The college football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year Yahoo Sports revealed the teams from No. 11 to 25 at once before we publish each of our top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to Week 1. That continues with No. 6 Michigan.
No. 6 Michigan
2021 record: 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
National title odds: +5000
Big Ten title odds: +600
Over/under: 9.5 wins
Michigan finally had the breakthrough its fans have been long yearning for.
On the heels of a disastrous 2020 season that had the pressure on Jim Harbaugh at an all-time high, the Wolverines bounced back with one of their best seasons ever. Michigan had an 11-1 regular season that was capped off by beating rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011. From there, Michigan then won its first outright Big Ten title since 2004 by trouncing Iowa and advanced to the College Football Playoff.
The dream season ended with a CFP semifinal loss to Georgia, but it was still a massive achievement for a program that felt like it had been treading water under Harbaugh. Harbaugh is never too far from drama, but his brief flirtation with the NFL came and went and now the vibes in Ann Arbor are very positive entering the 2022 season.
There’s a lot to like about this team, though there have been a fair amount of changes. Both of Harbaugh’s coordinators left, with Josh Gattis departing for Miami and Mike Macdonald returning to the Baltimore Ravens. The Wolverines also have to replace three stars on defense, including Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson, who was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.
There’s also the task of trying to replicate the magic of such a phenomenal season. Will the Wolverines keep that edge they played with in 2021, push past Ohio State for another Big Ten title, and earn a playoff berth? Or will they fall back down the Big Ten East standings?
The early part of the schedule is very forgiving and could allow some runway for the Wolverines to work out some new kinks before diving into the Big Ten schedule.
The offense could be better, but who’s the QB?
Michigan’s offense was quite good last year and there’s reason to believe the 2022 version could be even better. Harbaugh promoted from within to replace Gattis, going with Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss as co-coordinators.
Those two will have no issue familiarizing themselves with the personnel at hand, but there is one major question to answer: who will play quarterback? Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy are both battling for the starting job. McNamara was the starter last fall with McCarthy, then a true freshman, being worked in mostly in running packages.
Harbaugh was quick to name McNamara the starter last offseason and he had a really solid season. But McCarthy could bring another level of explosiveness to an offense already loaded with talent. With the opener less than two weeks away, the battle was still ongoing. Don’t be surprised if both see significant action during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Up front, the Wolverines lost a few contributors but added center Victor Oluwatimi from Virginia to go with three returning starters. Hassan Haskins, the team’s most physical running back from 2021, has departed but Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards should make up one of the better duos in the Big Ten.
Michigan had no obvious go-to receiver last year as the running game led the way for the offense. Entering 2022, nearly everybody from a solid group of receivers and tight ends are back. The group will also receive a huge boost from the return of Ronnie Bell. Bell was the team’s No. 1 receiver entering last season but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
How does defense replace Hutchinson, Ojabo and Hill?
As good as the offense can be, it would not be a surprise if the defense took a step back based on the amount of production that has moved on.
At the top of the list are the two standout edge rushers, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Those two combined for 97 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss and 25 sacks last fall and are now in the NFL. That’s elite production that won’t be easily replicated, nor will the versatility of Daxton Hill at safety. Hill, like Hutchinson, was a first-round pick. Ojabo fell to No. 45 after getting hurt during the pre-draft process.
On top of that, leading tackler Josh Ross and two other starters in the secondary — corner Vincent Gray and safety Brad Hawkins — are also no longer with the Wolverines.
There is talent waiting in the wings with Mazi Smith at defensive tackle viewed as a potential star and linebacker Junior Colson also looking very promising. Overall, though, new coordinator Jesse Minter has fewer proven commodities to work with compared to Macdonald.
Like Macdonald, Minter comes from the John Harbaugh-Ravens tree. He coached with the Ravens from 2017 to 2020 before spending the 2021 season as Vanderbilt’s DC. The scheme isn’t expected to change much and that soft non-conference slate (Colorado State, Hawaii, UConn) could help the inexperienced players on the unit come together.
Biggest game: Nov. 26 at Ohio State
This one is obvious. The trip to Iowa and home games against Penn State and Michigan State should be challenges, but the Big Ten East could ultimately come down to the Ohio State vs. Michigan game yet again.
This time it’s in Columbus, a place Michigan hasn’t won since 2000, and Ohio State will be out for revenge after getting destroyed by the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium last year. Ohio State is expected to have an elite offense and an improved defense with Jim Knowles coming in from Oklahoma State to be the new defensive coordinator.
If both teams take care of business throughout the regular season, this could end up being one of the games of the year with both conference and playoff implications.
Impact player: WR Ronnie Bell
If the offense has to carry a larger load for Michigan this year, Ronnie Bell should certainly help that cause. Bell led the Wolverines in receiving in 2019 and 2020 and was well on his way in 2021. His first touch of the season was a 76-yard touchdown but the senior soon after hurt his knee on a punt return.
Now fully healthy, he is a true No. 1 target at wideout that can help this offense go to the next level. Bell, who caught 74 catches for 1,159 yards in the 18 games combined between 2019 and 2020, provides just another explosive element to the Michigan offense.
Pick: Over 9.5 (-125)
I’m usually pretty leery about placing an over bet on a team coming off such a triumphant season, but it’s hard to go through this schedule and envision three losses.
The non-conference slate is a breeze, both the PSU and MSU games are at home and the Wolverines drew home games against Nebraska and Illinois as two of their cross-division games. Going to Iowa is never easy, but the way Michigan plays is not a good matchup for the Hawkeyes in my estimation.
That leaves the Ohio State game as the only one where Michigan will almost certainly be the underdog. Even if UM loses in Columbus, you can afford another slip-up somewhere and still get over 9.5 wins.