards. The Wolverines had a lot going for them at this stage a year ago. Michigan brought a talented and experienced team into the season and it was a group that had clearly taken to Harbaugh’s peculiar milk-is-good-for-you-and-so-is-football style of leadership. With those two things in place, anything seemed possible. And Michigan didn’t fail. But if there was a (admittedly early) time to take things up a level it looks, at least on paper, more like that time was 2016. The 2017 team? It will be good too, but how good is something of a mystery.
Should mention here that the Wolverines only return six total starters and five of them are on offense, so that serves as the known quantity in this equation. Quarterback Wilton Speight is back after a rock-solid junior year. If he improves from his 2016 numbers, that might help offset losses elsewhere. Michigan’s leading rusher (De’Veon Smith) is gone, but the Wolverines’ two most explosive options — Chris Evans (6.99 ypc) and Karan Higdon (5.90) — are back and create a solid backfield overall. There’s a lot to replace in terms of pass catchers, but Michigan has recruited well enough that it should be fine in that regard. If the offensive line, which must replace three starters, doesn’t drop off there’s more than enough here for this team to move the ball the way Harbaugh wants.
The swaggering, star-studded, stuff-you-at-the-line unit Michigan deployed last season is currently being rebuilt. Linebacker Mike McCray, an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick in 2016, is the lone starter returning. But the cupboard, of course, is not bare. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary, the nation’s top-ranked recruit in 2016, seems headed for a star-making season with an expanded role. Sophomore Khaleke Hudson is another player who could become a familiar name in 2017 as a versatile hybrid defender in the mold of Jabrill Peppers. There are obviously plenty of questions here, but it’s not one of talent. The Wolverines have that, it’s just a matter of how quickly it comes together and how high its ceiling is once it does.
Michigan opens with Florida in Arlington, Texas, which looks like a big test for a young team, but a game like that might help the Wolverines with their two other nonconference games (Cincinnati, Air Force) which are more than just speed bumps. The conference slate is of the down-the-middle variety. An October trip to Penn State is theoretically offset by getting Ohio State in Ann Arbor. A road trip to Wisconsin also comes with a road trip to Purdue. Well-intentioned schedule-gazing always seems to defy expectations, but there’s a good chance we’ll know what type of season Michigan is headed for following the Penn State game. If the Wolverines win there — and also happens to have a win over Florida, perhaps — forget the talk of a rebuild. Michigan will already be in the race at that point.
What are the odds of such a run actually happening? It’s hard to discount what Harbaugh has done in two years, but it’s also hard to ignore just how much Michigan must replace. Last year Ohio State only had six starters back and that 2016 team still felt like Ohio State. Michigan probably will too by the end of the season, and that might still mean third in the division (just like the last two). Crack jokes about those division finishes if you want, but keep in mind that five of Harbaugh’s six Michigan losses have come by seven points or less. Those margins might grow a little in 2017, and the prudent call here is trending DOWN, but just know that the Wolverines’ “down” isn’t as deep as most others and it isn’t likely the trend continues beyond this season.