Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Michigan. We’ll stay with the B1G East all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every B1G West team. Previously: Ohio State, Penn State
In Jim Harbaugh’s 7th season, Michigan finally reached the mountaintop.
For the first time in 10 years, the Wolverines closed the regular season with a win over hated Ohio State. There was a cathartic postgame release in Ann Arbor following a victory that felt more decisive than the 42-27 final score.
MICHIGAN BEATS OHIO STATE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN TEN YEARS! Enjoy this, Maize and Blue faithful! pic.twitter.com/fG9KUmOO85
— The Harris Highlights Show (@TheHHShow_) November 27, 2021
With that came the spoils — a Big Ten East title and Michigan’s first appearance in a Big Ten championship game. Poor Iowa never stood a chance, getting wiped on the floor in a 42-3 crowning. The Wolverines were Big Ten champs for the first time since 2004, ending a once-unthinkable drought.
But Michigan’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff showed that there are still much taller mountains to climb in this range. Georgia tattooed the Wolverines 34-11 in the Orange Bowl, setting up the Bulldogs for their first national title since 1980.
Harbaugh came away from the experience recognizing that Michigan still has a hike to reach the true apex for the first time since 1997.
“Our goals would be to beat Ohio State and Michigan State in the same year, win the Big Ten championship, and win the national championship,” Harbaugh said. “Those are our 4 goals.”
How many of those will Michigan actually cross off the list this season?
Mr. Harbaugh’s wild ride
For a fleeting moment in time, it looked like Harbaugh wouldn’t even be around this season.
Back in February, Harbaugh flew to Minnesota to interview for the Vikings head coaching vacancy in a bid to return to the NFL. It was, of all days, National Signing Day. (This was nothing more than bad optics, though, as Michigan had sewn up its class in December.)
At some point in the interview process, the sides seemed to realize this wasn’t going to work out. Harbaugh abandoned his Super Bowl dream, returned to Michigan, and declared himself all-in forevermore. But he’ll be doing that with a pair of new coordinators.
New Miami coach Mario Cristobal swiped offensive coordinator Josh Gattis from Michigan, and John Harbaugh took defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald back from his brother after what amounted to a 1-year loan from the Baltimore Ravens.
On offense, Harbaugh promoted from within. Quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss and offensive line coach Sherrone Moore were named co-offensive coordinators. As for defense, he once again turned to his brother John’s coaching tree. Jesse Minter, who spent last year as Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator after working on Baltimore’s staff for 4 years, got the nod.
That being the case, we should expect most of Michigan’s concepts on both sides of the ball to look similar to last season. The most significant difference will likely be what plays are called at which times.
And on defense, which players will be executing those plays.
The no-name defense
The only problem when you win a conference title with a team full of veteran talent is veteran talent tends to end up in the NFL the following season. And in Michigan’s case, it’s tilted to one side of the line of scrimmage.
Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, outside linebacker David Ojabo and safety Daxton Hill were all off the board by the 50th pick of the NFL Draft. Starting nose tackle Chris Hinton is in an NFL training camp, as are safety Brad Hawkins and cornerback Vincent Gray.
There aren’t a whole lot of familiar faces back from the nation’s No. 8 scoring defense. But a couple of them — sophomore defensive tackle Mazi Smith and sophomore outside linebacker Junior Colson — played well enough as freshmen that it’s reasonable to expect an all-conference leap for both.
Harbaugh is also working under the belief that everything will be just fine despite this unit’s youth.
“People are asking how you’ll replace those stars,” he said at Big Ten Media Days. “I’ve been part of many a team where the no-star defense was the better defense. Because there’s more competition within the position groups. More guys hungry like David Ojabo was a year ago. Hunger to be great.
“I have a sneaky suspicion we can be even better on defense.”
The Crystal Ball does not see the same outcome. After allowing 17.4 ppg last year, Michigan will permit more than 21 ppg this season. But that won’t necessarily cost them in the win column.
The QB question
Michigan’s offense was better than most outsiders probably realized last year, ranking 16th nationally with 35.8 points per game. But the Wolverines were not particularly dynamic throwing the ball, ranking 37th in Yards Per Attempt.
That figure is going to improve this year — either because incumbent starter Cade McNamara is better, or because he’s been replaced by sophomore JJ McCarthy.
Though McCarthy had a small sample size last season with 59 pass attempts, he bested McNamara in YPA (8.7 to 7.9) while McNamara was more accurate (64.2% to 57.2%). It stands to reason that whichever quarterback most improves his comparative weakness will take the competition.
Given Harbaugh’s history, expect McNamara to start Week 1. When he faced this conundrum with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, Harbaugh gave the veteran the nod until an injury gave Kaepernick a shot. He would not relinquish it. The plotline may end up looking similar for McNamara and McCarthy.
Regardless of who is dropping back, they’ll have time. Michigan had the best offensive line in the country last year, and adds Virginia All-American center Olusegun Oluwatimi from the transfer portal.
The quarterback will also have a receiving corps that Harbaugh says is the best he has had at Michigan. Veteran Ronnie Bell is back after a season-ending injury in Week 1 last season and will be flanked by a talented group of young guns. Tight ends Erick All and Luke Schoonmaker will also factor into the passing game.
And despite losing all-B1G running back Hassan Haskins, the tandem of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards will keep the Wolverines dangerous on the ground. That will prove doubly true if dual-threat McCarthy takes over behind center.
Week 1: vs. Colorado State (W)
Colorado State finished last season on a 6-game losing streak that resulted in a coaching change. Given those dynamics, the Rams will be out to prove themselves in Jay Norvell’s debut. Michigan will win, but it’s going to be a pain in the butt. Do not expect the Wolverines to cover the 28-point spread.
Week 2: vs. Hawai’i (W)
As they wait for a new stadium to be built, the Rainbow Warriors are playing in the 9,000-seat TC Ching Athletics Complex. This one will be over the minute they walk out of the tunnel at 107,601-seat Michigan Stadium.
Week 3: vs. UConn (W)
To describe the Huskies in one word: woof.
Week 4: vs. Maryland (W)
The Wolverines will need to be very alert for the upset here after back-to-back cakewalks.
Mike Locksley will no doubt impart to his team that this is Michigan’s homecoming game. Which it should be, as Harbaugh has beaten Maryland by an average of 33.3 points per game in 6 meetings. But these are not the same old Terps. Maryland has the most explosive offense in the B1G this side of Ohio State, and that will be a challenge for Michigan’s untested defense.
Look for McCarthy to come off the bench and lead a second-half rally. Michigan pulls off the win in 3OT thanks to its advantage in 2-point conversion scenarios.
Week 5: at Iowa (W)
Can the Hawkeyes really make up the 39-point gap between the Wolverines from December? Most of it. But not all of it. After getting scared straight by Maryland, Michigan will not be caught napping.
Week 6: at Indiana (W)
With a couple games of tape on McCarthy to work with, Tom Allen’s Hoosiers will have a great game plan and a modest halftime lead. This time it’s McNamara who comes off the bench to the rescue. Michigan will pull away in the fourth quarter as Indiana just doesn’t have the offense to keep up.
Week 7: vs. Penn State (W)
All week, speculation will swirl over whether McCarthy or McNamara will start — which is just how Harbaugh wants it to mess with James Franklin. Though Penn State has an open week to prepare, Franklin is just 3-6 coming off of byes. He’ll drop to 3-7 in a game that won’t be decided until the final minutes.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Michigan State (W)
Anticipation will run high as the 7-0 Wolverines host their in-state rivals. And Michigan will not forget the taste of squandering a 30-14 second-half lead to the Spartans last season. Look for Michigan to make a statement and win by 14 or more.
Week 10: at Rutgers (L)
Yes. That is an L on your screen.
For whatever reason, Greg Schiano’s team has been a headache for Michigan to deal with since his return to Rutgers. In 2020, the Wolverines needed 3 overtimes to survive the Scarlet Knights. Last year, Rutgers held Michigan to an even lower offensive output (275 yards) than Georgia did (328).
Schiano’s Scarlet Knights pull off one of the most shocking results of the season, and the goal posts come down in Piscataway. Even if they aren’t removable.
Week 11: vs. Nebraska (W)
Not-so-bold prediction: 2-3 plays on special teams will determine the outcome here, which means Michigan will win.
Week 12: vs. Illinois (W)
After losing to Rutgers and squeaking past Nebraska, the Wolverines will have some frustration to take out on the Illini. They should be able to release most of it in time to prepare for the season’s defining game.
Week 13: at Ohio State (L)
The Big Ten East title and a probable place in the CFP is on the line as both teams enter with a conference loss. (Ohio State’s defeat will come at the hands of Penn State.)
But Michigan hasn’t won at the Horseshoe since 2000, and that will not change here. The defensive deficiencies the Wolverines have been able to patch up for most of the season will get exposed by the Buckeyes, who will win comfortably.
2022 Projection: 10-2, 2nd in B1G East
Michigan will only accomplish 1 of Harbaugh’s stated goals for the season, beating Michigan State. So if that’s the true measuring stick of success, this season will go down as a disappointment.
But I don’t think anyone can look at the attrition the Wolverines experienced on defense and believe Harbaugh’s stated goals are achievable. Getting Michigan back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 2006 postseason would be a heck of an accomplishment given the circumstances.
Even though it’s clear the Rose Bowl will be marginalized by conference realignment and future CFP expansion, it’s still the most special game in college football.
Most meaningful? Not any more. But most special? Definitely. For the time being, anyway. And that’s something worth celebrating while you can.
Michigan will take a step back this season, but the program’s overall trajectory is heading in the right direction after Harbaugh survived his stint on the hot seat.