10 biggest questions I have as Michigan enters preseason camp
After a dismal 2020, it’s no secret fans of the Maize and Blue are ready to put the 2-win nightmare that was last fall in the rear-view mirror. As training camps are starting up across the NCAA landscape, Jim Harbaugh and his Michigan team are more than ready to do so too. So let’s chalk up last season as a loss due to the pandemic, forget about it, and move forward to 2021 and the season opener with Western Michigan on Sept. 4.
But, of course, we can’t do that, because that’s not what we do here. Specifically, I have some questions that will be hanging out there as Camp Harbaugh opens, and these are the 10 that stand out to me.
1. Who will be at quarterback?
Let’s get this one out of the way first, since it’s usually the first thing everyone wants to know.
Now that Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey are wearing different uniforms, last season’s stand-in Cade McNamara is the favorite to get the starting job. McNamara will look to build on his momentum from the 2020 season, which closed with him replacing a struggling Milton to rally the Wolverines to a triple-overtime win over Rutgers before making his first career start in the season-ending loss to Penn State.
Watch for Alan Bowman, an arrival from Texas Tech, and 5-star recruit J.J. McCarthy to put some pressure on McNamara to perform. Bowman can be explosive. He completed 67% of his passes during 3 seasons in Lubbock for more than 5,000 yards and 33 touchdowns. McCarthy, an early-enrollee freshman, has been working with QB coach Matt Weiss to get familiar with Josh Gattis’s scheme.
I’m looking for McNamara to be under center when things get real, but whether he can hold the job all season is another question.
2. Will the backfield miss Zach Charbonnet?
After two seasons in Ann Arbor, running back Zach Charbonnet entered the transfer portal in January and is now a UCLA Bruin. His freshman season, he ran for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns. But last season’s 4-back rotation didn’t result in much action for Charbonnet, who finished his Wolverines career with 850 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Had he stayed, it’s certainly possible — given a more normal offseason and preseason — that Charbonnet could have returned to his freshman form. But his story will now play out in the Pac-12, which leads us to my next question …
3. Will there be a 1,000-yard rusher in Ann Arbor?
The rotation is down to 3 backs this year, according to Harbaugh. Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards are all in line to see plenty of snaps.
Harbaugh says Haskins and Corum will serve as running backs No. 1 and No. 1, and “you’ll be seeing Donovan Edwards game one.”
Haskins has the most experience of the trio, and led the team with 61 carries for 375 yards with 6 touchdowns in 2020. During the full 2019 season, he put up 622 yards on 121 carries with 4 TDs. As a true freshman last season, Corum had 26 rushes for 74 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He pulled in 5 receptions for 73 yards as well. Not to be left out, Edwards is the No. 41 overall recruit in the nation, and comes to Ann Arbor as the second-highest ranked member of Michigan’s 2021 recruiting class. His West Bloomfield team won a state championship last fall under now safeties coach Ron Bellamy.
So will we see a 1,000-yard rushing season from one of these three? I expect the carries to be spread a little too evenly to see that kind of production, unless one of them starts to really run over opponents. It’s likely none will crack 1,000.
4. What will Michigan’s defense look like under Mike Macdonald?
Now that Mike Macdonald has taken charge of the Michigan defense, it’s hard to imagine that things will not get better — seriously, they couldn’t get much worse. After last season’s defense stumbled through the Wolverines’ 6 games, redshirt junior linebacker Josh Ross called the season a “wake-up call” during his recent media day presser.
Ross conveyed his embarrassment from last year’s performance, and made it clear he and the returning veterans on the defensive side are planning to change it.
“That’s not Michigan football,” Ross said.
Watch for Macdonald to put a defense with multiple schemes onto the field, not just the typical 3-4 look that has been the norm. Also be ready to see Aidan Hutchinson do more than just plant his hand in the dirt and rush the passer or stop the run. Expect to see the DE upright on some snaps, ready to drop back into coverage acting as an extra outside linebacker.
Hutchinson did give a small hint about Macdonald’s system.
“It will be less predictable, 1000 percent,” said Hutchinson. “That’s one nugget I’ll give you.”
That’s not to say that blitzing won’t be a big part of Macdonald’s plan, as his Baltimore Ravens linebackers were ranked No. 1 in blitz percentage last season at 44.1%. Blitzing will be a new scheme for projected starters at linebacker Taylor Upshaw, Michael Barrett, David Ojabo and Ross, who only have 4 career sacks among them.
In the secondary, things just need to be better. With Michigan having ended the season as the 96th ranked passing defense, the secondary needs to make some fixes, especially in regards to giving up big plays. Cornerback Gemon Green had a strong finish last season, and Vincent Gray will need to step it up on the other side. At safety, Daxton Hill came to the program as a 5-star prospect and the No. 1 safety in the class of 2019, and he will need to start playing like it.
5. How big of a rebound will the defense make?
In addition to those other numbers, the Michigan defense was No. 84 overall in the country last year. So expecting things to be better this year isn’t really a stretch.
But how much better?
Many of the players who were around when Michigan’s defense was ranked No. 11 in the nation in 2019 are still on the roster, so you have to ask, what happened? The consensus of opinion has been that outgoing defensive coordinator Don Brown’s schemes were becoming predictable. We’ll see if that’s the case, as Hutchinson has led us to believe.
With last season being the only time in the last 10 years that the Michigan defense finished outside the top 20 in the nation, an impressive rebound seems likely.
6. Will UM be good enough to beat Ohio State and/or Michigan State?
Sorry, I know, this is the same question that’s asked every year — but it still needs to be asked, and Harbaugh has to have an affirmative answer someday if he wants to keep his present office location.
With last season’s game against the Buckeyes canceled due to COVID-19 issues, Harbaugh remains winless in 5 tries against OSU. He stands at 3-3 against MSU after the upset loss that began last season’s derailment.
So, can the Wolverines beat either of these two?
The answer is always yes they can.
The bigger question is, will they?
7. A winning season?
So we’re at the prediction phase, and I say “yes.”
Predicting the outcome of college football games can be similar to trying to figure out where a spinning top is going to land. But taking a look at the Wolverines schedule for 2021, I’ll take a shot.
I would expect for Michigan to head into Big Ten play with a 2-1 record, beating Western Michigan in the opener, losing to Washington and rebounding to top Northern Illinois (but don’t fall asleep on the Huskies).
Look for wins over Rutgers, Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland. Now add losses to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Indiana and that leaves the Wolverines at 6-4. Not included in this list are the games with Northwestern and Ohio State. Let’s call them the “wildcards” for this season, as Northwestern can always be trouble, particularly in Evanston.
And Ohio State? Well, it’s Ohio State, in Columbus, for the last game of the regular season.
Let’s just wait and see on that one.
8. Are we going to see them in a bowl game this time around?
Back in the days when Big Ten champions automatically made the trip to the Rose Bowl, the Wolverines were almost always on the field in Pasadena on New Year’s Day — if not there, one of the other bowl games we grew up watching. And while they’ve not done overly well in bowl appearances — of their 48 bowl games, they only were on the winning side 21 times — at least they were there.
Missing out on a bowl game in 2020, Michigan stayed home for the postseason for the first time since its 5-7 campaign in 2014. The program had played in bowl games in 33 consecutive seasons prior to a 3-9 season in 2008. The point being, the Wolverines are not so far removed from their glory days, and it’s probably safe to say that we will see the Maize and Blue on the field come the end of December barring a rash of key injuries or a total meltdown.
9. The impact of a full “Big House”?
Playing in the largest stadium in the country, game day with no fans in the stands can definitely be an issue, and that was the case in 2020. The Wolverines lost both home games last season, including a 3-point loss to MSU. Would the outcome have been different with a full house? Yes? No? Maybe? Probably?
That shouldn’t be a question in 2021, as Michigan has already sold over 85,000 season tickets. They have 7 home games, with 4 in a row this September against Western Michigan, Washington, Northern Illinois and Rutgers.
Harbaugh thinks the return of fans to the stands will be similar to the return to the field of an injured player.
“Something that you were used to and you miss it,” said Harbaugh about the Michigan fans not being in attendance. “As a player when you get hurt, can’t play, just makes you want to play that much more. You can’t wait to get out there, got something taken away that you really appreciated and enjoyed.”
Look for having a full house to make an impact on the play of the home team, as the fans are as hungry for a turn-around as are the players and coaches.
10. Are we going to see the winning culture return to Ann Arbor?
“I’m as excited and as enthusiastic as ever before … to win the championship. To beat Ohio [State]. That’s what we wanna do,” said Harbaugh about this season. “And we’re gonna do it or die trying.”
Echoing Harbaugh’s comments, players speaking at last week’s Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis believe there is a renewed sense of competition among the players, including a more intense work ethic to return to the culture that was once Michigan Football.
“Just as bad as our fans want to see us win, we want to win even more because we’re actually there playing,” Ross said. “… It means the world to me to make them [and former players] proud of us.”
While picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten East this season in preseason media polls, the players are OK with that.
But Michigan being an underdog isn’t something that the old-school Wolverines fans are used to. The issues in 2020 are now in the past (hopefully), and if the play on the field in 2021 steps up all will likely be forgiven. After all, no 2-4 team can rest easy, and should the leadership issues from last season be addressed and eliminated, the 2021 Wolverines can put it all behind them.
With any luck, and hopefully without the distractions of COVID-19, we’ll see Michigan Football return to the expectation of success that once was.
I expect that to happen, so let’s see.