Best-case scenario: 4 factors that could help Michigan enjoy a championship season
The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans. But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season.
In the past few weeks, Land Of 10 has been offering a “Best-Case Scenario” story for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs.
Today’s piece focuses on Michigan, as it enters Year 2 of the Jim Harbaugh coaching era. In a short time, the high-strung Harbaugh has infused the Wolverines program with energy, intensity, passion, gobs of media attention and most importantly, blue-chip talent.
Citing 247Sports.com, Harbaugh’s Class of 2016 haul included 15 elite-level recruits (four or five stars) and a top-five overall ranking.
Here are four factors that will matter for the championship-chasing Wolverines in 2016:
1. Michigan lives up to the hype of having the Big Ten’s best offensive and defensive lines
The Michigan offensive line returns four starters in right tackle Erik Magnuson, right guard Kyle Kalis, center Mason Cole and left guard Ben Braden. It also has a mammoth presence in sophomore Grant Newsome (6-foot-7, 300 pounds), who could be the conference’s Next Big Thing at left tackle.
On the defensive side, Chris Wormley (6.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss last season), Taco Charlton (5.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL) and Maurice Hurst Jr. (3 sacks, 6.5 TFL) represent the first wave of physically impressive and productive defenders. The second wave might be more menacing to opponents, a group led by Lawrence Marshall, Bryan Mone, Chase Winovich and true freshman Rashan Gary — the No. 1 overall recruit from the Class of 2016 according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
This dual focus speaks to Harbaugh’s amazing program-building acumen.
Harbaugh, who went 10-3 in his first year that included a Citrus Bowl rout of Florida, has certain personality tendencies that can be perceived as annoying, arrogant, bombastic, defiant, enigmatic, insecure, intuitive, relentless, uncanny and unruly — just to name a few.
However, no one can question the coach’s passion for building up the trenches, knowing it’s still Michigan’s greatest path to consistently beating Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa in the Big Ten, and eventually Alabama, LSU, Southern California, Oklahoma and others in pursuit of a national title.
2. Either John O’Korn or Wilton Speight seizes immediate control of the QB competition
For starters, it’s an educated personal guess that O’Korn — a University of Houston transfer — will prevail over the other U-M quarterbacks during fall camp.
However, we’re also acknowledging that either O’Korn, Speight or even Shane Morris would flourish with starter reps, given Michigan’s experienced and prodigious talent at tailback (De’Veon Smith), receiver (Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh), tight end (Jake Butt) and the offensive line, along with many underclassmen waiting in the wings.
As a freshman at Houston in 2013, O’Korn collected 3,117 yards passing and 29 touchdowns (one rushing). His numbers dwindled the following season, setting up the transfer to Michigan.
That’s one part of the O’Korn/Michigan optimism. The other aspect involves the 2015 success of Jake Rudock, a transfer from Iowa, who notched 3,017 yards passing and 24 total TDs (four rushing) in his only campaign with Harbaugh.
In fact, during his final five games, Rudock averaged 315 yards passing and 2.4 touchdowns — strong finishing numbers that likely helped him get drafted by the Detroit Lions.
O’Korn could experience similar success this fall. When perusing Michigan’s schedule, four opponents mercifully ranked in the bottom-third nationally with passing yards allowed — Maryland (103rd), UCF (109th), Rutgers (118th) and Indiana (126th) – so the potential is there to post some big numbers.
3. Secondary stud Jabrill Peppers enjoys a seamless transition to the linebacker spot
The junior has only played in 15 college games, the equivalent of just over one full season. And yet, it’s already been established that Peppers would be a dominant force as a kick/punt returner, safety or cornerback if he focused on one position similar to All-Big Ten cornerback Jourdain Lewis.
But this isn’t a “Jack of all trades, master of none” situation. The kid has the physical upside to crush every opportunity, while becoming a viable top-15 prospect for next year’s draft. He also has the capacity to be stationed closer to the ball, handling certain linebacker duties in Don Brown’s defensive system this fall.
Who is Don Brown? He was the architect of the nation’s top-ranked defense last year, which often compensated for an anemic Boston College offense that was 120th in scoring. Brown will likely do wonders with a prolific Michigan squad that posted elite-level rankings with passing yards allowed (third nationally), total defense (fourth), scoring defense (sixth) and rushing defense (16th) last season.
At worst, Peppers might be the Big Ten’s fourth-best pure NFL prospect, along with Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan, Iowa’s Desmond King, Michigan State’s Malik McDowell. It’s just hard to pin down his most natural position on the football field, given how everything comes so naturally.
4. Michigan will be golden if it’s eminently doable schedule boils down to three road games
The Wolverines are a championship-chasing program with an ultra-friendly schedule. That’s a tough combination to beat:
- Michigan stands as the lone Big Ten team with only four total road games. That’s eight home games, most in the league, of course.
- The Wolverines could be double-digit favorites for every home game, a doable slate that’s heavy on name-brand recognition (Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, UFC, etc.) … but light on major-bowl credibility in 2016.
- Michigan will likely encounter just one stretch of worrisome back-to-back opponents — home tilts against Penn State (Sept. 24) and Wisconsin (Oct. 1).
- The Wolverines could feasibly carry an undefeated record until the final weekend of October; and if that’s the case, U-M might own the nation’s No. 1 ranking heading into its Oct. 29 game at Michigan State.
But this story could have a sour ending, given Michigan’s end-of-the-year road docket that starts at Michigan State (Oct. 29), then goes to Iowa (Nov. 12) and Ohio State (Nov. 26) in the final five weeks.
However, thanks to the relatively friendly nature of September and October, any combination of 2-1 or 3-0 against MSU, Iowa, OSU should result in the Wolverines claiming the Big Ten East title and a berth in the conference championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis. After that, a spot in the playoffs isn’t out of the question.
It’s all there for the taking.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.