This is part of series previewing the 2022 outlook for Big Ten teams. Tomorrow: Michigan State. Previously: Ohio StateĀ 

“We’ll be back” was the closing theme for Michigan in 2021.

For the first time in school history, the Wolverines made the College Football Playoff, only to fall flat against Georgia.

But hey, the Wolverines still reached as high as No. 2 in the polls, won a Big Ten championship, produced a Heisman runner-up and coach of the year, and they beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011.

Not. A. Bad. Year.

Jim Harbaugh has Michigan in position to claim a spot among the elite of college football.

The 2021 season, as Harbaugh and players have said, was “just the beginning.”

We’ll focus on the future while also reviewing a bit of this past season. This is just precursor to much more to come, as it’s clear UM has climbed a rung on the ladder of college football.

What worked/didn’t work

We’ll start with what didn’t work … well, it didn’t work all the way: Development of JJ McCarthy.

Harbaugh’s tendency to insert, remove, and re-insert McCarthy didn’t always make sense. In all likelihood, the goal was to get him enough game reps to where he could — in theory — start against Ohio State, if necessary. It wasn’t necessary because Cade McNamara was always the guy. However, McCarthy still didn’t have enough prolonged exposure to really do a lot in his relief role for the Wolverines against Georgia. Despite helping UM to its only touchdown during the 34-11 loss, McCarthy, at times, looked erratic and disconnected.

Remember this: He never played a full series during the regular season. But on the bright side, he did get some valuable reps during the Orange Bowl blowout vs. the Bulldogs.

Ideally, he would have gotten those reps vs. Northern Illinois or Western Michigan. That didn’t happen. While there’s no doubting that McCarthy added an exciting dynamic to the offense, his usage often made people scratch their heads and wonder “what is going on here?”

Other than that, QB play worked all year. McNamara went 11-1 during the regular season, beat Ohio State and won a B1G title. QB play was excellent all year. But it’s fair to wonder about this past season’s exact plan and purpose for McCarthy.

Running game worked. Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum tore up fields, while true freshman Donovan Edwards looked like the Wolverines’ next star at the position — but with a twist: Receiver skills packed into a RB body. Dangerous combo.

O-Line worked. The entire thing was recognized as the best in the nation.

Defense worked. Heisman runner-up and all kinds of sacks from the edge.

You know all the accolades and accomplishments, so let’s move onto next year instead of staying on 2021.

Looking ahead

Yes, Michigan will have some major losses: Edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, LB Josh Ross, DB Daxton Hill and basically the entire offensive line. Haskins will be out of the picture too.

With that said, the Wolverines have done a great job developing players during the past 7 years of the Harbaugh reign, so there’s no reason to think that they won’t continue doing so during the upcoming years.

Edwards will be the next phenom coming out of Michigan’s backfield. He’s already proven the ability to do multiple things: Run the ball, catch the ball and throw the ball; he’s a threat on any trick play … or any play, really. Watch out for Edwards in 2022; he should be among the Big Ten’s best running backs.

Andrel Anthony will be a star at wide receiver. Ronnie Bell has another year. Roman Wilson, AJ Henning and Cornelius Johnson will all be available as well. Receiver corps, at least the top, looks pretty good heading into next season. Linebacker Junior Colson also played like he’s ready to move up a notch next season.

There are a lot of young players to be excited about.

The McCarthy vs. McNamara debate is in full swing, so spring ball will be one of the most critical times of the Harbaugh era: Does the incumbent who went 12-2 during 2021 move over and make room for the youngster? Or does the young gun need 1 more year before taking over the Wolverines? That’s the big question everyone will be asking as spring approaches (not that they’re not asking now).

Here’s another kicker: Who’s going to be the kicker? Jake Moody has aged-out, leaving as one of Michigan’s best kickers. The Wolverines have been lucky at that position, having two of the school’s all-time best within the past handful of years: Kenny Allen was the guy during the early Harbaugh era, then Jake Moody took over in 2018.

Yes, the kicker competition might be the second-most important battle of the spring.

Another tough road

Originally, Michigan was supposed to play both MSU and OSU on the road this season. However, back in fall, an adjustment was made to the schedule, so the Spartans and Wolverines will play in Ann Arbor in 2022. Schedules haven’t been fixed yet, but they will be soon. This is not a typo: MSU and UM play in Ann Arbor next season.

Nothing changed with Ohio State, so UM is stuck going to Columbus, where it hasn’t won since 2000. Michigan hasn’t beaten OSU back-to-back since 1999-2000, so that adds a little mystique to this year’s matchup, now doesn’t it?

According to Team Rankings, Michigan ended up playing the No. 3-ranked schedule in college football this past season. With the Big Ten looking like it’s ready to reload with more strong doses from OSU, MSU, Penn State, Wisconsin and others, it’s safe to say that the Wolverines will end 2022 with one of the nation’s highest SOS.

Especially if they make another run at the CFP — that’ll definitely boost SOS, assuming they get another SEC heavyweight in the semis.