As defense rebuilds, offense becomes the key for Michigan
Here’s a bold prediction for the B1G offseason: Michigan isn’t going to be as good as it was last season.
Ok, maybe that’s not exactly a bold statement. In fact, it’s probably the most obvious assertion that can be made about any team in the conference right now.
The Wolverines are losing a plateful of starters from one of the best defenses in the nation. There are some big shoes to fill along the line and at receiver on the offensive side of the ball, too.
It’s a lot to replace.
Not surprisingly, there’s an expectation that Michigan will go through its first rebuilding phase under Jim Harbaugh – though it likely won’t be a lengthy one. Hopes for a B1G title or a College Football Playoff bid are going to be placed on a temporary hold, but the Wolverines can still be a top team in the conference this fall.
It’s going to depend on the offense.
And if you look at last year’s stats, that may not be too alarming.
Michigan led the B1G in scoring with 40.3 points per game. It averaged 424.9 yards of total offense per contest and owned the conference’s second best rushing attack with a 212.9 yard average.
Wilton Speight threw for more than 2,500 yards while completing nearly 62 percent of his passes. Freshman Chris Evans and sophomore Karan Higdon each averaged more than 5.9 yards per carry out of the backfield.
On paper, the Wolverines were one of the best offensive teams in the country.
For most of the season, the offense was every bit as good as what the numbers indicated. And because of that, Michigan cruised past several opponents in 2016, winning seven of its 10 games by three scores or more.
But there were some stagnant moments throughout the year, too, particularly in times when the offense was needed most.
In the second halves against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State – the four closest regular season games – Michigan accounted for just 22 total points. Thanks to gritty defense, the Wolverines survived bouts against the Badgers and Spartans.
They weren’t so lucky against the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes.
Against Iowa, Michigan scored just three points while tallying 102 yards in the second half. In the loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines totaled a whopping 12 yards in the fourth quarter.
Despite what Michigan’s big numbers indicated, the offense’s inability to execute in those crucial situations were costly. The Wolverines blew 10-point leads in both games, ultimately eliminating them from a B1G title and a College Football Playoff appearance.
It was a stout defensive presence that even kept the Wolverines in those games.
Moving forward, Michigan isn’t going to have that luxury, at least not in the near-term. For Harbaugh’s group to be successful next fall – and not suffer through a major drop-off – it’s imperative for the offense to improve.
That same defense that bailed out the offensive woes last year isn’t going to be around as a safeguard.
Speight will carry more pressure on his shoulders this season, but with a year under his belt, that shouldn’t be a concern for the Wolverines. He does need to become more consistent in fourth quarters, though, as he completed just 21-of-41 passes last season – 10 percentage points below his completion rate.
But will a virtually brand new offensive line clear lanes as well as last season?
That might be the biggest concern for Harbaugh.
New faces at receiver leave some question marks, too, but it is nearly as concerning as the overhaul in the trenches. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Eddie McDoom and – depending on a current investigation – Grant Perry, will provide Speight with plenty of options in the passing attack.
Losing Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and Jake Butt is significant. And De’Veon Smith isn’t an easy ball-carrier to replace. But the Wolverines have some really nice returning pieces offensively. If the line gels quickly, Michigan could be even more effective than it was a season ago.
That’s a good thing. Particularly with several unknowns on defense.
A B1G championship or a playoff bid likely won’t be in the cards for Michigan in 2017. There’s just not enough in the stable to compete with Penn State and Ohio State this fall. Not in a rebuilding year.
But the Wolverines still have the pieces to be a good team in the B1G.
That’s up to the offense.