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Football is officially in the air and it’s coming swiftly. It’s that time of the season when the AP poll gets released — though Michigan didn’t crack the top 25 — and fall camp starts to dwindle down, meaning some of the national media has naturally started to opine how overrated Jim Harbaugh is as the head coach, which is like clockwork for some.
The Wolverines are coming off a disastrous 2020 season where they went 2-4, and at many of times they didn’t resemble the maize and blue we have been accustomed to seeing. Not only did the team perform at a low level, the coaching didn’t help. The defense seemed out of place and out-schemed, and the running backs rotation was as mismanaged as we’ve ever seen it.
Luckily, last season is over and can be left in the dust, and this year’s Wolverines team is out to show the world that they are still a formidable foe.
I’ve been saying that I think this team will go 9-3 this season, but the more I look at things, I don’t think 10-2 is out of the realm of possibility. Sure, things will have to go very well, and they will need to play at a extremely high level, but anything is possible in college football — I think we all have seen some crazy things in the sport we all love.
Here are three reasons why I believe Michigan fans should be cautiously optimistic about this year.
Jim Harbaugh’s new, young, energetic staff
Photo: Isaiah Hole
I feel like the 'Jim Harbaugh can't win at Michigan' narrative may have recency bias, especially after a 2-4 season. Harbaugh has won 10 games for Michigan in three seasons, and he has won nine games once (2019) and eight games in 2017. Lloyd Carr retired back in 2007, and Michigan went thru the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke tenures for seven years. In that span from 2008-14, the Wolverines won more than 10 games just once in that stretch, in Hoke’s first year in 2011. I'm not saying that winning 10 games in a year is the goal for a program like Michigan — which has won 11 national championships — but at least Harbaugh has made the Wolverines a relevant team once again. The big issue that faces Harbaugh is the lack of wins he has against his rivals — primarily Ohio State, which he has never beaten — and that is where he deserves criticism. When you coach at a place like Michigan, you have to beat your rivals, and not go 0-5 against Ohio State — and 3-3 against MSU, I might add. Save for the 2016-17 games, the Wolverines haven't been competitive under Harbaugh against the Buckeyes during his tenure here, and that needs to change starting this season. This offseason shows that Harbaugh is holding himself accountable by accepting a contract extension with a big pay cut. He’s now in the bottom half of the Big Ten coaches in terms of base salary per year, and he hired practically a whole new coaching staff. The headman at Michigan hired former Michigan standouts in Ron Bellamy and Mike Hart, who coach the safeties and running backs, respectively. The other big addition was the 34-year old Mike Macdonald to be the new defensive coordinator. Fall camp has a completely new feel to it this year, and it’s emanating from a seemingly revitalized Jim Harbaugh and his new young coaches. The Wolverines are putting more focus on Ohio State than ever before during practices, and they now have signage in the locker room that hasn't been there before. During Big Ten media days, Harbaugh said that Michigan will beat their rivals (Ohio State) or die trying. Some of the players have raved about how energetic the new coaches are and how it's translating to practices for the players. It sounds like everyone is really competing, and the coaches are making everyone earn their spot on the team. These coaches are young and hungry and they all know if they have great showings at a place like Michigan, they can become coordinators or head coaches at other places if they so choose. If the maize and blue are going to win 10 games this year, the new coaching staff will have a huge role.
Photo: Isaiah Hole
Michigan never has an easy schedule while playing in the Big Ten conference, and the addition of Washington as a nonconference foe doesn't help. What does look good for the Wolverines is that they start with four-straight home games to begin the year. Three out of the four games are more than winnable in the likes of Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Rutgers. The maize and blue should be highly favored in all of those games. The Washington game — which will be a prime-time game in Week 2 — is more of a toss up, but being at home, the Wolverines can get the job done. The Wolverines also have Northwestern, Indiana, and Ohio State all at home this year. Michigan will more than likely be favored against Northwestern and Indiana. The Hoosiers defeated the maize and blue last year in Bloomington, but Michigan is a different animal at home under Jim Harbaugh — Michigan is 30-5 in Ann Arbor during Harbaugh’s tenure before 2020 We will assume that the Wolverines defeat Northwestern and Indiana, but take a loss to the Buckeyes. Michigan does have some daunting away games this year as it travels to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State, Penn State, and Maryland. If the maize and blue can start the year off 4-0 then their confidence could be soaring when they travel to face off with he Badgers and Cornhuskers in back-to-back weeks. The last time Michigan won at Wisconsin was back in 2001, so I'm predicting a loss to Wisconsin, but a win against Nebraska. The rivalry game agains the Spartans is always going to be difficult regardless where its played. I know that they beat the Wolverines last season, but I think that was more of a fluke. The Spartans, talent-wise, isn't on par with Michigan right now, and I'll be shocked if we see a repeat from last year. I don't foresee Macdonald leaving his cornerbacks on an island if they are getting beat repeatedly.
Photo: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The Wolverines last two away games are against Penn State and Maryland before playing Ohio State to end the year. I've been thinking that Michigan will lose to Penn State, which would make them 9-3, but the more I think about it I can see them beating Penn State and Maryland. The Nittany Lions looked less than stellar last season, and the Wolverines will be ready for some revenge. I also think Maryland is an up-and-coming team in the Big Ten, but I don't think they are going to be there yet in terms of beating teams like Michigan. After spelling out their schedule, I definitely think 10-2 is possible, but 8-4 or 9-3 is definitely possible as well if they slip up against Washington, Penn State, or Michigan State.
Michigan has plenty of talent
Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara talks to head coach Jim Harbaugh during the first half against Penn State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020. Photo: Junfu Han
Michigan had one of the youngest and most inexperienced rosters last year in all of college football, and all of the injuries didn't help things. The Wolverines are going to return a ton of players with game experience this year, and they could have two top units in the Big Ten from the offensive line and running backs room. The only offensive lineman the Wolverines lost from last year is Jalen Mayfield. The maize and blue have a solid centerpiece in the likes of Zak Zinter, who Josh Gattis has said may be the best offensive player on the team. Ryan Hayes, Chuck Filiaga, Andrew Steuber, and Andrew Vastardis all return with plenty of game experience. Nolan Rumler, Karsan Barnhart and Trevor Keegan are other names that could see extended playing time, if not starting, this year. The other unit for Michigan that should be really good is the running backs room. The Wolverines return Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, and they added freshman Donovan Edwards — who should see snaps Week 21. Last year’s rotation was a debacle, but Mike Hart should help change that for the better. Quarterback play has been an issue for Michigan, but whoever is throwing the ball — Cade McNamara, JJ McCarthy, or Alan Bowman — will have a great line blocking for them, and will have a solid group of receivers to throw to. I think that Michigan fans will be happy with the quarterback play overall this year. Lastly, I'll talk about the defense. Michigan returns Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Ross, Michael Barrett, and Daxton Hill, who all should be leaders of the team this season. This new defensive scheme, a 3-4 base, should be a breath of fresh air for everyone involved. We will see multiple looks, not the same stale fronts over and over, and it will allow players to play to their strengths. Not sure how it will look week one, but as the season progresses, the defense should look way better than it did last season. Listen, the Wolverines have a ton of talent at all positions, and at the end of the day they are still Michigan — so they will continue to bring in talent. The season will hinge on execution and development, but all signs indicate to positive change in Ann Arbor. Regardless on your views on Michigan, Jim Harbaugh, or anything else related to the Wolverines, just sit back and relax — football has almost arrived.