Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we are going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. We will do a team a day in each division, and today we will take a look at the Michigan Wolverines.
The spotlight shines so bright on Jim Harbaugh at Michigan that there are times all the talent assembled on the field gets overlooked. What’s very clear about this Michigan team is that it is loaded with talent and has every reason to believe it can content for Big Ten and national titles.
But there is one question, and it’s a huge one.
Does Michigan have a quarterback that can get the job done?
Harbaugh wouldn’t trade his offensive line with anyone. He wouldn’t trade his wide receivers and tight end, either. He loves his running backs, led by De’Veon Smith. But every day, the quarterback whisperer goes to practice and watches John O’Korn and Wilton Speight battle it out for the starting QB spot. Rumor has it both look good, but will either one play well enough to lead the Wolverines to the promised land?
Last year, Harbaugh got as much out of Iowa retread Jake Rudock as he possibly could. He needs to perform the same magic th year, because even though going 10-3 was impressive in his first year in Ann Arbor, it simply won’t be acceptable this year. It’s titles or bust in Year 2 of the Harbaugh era.
If anything, Harbaugh is looking for better balance this year, especially in critical situatons. Michigan ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rushing last year, far too low for Harbaugh’s liking, and that probably won’t ever happen again. There’s plenty of talent, for sure, but now they need to go out and prove it.
Here’s a close look at Michigan’s offense:
Michigan by the numbers
Total yards per game: 395.9 (4th in Big Ten/No. 69 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 158.2 (8th in Big Ten/No. 83 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 237.7 (4th in Big Ten/No. 53 nationally)
Key players lost: C Graham Glasgow
Key returning players: C Mason Cole, OL Erik Magnuson RB De’Veon Smith
The skinny: Michigan’s offensive line is very good, possibly the best in the Big Ten, though people in Bloomington and Iowa City may beg to differ. Cole, after two years at left tackle, is moving to center and he’s surrounded by three fifth-year seniors in Erik Magnuson, Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden. De’Veon Smith seems primed for a breakout year and there’s plenty of depth behind him. There’s a lot of hype that surrounds this team, but the area that might improve the most is the running game, especially if Smith’s field vision improves and he breaks more long runs in 2016.
Key players lost: QB Jake Rudock
Key returning players: QB John O’Korn, QB Wilton Speight, TE Jake Butt, WR Jehu Chesson
The skinny: All the pieces are in place for a big year, provided whoever wins the quarterback battle plays at a high level. Transfer John O’Korn and Wilton Speight are still battling it out to earn the honor of starting, and both have looked impressive in the fall. Whoever wins the job has the best tight end in the country, Jake Butt, to throw to, as well as talented receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, who combined for 108 catches a year ago. That great offensive line should provide plenty of time for the QB to throw, and those pass catchers are dangerous all over the field
One stat that must improve
A Michigan tradition through the years has been its ability to run the ball when it matters. That simply didn’t happen last year. Michigan went 6-0 last year in games where De’Veon Smith rushed for over 50 yards, but the Wolverines were only 3-3 in games where he failed to reach that mark. In the Wolverines’ three losses against Utah, Michigan State and Ohio State, he combined for only 116 yards on 46 carries — a woeful 2.5 yards per carry average. Averaging 2.5 yards a carry won’t cut it this year.
Is it too blatantly obvious to say that the biggest concern is not one, but two, quarterbacks failing to get the job done? It’s a worn out line that when you have two quarterbacks and uncertainty as to who should start, that you often really don’t have any quarterbacks. What if, say, O’Korn wins the job but then struggles to shine? What if Speight comes in and isn’t much better? Will a controversy continue throughout the season? It’s got the potential to stunt the growth of this offense, which is solid at all 10 other positions. The concern might be minimized by the weak schedule early — Hawaii, UCF and Colorado were a combined 7-31 last year and one of those wins was Hawaii over Colorado — so the QBs will have plenty of time to grow.
Better or worse in 2016?
BETTER: The storyline in Ann Arbor isn’t dissimilar to many others around the Big Ten. The Wolverines have weapons galore at the skill positions and a solid offensive line that might be the best in the league. But whenever there are quarterback questions, you’re always a bit leery to go out on the limb and predict big things. That’s going to happen, though. We’ll see a minor uptick in passing yards but a sizable jump in rushing yards, say another 30-35 per game. And most importantly, the Wolverines will score more when it matters — with games on the line against hated division rivals. A better offense might very well mean a Big Ten title, and possibly more.