ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Based on current hype, appearance and appeal, it’d be easy to confuse the Michigan Wolverines with a team that has recently won a lot of major games.
That’s not the case, though.
Sixty-five wins since 2007, 10 in Jim Harbaugh’s 2015 debut. A 12-year Big Ten-title drought (shared with Iowa in 2004), seven losses to Michigan State during the past nine years, and just three wins against Ohio State since the turn of the century.
Forget all of that for a second.
Michigan has moved into new territory with Harbaugh, flirting with a true return to how things used to be during the golden years of Wolverines football. Granted, one 10-win debut can’t automatically flip the script, but it’s enough to offer a favorable forecast.
Then again, so was Brady Hoke’s 11-2 debut… but that’s another story.
In their current form, the No. 7 Wolverines seem to have it all: Star players. Big-time defense. All-star coaches. Michael Frickin’ Jordan on their jerseys.
Game time, baby. Game time.
Here are some predictions that are sure to satisfy your taste for this whole Harbaugh-mania thing. Look, nobody’s saying the Wolverines have returned to the big-boy table. Nobody’s calling them elite… yet.
Give it a couple of years, though — until then, feel free to watch Michigan run through 2016 faster than Harbaugh can shoot down an undesirable question from the media.
How Many Wins?
Ten wins. All day.
Look at the schedule, which opens with five straight games in Ann Arbor. Hawaii? Win. UCF? Win. Colorado and Penn State? Wins. Now, Wisconsin… well, Wisconsin could be a problem — but nothing too difficult to handle.
Projecting 5-0 before Michigan hits the road seems logical. What about 7-0 after Rutgers and Illinois — and right before heading into East Lansing to play the Spartans? This might be the year that the Wolverines end their three-year losing streak to Michigan State. All of a sudden, 8-0 appears to be an option before Michigan hosts Maryland.
Then it’s on to Iowa. Kinnick can be tough. The Hawkeyes battled the Spartans for the 2015 Big Ten title. Iowa is a solid program that’s on the rise with coach Kirk Ferentz. Let’s call it a close win for the Wolverines.
Of course, predictions made prior to Week 1 are just that — predictions. Who knows? This could end up being a blowout and marquee road win for Harbaugh.
On Nov. 19, the Wolverines host Indiana. By then, they should have picked up on the scent of the conference championship trail. Whether at 8-1 or 9-0, they’ll likely roll the Hoosiers with ease. Sorry, Indiana. Yeah, you fought hard in Bloomington in 2015 — but you’re right before the big one.
The Buckeyes and Wolverines owe a classic to college football, something along the lines of 2006. While it’s easy to predict 10 wins for Michigan, it’s difficult to count one against the Buckeyes.
Top-end for Harbaugh? Call it 11-1. Baseline? Go with 10-2. That said, anything short of a 10-win regular season just won’t do in 2016.
Read: UM depth-chart predictions
What about the players?
Predicting wins is one thing, but player stats? Prior to Week 1? Let’s not just throw around numbers. Instead, we’ll pick standouts, up-and-comers and the like.
Let’s go ahead and start with three of the biggest names on offense.
Quarterback: Unless he nosedives or gets hurt, Wilton Speight — a redshirt sophomore — should be the Wolverines’ starting quarterback throughout 2016. There — that’s settled.
Top running back: De’Veon Smith could rush for 1,000 yards (team-high), but he won’t lead the Big Ten in rushing. That said, the senior’s time for greatness is limited. He outlived Derrick Green, who was supposed to be the next great Wolverines running back, and has demonstrated a noticeable progression during the past two years. Watch out for Smith in 2016.
Top tight end: Jake Butt? Final year, probably, but as an All-American and Big Ten Tight End of the Year; a Mackey winner, too. By year’s end, Butt will be universally crowned as the best tight end in college football. He’ll be a first-round draft pick.
Top defensive players: Fifth-year senior Chris Wormley could end on a high note by claiming All-American — or at least All-Big Ten First Team — honors in 2016. The 6-foot-6, 302-pounder has the ability to lead the Big Ten in sacks, too. Michigan’s defense makes everything go round in Ann Arbor, and Wormley’s at the head of the ship, helping to steer what should be a top-five overall defense in 2016.
Michigan’s offense should be in the top-15 range, but its defense will absolutely be among the top five this season.
Expect Jourdan Lewis, a senior corner, to be a finalist for the Thorpe Award before hearing his name called during the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Let’s move on to other guys.
Most improved player: Ben Gedeon has transitioned from contributor to potential impact player, prompting high praise from defensive coordinator Don Brown. As a middle linebacker, Gedeon will be tasked with “running the show,” which he’s capable of doing. There isn’t a veteran on Michigan’s roster who has made such a major move during the past year — for that reason, Gedeon should be the Wolverines’ most-improved player this fall.
Most valuable player: Jabrill Peppers. This doesn’t need too much explanation. He’s a Heisman-worthy athlete and one of the most exciting players to land in Ann Arbor.
Most valuable freshman: David Long, a true frosh, gets mentioned by coaches and players without being mentioned by media members. This past Monday, Harbaugh went into an impromptu rave about how Long covered a go-route as well as anyone could cover a go-route.
Long, a superb athlete, could easily become one of Michigan’s top three cornerbacks this season. Conversely, prepare to see the 5-foot-11, 187-pounder become a starter in 2017; he’ll be expected to maintain momentum started by Jourdan Lewis and Co.
A case could be made for Chris Evans, too. The 6-foot, 200-pound true freshman was cited several times during camp. Coaches, players — everyone talked about Evans’ ability to “make plays” at will.
There will be more predictions to come this fall. For now, digest the ones made in this piece — and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.