B1G 5: Michigan's work just beginning if it wants to build on this season
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Story
The aftermath is never easy. The self-evaluation can be more challenging, but ultimately revealing.
Want to see how far Michigan has come under once embattled coach Jim Harbaugh? Watch how the program responds to an emasculation on the sport’s biggest stage.
“To me it feels like a start,” Harbaugh said. “Feels like a beginning.”
With a long way to go – and some difficult decisions ahead after getting clobbered by Georgia in the Orange Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal.
There are uneasy truths to swallow. And remember, these truths must be looked at through the lens of how to beat the elite of college football – not just the Big Ten.
- It all begins at quarterback, where Cade McNamara was exposed for what he was this season: a game manager who was accurate when the run-oriented offense was setting up play-action throws to receivers beating man coverage.
It doesn’t mean he can’t get better (see: Stetson Bennett), but there’s a distinct difference between McNamara and freshman backup JJ McCarthy – who brings a definitive run option at the position, not a quarterback picking up scramble yards.
McCarthy has a live arm, and is an elite athlete. He’s Harbaugh’s first 5-star quarterback at Michigan, and he has the potential to change the way the Wolverines think about offense.
Harbaugh began this season with an edict for offensive coordinator Josh Gattis: run the ball downhill. He might get together with Gattis this spring, and revert to Gattis using more QB run and zone read principles.
Georgia’s defense has been beaten 3 times in the last 2 years, and each time by a team (Alabama twice, Florida) that could pass protect and had an elite passing game. That’s not Michigan.
But Georgia’s Alabama-influenced defense can be beaten by an elite dual-threat quarterback who can stress the Bulldogs on multiple fronts – just like all of those elite dual-threat QBs did to Alabama’s defense when Kirby Smart was Nick Saban’s DC.
There’s no other way to look at this. Michigan’s goal this offseason is finding a way to get by Alabama and/or Georgia.
That’s not happening with a game manager at the most important position on the field. Unless, like Georgia, you have 6 5-star recruits on defense (Michigan doesn’t).
- The Michigan offensive line, given the Joe Moore award as the nation’s best unit, was pushed around and embarrassed against the best defensive front in the nation (to be fair, Georgia did that to everyone not named Alabama).
What looked like power and athleticism in the previous 13 games was exposed as plodding and pedestrian. The Wolverines rushed for 91 yards, and Georgia had 4 sacks and 7 tackles for loss.
Virginia transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi will give Michigan more bulk in the middle three. But more than anything, Michigan can’t see the Georgia loss as an aberration – it’s a sign. Get stronger and more athletic.
- Get freshmen Andrel Anthony and Donovan Edwards more involved in the offense.
If there was one mistake this season, it was a failure to give more to Anthony and Edwards, the two players with the most dynamic upside on the team.
It’s hard to take carries from Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, but Edwards is a home run hitter, and Anthony is a deep threat who can force defenses to cover the entire field.
It’s borderline coaching malpractice that Anthony had 12 catches this season and Edwards had 35 carries. If they weren’t “ready” – the catchphrase all coaches use – that’s on the coaching staff for not getting them ready.
You’re talking about the two fastest players on the team. Get them on the field. Period.
- Find the chemistry that galvanized the 2021 team and season, and replicate it.
Saban’s greatest strength at Alabama isn’t recruiting (though he’s the best at it), it’s convincing a roster that won it all to come back and work just as hard to win it again. Year after year.
Harbaugh has spoken at length about his love for this team, and how they were different from previous UM squads from the first spring practice to the last practice before the Orange Bowl. They loved each other and played for each other.
Does that happen again in 2022, after snapping the losing streak to bitter rival Ohio State and reaching the CFP?
We’re 9 months from the start of next season, and if the Orange Bowl was truly a beginning, there’s much to be done before September.
2. Getting defensive
The signs are everywhere and can no longer be ignored. Ryan Day has a defense problem at Ohio State.
Don’t automatically think new DC Jim Knowles can fix it immediately. This is more than scheme and attitude.
It’s recruiting and developing.
In Day’s first season as head coach in 2019 – with a stacked defense from the previous season – Ohio State gave up 13.7 points per game. In the 2 seasons since, the Buckeyes have given up 25.8 and 22.8.
Day zeroed in on the defensive side of the ball with the 2021 recruiting class, signing 6 of the top 100 recruits. Of those 6, only DT JT Tuimoloau – the No.4 recruit overall according to the 247Sports composite — started a game (2), and 3 of the 6 didn’t play enough to burn a redshirt.
Only one defensive player in the class was an impact player: CB Denzel Burke, who started every game. Jack Sawyer, a 5-star who many analysts believed was the best edge rusher in the class, barely moved the needle and had 12 tackles.
That minimal impact from young players is a red flag for development, and leads into the 2022 class – where Day signed 5 more top 100 recruits for the defense.
All are positions of need – at this point, every position is one of need – and 5-star LB CJ Hicks and 5-star S Sonny Styles (both top 15 players) must start from Day 1.
Ohio State will always have a top 5 offense under Day, and will outscore most opponents. It won’t, however, consistently win games of conference championship and Playoff significance without drastic change on defense.
3. Another portal gem?
A year ago, Mel Tucker fortified his struggling Michigan State program with key additions from the transfer portal, including Wake Forest tailback Kenneth Walker III.
It might just happen again this season, at the same position, from the same school.
Christian Beal-Smith, Wake Forest’s leading rusher this season with 604 yards and 7 TDs – he shared the position with 2 other tailbacks – has entered the transfer portal.
Michigan State, which rushed for just 56 yards on 36 carries vs. Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl while Walker opted out of the game, is in the market again for an impact tailback.
Walker rushed for 1,636 yards and 18 TDs this season, and was a consensus All-American. And one Wake Forest staffer told me “it’s a no-brainer” that Beal-Smith will look hard at Michigan State.
Beal-Smith shared the position with Justice Ellison and Christian Turner and the threesome combined for 1,651 yards and 19 TDs. Ironically, the emergence of Beal-Smith in the 2020 season was one of the reasons Walker left Wake Forest.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: bowl season takeaway.
1. Michigan: Getting to the Playoff is a big deal for the growth of the program, no matter how it ended.
2. Ohio State: Buckeyes aren’t returning to the CFP until the defense gets fixed. Run and pass defense.
3. Michigan State: Winning Peach Bowl without their best player (Walker) shows culture built in 2 years under Tucker has taken hold.
4. Iowa: It’s easy to point the finger at QB Spencer Petras, but he offensive philosophy needs updating.
5. Minnesota: Can’t waste another year of elite defense with an offense that can’t consistently move the ball. The West Division is there for the taking.
6. Wisconsin: The offense has never been in this much transition under coach Paul Chryst. Maybe a new QB and play caller.
7. Purdue: Don’t panic defensively just yet; Tennessee will (and has done) that to many teams in the SEC.
8. Penn State: New DC Manny Diaz must fix run defense, which dropped off drastically from previous 3 seasons.
9. Maryland: Don’t be sidetracked by the effort on defense against a gutted Virginia Tech team. Get better at stopping the run and creating turnovers.
10. Illinois: Syracuse transfer QB Tommy DeVito is next in line at a position that has been a disaster for much of the last 5 seasons. Small steps, beginning with better accuracy.
11. Nebraska: New OC Mark Whipple, the (talented) nomad of coaching quarterbacks, could save the Nebraska offense.
12. Rutgers: The offensive system is set; the talent must increase – with freshmen or through the transfer portal.
13. Northwestern: Quarterback play was horrible. Potentially worse: The tough, overachieving attitude was lost in 2021.
14. Indiana: Seven new additions from the transfer portal, and a new QB from the portal (Florida’s Emory Jones?) can rebuild quickly.
5. The Weekly Five
The Five most promising performances from bowl season.
1. Marvin Harrison Jr. Lost in the giant performance from Jaxon Smith-Njigba: Harrison Jr., breakout performance with 3 TDs.
2. Aidan O’Connell. Threw for more than 500 yards against Tennessee without his 2 top receivers. A full 2022 season will be record-setting.
3. JJ McCarthy didn’t look overwhelmed in the moment. Too many times this fall, the game seemed too fast for him. It didn’t against Georgia – the best defense in college football.
4. The D in Minnesota. The clamps placed on WVU in the bowl game were more of the same from the second half of the season. Gophers gave up 33 points in final 3 games (all wins), and finished tied for 6th in the nation in scoring defense (17.3 ppg).
5. Gavin Wimsatt got on the field. The QB of the future at Rutgers should still be in high school. He enrolled early and got snaps – an important beginning.