I was out at a Big Ten football practice Tuesday morning, under cloud cover, a strong breeze and wonderfully comfortable 71-degree temperatures. I couldn’t help but think one thing on that usually sultry mid-August day:
Now this is football weather!
The season is right around the corner, folks. It’s just two weeks and change now until the 2019 season opener, when Michigan — No. 7 in the first preseason coaches poll — hosts Middle Tennessee on Aug. 31 (7:30 p.m. ET, TV: Big Ten Network) to get it all rolling.
This could be a wonderfully great year in Ann Arbor, but let’s remember one thing: I said the same exact thing a year ago, and it didn’t quite turned out as planned.
At least the ending, right?
We had a lot of fun times along the way in 2018. But it’s on to a new season and before we dive headstrong into every last little thing on the field, let’s look at some big-picture questions that are on my mind, and the answers I can best give you, at least here in the middle of August.
1.Who emerges as the stars on a revamped defense?
There’s so much talent out the door on defense that it’s a little scary. Still, there are plenty of guys ready to step and have big seasons. Defensive coordinator Don Brown is the best in the business and he’ll have this group ready to go. He has to.
Defensive backs Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas can be lockdown corners, though Thomas is dealing with some health issues that might keep him out for a while. Kwity Paye did a lot last year in limited time along the defensive line, and the depth there now is tremendous. True freshman Daxton Hill is an exceptional athlete and it’s going to be interesting to see how quickly he makes an impact. This group, it might be better than we think, especially with senior Josh Metellus proving great leadership from the safety position.
2. Shea Patterson is a top-20 quarterback. Can he be top 5?
Shea Patterson was mostly good a year ago in his first season in Ann Arbor after transferring from Ole Miss. But in Michigan’s three losses, he was average at best and that simply can’t happen again. Michigan needs for him to play like the 5-star recruit he was, and elevate all this talent around him.
Michigan needs Patterson to be the best player in the Big Ten this season. He needs to be holding that Silver Football MVP trophy at the end of the year, and be talked about again on some All-American teams. Guys like Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) and Jake Fromm (Georgia) will get much of the national publicity at the quarterback position — and rightly so — but Patterson needs to be there too, and he’ll have to do that by playing big in the biggest games.
3. Will the running game be able to match 2018 productivity?
Karan Higdon was a beast last year for Michigan, rushing for 1,178 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s gone now, and so is backup Chris Evans. There has to be a drop-off, right? Well, maybe not.
Tru Wilson is back, and he was very good a year ago when he had the chance, averaging 5.9 yards a carry on his 62 runs. He’s good, but all the talk in fall camp this far has been about true freshman Zach Charbonnet, who’s been tremendous. Factor in the return of four starting offensive lineman and the Michigan running game probably won’t miss a beat. And we know how much Jim Harbaugh loves to run the ball.
4. Is new offensive coordinator Josh Gaddis the magic elixir?
For all the brainpower in the offensive coaches room the past four years, it’s amazing the Michigan hasn’t been better than a 25th-ranked offense ever under Harbaugh. That needs to change this year under new offensive coordinator Josh Gaddis.
He’s spent time with James Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State, and he had a big hand in watching Alabama roll up crazy-big offensive numbers a year ago. Now he’s tasked with bringing home hardware in Ann Arbor. He’s going to need to get the ball into the hands of Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, two of the most dangerous receivers in the Big Ten, a conference that’s bursting at the seems with great wideout talent. This group needs to be better, without question. The guess here is that they will.
5. Elephant in the room: Can they finally beat Ohio State?
Sure, the Nov. 30 home game against Ohio State is more than three-and-a-half months away, but how can we not talk about it? We said last year, if not now, then when? And we were so wrong. Ohio State hanging 62 on that vaunted Michigan defense was one of the biggest letdowns in Michigan football history, in my book. The 41 by Florida in the bowl game was just as bad, considering the Gators offense wasn’t very good all year.
But now Urban Meyer is gone at Ohio State and Ryan Day takes over. There’s been a long history in this rivalry of tides turning, and NOW is the year that Michigan must flip the results in this heated rivalry. Replacing a legend is hard, and I am feeling a bit of a drop-off this year, especially if new QB Justin Fields isn’t all that.
Let’s not forget what happened with Urban Meyer left Florida. A team loaded with talent went 7-6 under Will Muschamp and had a losing record in the SEC for the first time in 32 years. That probably won’t happen at Ohio State — at least not to that degree — but there is no question that Michigan HAS TO win that game this year. And they probably will.