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. 7 Michigan.
Jim Harbaugh is entering his fourth year atop the Michigan program and will do so coming off a disappointing 2017 season. The Wolverines finished 8-5 and lost their bowl game to South Carolina. So far, Harbaugh’s weirdness has made for excellent blog fodder, but when it comes to actually entering his team into the annual playoff conversation, he hasn’t provided much to talk about.
Against the the top-four teams in the Big Ten—Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State—Michigan is a combined 4-7 under Harbaugh, with no Big Ten titles and a single bowl win tacked on. The conference has been crowded at the top recently, but if you want to back up the smack talk and trips to Rome, those numbers need to be flipped. It’s likely that college football fans were a bit too eager and enthralled by Harbaugh’s fun and dynamic behavior; after all, Brady Hoke didn’t exactly leave behind a well-oiled machine. But patience is not a virtue for boosters.
The fourth year of Harbaugh’s tenure will be an important one; it’s his opportunity to show that 8-5 was a blip and that the 10-win seasons he busted through the door with are the standard. Lucky for him, he’s finally got a quarterback worth a damn to help make that point.
Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson got the nod at quarterback earlier this week, ending the imaginary quarterback competition between him and Brandon Peters. This was always coming, basically since Patterson signed on in December, both because of his proven upside, but also because, holy shit, did the Wolverine gun-slingers suck in 2017.
Thanks to an never-ending avalanche of injuries, Peters split time under center last year with John O’Korn and Wilton Speight, and it was an atrocity almost every week. None of them completed more than 55 percent of their passes on the year, and the combined touchdown-to-interception ratio of the trio was 9:10. It didn’t help that the Michigan offensive line was also pretty terrible at protecting all three of them, finishing 110th in the nation with 36 total sacks allowed, or 2.77 per game. The offensive line woes aside, Patterson completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 17 scores and nine picks as a sophomore with the Rebels, so, yeah, the Wolverines are all but certainly going to take a step forward this year.
Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black will hold down the wideout spots while Grant Perry works the inside for the Wolverines. Perry is the leading receiver from a year ago, but like basically every member of the 2017 Michigan passing game, his numbers were galling—Perry hauled in 25 catches for 307 yards and one score; Peoples-Jones ranked fourth on the team with 277 total yards and no scores; and Black had 11 catches for 149 yards and a score.
Last year’s quarterback woes shouldn’t be and aren’t totally indicative of what’s to come—all three receivers are talented, when the guy under center can actually get them the ball. Specifically, Black and Peoples-Jones both flashed some very real All-Big Ten potential last season and throughout the spring. With Patterson in place, expect the production from the entire trio to triple (or else a Michigan fans better reacquaint themselves with the numbing pain of annual five-win seasons.)
In the backfield, the Wolverines should actually be set for the coming year, with the top two backs from 2017 returning. Last season’s ground attack was actually pretty efficient, with Karan Higdon running for 994 yards and 11 scores and Chris Evans—not Captain America, unfortunately—rushing for 685 yards and six touchdowns. Those two should pair up to make a healthy and productive ground attack for the Wolverines. Higdon is a small, strong burner and the likely No. 1 back. Evans is not a bruiser either, but likewise has the speed and vision to cut it upfield and be in the secondary almost instantaneously; he’s also a dangerous option out of the backfield, seeing as any linebacker assigned to him will be dusted.
The other side of the ball is where all the fun was at in 2017, and seeing as defensive coordinator Don Brown is still in Ann Arbor, the same will be true in 2018. The amazing thing about this defense when compared to others in the Big Ten and the nation is how each level has a clear and defined leader heading into the season, players with both the leadership abilities to steer the group and the talent to end up being first-rounders come April.
Starting up front, defensive end Rashan Gary landed on the preseason All-American second team, and for good reason—last year, Gary had 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks as the breakout anchor of the line, fulfilling his billing as the top recruit of his class. While Ohio State’s Nick Bosa got much of the love last year, Gary was right there with him, even surpassing him at points with a full arsenal of moves that seem a better fit for a fifth-year NFL player than a second-year college end.
That said, if there’s one name you need to know from this defense, it’s linebacker Devin Bush. The junior headlines the entire squad from the middle of the field, having led the team in tackles last year. Bush posted 102 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 10.0 tackles for loss in 2017. Bush gets knocked for his height, which I get, but also, being the star linebacker on a Big Ten defense isn’t exactly a cake walk. As the Big Ten realized they had a real problem on their hands, they started to send double-teams his way, an attempt to snuff him out before he inevitably beat them to the punch. Aside from Bush, linebacker Mike McCray’s departure is the main gap that needs filling; as of now it seems as though either Devin Gil or Josh Ross will take the spot.
The secondary should look basically the same as last year, which is great news for a group that finished third in the nation in passing yards allowed per game. Corners Lavert Hill and David Long are both as good among the best in the conference and are far-and-away more efficient than the fellas behind them at safety, where things are a little more up in the air. While Hill and Long were one of the best duos in the nation, safeties Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus both looked okay in their first year as starters but left a bit to be desired, having allowed major deep balls to do them in when they faced Penn State and Ohio State.
These four aren’t really the ones you need to concern yourself with, though. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very good, but the stud of the bunch finds himself somewhere in between Bush and the secondary.
If you love college defenses, then picking Michigan’s Guy To Know is like picking kids. You should also know Bush and Gary, because they rule, but the real star you need to be watching in maize and blue is the man at the “Viper” position, Khaleke Hudson.
Remember when people, including yours truly, thought Jabrill Peppers was the shit and irreplaceable? Well, Hudson made me forget Peppers within the first four weeks. In his initial year as a starter, he finished with 77 stops, 16.0 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. From his safety-linebacker hybrid position, Hudson did everything you could want from a defender, flying sideline-to-sideline, being as effective as one defender can. With Bush back and Gary garnering the attention of Big Ten offensive lines, I fully expect Hudson to find a way to make this even more entertaining.
I don’t see it, at least not yet. Michigan’s defense is going to be fantastic, but anyone who watched the Wolverine offense in 2017 should enter this season with a raised eyebrow. Then, look at the below Michigan schedule. The Wolverines have road trips scheduled for Notre Dame, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Ohio State. The Big Ten, despite its penchant for harboring all the biggest assholes of the 2018 season, is going to once again be highly competitive—I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing how things shake out come November and December. If Michigan makes it to the Big Ten title game with that schedule, they deserve to go to the playoff and come back to rub it in my face.
He may be an eccentric loon and not an assistant, but god, do I love this man.
Sept. 1: @ Notre Dame
Sept. 8: Western Michigan
Sept. 15: SMU
Sept. 22: Nebraska
Sept. 29: @ Northwestern
Oct. 6: Maryland
Oct. 13: Wisconsin
Oct. 20: @ Michigan State
Nov. 3: Penn State
Nov. 10: @ Rutgers
Nov. 17: Indiana
Nov. 24: @ Ohio State