Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 13 Michigan.
I get it: hating Michigan is fun and ethical. But sometimes we have to set aside what we believe to be established truths to understand others; as much as I hate to admit it, the Wolverines are probably going to amazing this season.
Blegh, I need a palate cleanser.
There it is.
With Jake Rudock gone, Michigan is now looking for a more sustainable and explosive answer to lead the offense. According to the Detroit Free Press, head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines have made their decision, but instead of sharing that decision or offering any sort of helpful insight on the competition, Harbaugh is giving all of us, quarterbacks included, the silent treatment.
The quarterback battle has been a three-way race between Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, and Shane Morris. Speight led Michigan’s comeback victory over Minnesota last year; Morris has two games of experience; O’Korn was the starter at Houston for a season and a half before being supplanted by Greg Ward, Jr. All three have earned positive reports regarding their improvement since the spring, so barring Harbaugh going on a late-night milk binge and tweeting out his decision, we’ll know who the starter is when Hawaii’s defense trots onto the field Saturday.
Whoever lines up under center will instantly inherit some of the best options available in college football at every skill position. At wide receiver, Jehu Chesson, who also returns kicks and blocks punts, and Amara Darboh return to give the team a pair of receivers that will likely be among the best in conference once again. The duo combined for 1,491 yards and 14 touchdowns on 108 catches last season. Sophomore Grant Perry played some as a freshman and should see some time lining up in the slot.
As dangerous as Chesson and Dabroh are, senior tight end Jake Butt’s decision to put off the NFL for his fourth year of college football stands out as one of the best things to happen to the Michigan this offseason. Butt joined Chesson and Dabroh in breaking the 50-reception mark last season by having some of the best hands in the nation, and wheels to boot. He’s as dangerous in the red zone as he is at the opposing 30-yard line—just ask Maryland.
The Wolverines bring back four starters on the offensive line. Michigan made the call to slide Mason Cole over to center, opening up the blindside tackle spot for either Grant Newsome or Ben Bredeson—both are competing for their first starting gig. They’ll be joined by Erik Magnuson, Kyle Kalis, and Ben Braden. Having four guys back on the offensive line is a great advantage, but the team’s running game will need to improve a bit from last year if the Wolverines want to survive a daunting five-week slate at the end of the season, which includes trips to Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State. Luckily, Michigan has the necessary talent in the backfield to make said jump.
De’Veon Smith returns at running back for the Wolverines after putting together 753 yards and six scores in his 2015 campaign. Smith set himself apart as one of the toughest runners in college football last season—at 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Smith’s runs rarely end at first, second, or third contact. There are dozens of clips to choose from, but the one run most emblematic of his style is his 60-yard score against BYU.
Wolverine fans should hope Smith stays healthy for the entirety of the season—he will be backed up by Drake Johnson, who tore his ACL in 2014 and was run over by a forklift in 2016. They also have senior Ty Isaac, a USC transfer, in the mix.
Senior Chris Wormley is the anchor of the defensive line, and has the ability to line up at either end or tackle. He led the Wolverines in tackles for loss with 14.5 last season and will likely pair with true freshman Rashan Gary, the No. 1 recruit in the nation, as the team’s starting defensive ends. If anything happens to either of them, Michigan can turn to senior Taco Charlton, who proved himself more than capable of being a premier defensive end last season.
The Wolverines lost three key linebackers to graduation, but have Ben Gedeon stepping up as a senior and Jabrill Peppers moving down to take over outside linebacker duties. Senior Mike McCray is also back, but he’s been prone to injury throughout his four years in Ann Arbor. Beyond those three sits a large collection of freshman and sophomores—while depth will be a concern, keep in mind Harbaugh said he currently sees “15 or more” freshman on the roster that could play this season.
Senior corner Jourdan Lewis—another Michigan player who would have likely been picked up in the NFL draft—will hold down the defensive secondary. In 2015, Lewis lapped his teammates and set the school record for pass breakups with 20, ranking third overall in the nation. He will be joined by classmate Channing Stribling. The Wolverines have the luxury of returning senior safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill. In all, this is a group that ranked top in the nation in completion percentage and QB rating in 2015—expect the same this year.
Jabrill Peppers is the player every coach wants because he’s the player every coach could use. Peppers is one of the most versatile athletes in the nation, displayed by the running list of roles he fills for the Wolverines: safety, corner, kick returner, punt returner, running back, and, now, outside linebacker.
The redshirt sophomore is back in Ann Arbor after a year in which he compiled 45 tackles, 5.5 of which went for a loss, and averaged 11.4 yards per punt return and 27.8 yards on kickoffs. This season, he’s expected to continue contributing in all three facets of the game; his primary defensive position will be outside linebacker, where he will boost his tackle numbers and be able to pick up running backs and receivers for the Wolverines. One thing to note about his game that could improve: Peppers occasionally drops his head and relies on sheer force to take down players on defense. While it normally works, there are times, notably in the Michigan State film, when the Spartan running backs were able to roll off his shoulders and move forward. In 2016, wrapping up will help boost those tackle numbers and his already-impressive draft stock.
Some people are pumping up Peppers as a potential Heisman candidate, which, given his versatility, is a fine notion, but if Christian McCaffrey—who proved himself to be even more useful as a special teams and offensive star at Stanford in 2015—didn’t win the award last year, Peppers would have to house something like four punts/kickoffs, nab six interceptions, score 10 touchdowns on offense, and lead the team in tackles before he even cracked the top-3. He’s great and one of my favorite players in college football, but given who votes on the Heisman and their (stupid) tendencies, his chances are slim.
The Wolverines, unfortunately, can absolutely make the playoff. Michigan has all the pieces to make a run at the playoff—experienced lines, established talent at every skill position, depth everywhere outside of linebacker, and an insanely easy opening three-week stretch that couldn’t be better crafted for a team looking to break in a new quarterback.
Now, about that ending five-week stretch: it’s going to be a tall order for the Wolverines to pull off road victories at Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State. But with clashes against Penn State and Wisconsin preceding those match ups, Michigan will be provided plenty of time to determine how the team plays when tested. A lot can happen over the course of two months, but the Wolverines are brimming with talent and, much to the chagrin of the SEC, Jim Harbaugh’s squad is prepped to crack into college football’s promised land just two years into his tenure.
Jim Harbaugh is absolutely a dick. Still, going through all the wonderful blogs he’s inspired—I advise subscribing to “The Daily Harbaugh,”—reminds me that sometimes a milk-guzzling, question-hating, dust-loving, sick-burn issuing psycho can simultaneously be all those things and the single most entertaining person in college football. If it wasn’t for Harbaugh, college football would be ruled by a bunch of red-faced lunatics attempting to pass off as normal folks; sometimes, it’s nice to see someone spit in the face of the various SEC dipshits and embrace his inner maniac.
Sept. 3: Hawaii
Sept. 10: UCF
Sept. 17: Colorado
Sept. 24: Penn State
Oct. 1: Wisconsin
Oct. 8: @ Rutgers
Oct. 22: Illinois
Oct. 29: @ Michigan State
Nov. 5: Maryland
Nov. 12: @ Iowa
Nov. 19: Indiana
Nov. 26: @ Ohio State