Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 Countdown: No. 12 Michigan

Dr. Saturday
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 GeorgiaNo. 17 FloridaNo. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 TexasNo. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre DameNo. 23 NorthwesternNo. 24 Washington StateNo. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 10-3
Returning starters: 4 offense, 1 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 2 vs. Florida
Biggest conference game: Nov. 25 vs. Ohio State

Key returning player: QB Wilton Speight
Key departed player: LB Jabrill Peppers

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Three things to know about Michigan

• Yes, Michigan lost most of its starters from 2016, but the program’s high level of recruiting means there won’t be much of a drop-off.

The Wolverines rallied to bring in some nice talent in 2015 after Jim Harbaugh was hired, but that class doesn’t compare to the studs Michigan signed in 2016 and 2017. Both classes ranked No. 4 overall in Rivals.com’s annual team rankings and had a combined 31 four-star recruits, plus four five-star recruits. Now with, a whopping 17 starters moving on, including 10 on defense, it’s time for that crop to live up to those rankings.

Michigan defensive end <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/271097/" data-ylk="slk:Rashan Gary">Rashan Gary</a> was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2016. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2016. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Harbaugh has been pleased with the talent he and his staff have added to the roster.

“I feel good. I feel good about the team,” Harbaugh said at Big Ten Media Days. “To start with, our second newest guys, which is our 10 freshmen that came at the mid-year, they have really flourished and did exceedingly good in spring practice, and which makes me think that the true incoming freshmen are going to do just as well because they were the same type of good players in high school.

“And then the third newest, the freshmen that are going to be sophomores this year, I’m very excited for them. All the youngsters in that class, very excited about them because everything they’re doing now they’ve already done, they’re doing for a second time. And the amount of growth that you can have from doing something for the first time and then doing it the next time or the second time, can be the biggest leap they have their entire college year, going from freshman year to sophomore year. Excited for that class.”

One particular area we don’t expect a drop-off is along the offensive line. UM has recruited the position well back to the Brady Hoke days. Three stellar starters graduated and you shouldn’t expect to see Grant Newsome back from his horrible leg injury, but Mason Cole returns and is expected to kick back out to tackle after starting at center last year. Ben Bredeson, just a sophomore, showed Harbaugh isn’t afraid to throw young linemen into the fire. There will be growing pains, sure, but Bredeson’s success should be encouraging for guys like Michael Onwenu, Jon Runyan Jr. and other potential first-year starters.

On defense, Michigan needs to replace its top three defensive linemen, its entire secondary, leading tackler Ben Gedeon, and Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers. But in terms of experience, the next men up on defense have a leg up on the offense — especially the front seven. Defensive coordinator Don Brown runs an aggressive style and does a good job with his rotations, especially on the defensive line. Maurice Hurst, Mike McCray and Chase Winovich have all played and produced. Rashan Gary, the No. 1 overall recruit in the country in 2016, is a future All-American on the defensive line. Bryan Mone was an expected starter before he broke his leg and linebacker Devin Bush has drawn rave reviews.

So the Wolverines’ front seven is in good shape, but the secondary will be the biggest question mark. At Big Ten Media Days, Harbaugh pointed to cornerback LaVert Hill as a player he is excited about among that group. A sustained pass rush always helps young DBs, but expect that group to be tested often.

• Overall, Wilton Speight’s first season as starting quarterback was a good one, but the way it ended left a bad taste in the mouths of Michigan fans.

For most of the season, Speight did what Harbaugh asked him to do: play efficient, mistake-free football. The Wolverines stormed out of the gates to a 9-0 start. In those games, Speight threw for 2,053 yards, 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions while completing 64.5 percent of his passes. Again, that is very good — especially for a first-year starter — but things fell off a cliff on a November night in Iowa City.

Michigan laid an egg and lost 14-13 to an average-at-best Iowa team. Speight played miserably, completing 11-of-26 passes for 103 yards and an interception. To make matters worse, he broke his collarbone and had to sit out against Indiana (UM eked out a 20-10 win) and heal quickly for the big game against Ohio State.

Wilton Speight struggled down the stretch during his first season as Michigan’s starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio_File)
Wilton Speight struggled down the stretch during his first season as Michigan’s starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio_File)

His status was unknown entering the game, but Speight toughed it out. He played alright, but threw two costly interceptions in what ended up being a brutal double-overtime loss. Another lackluster performance followed in an Orange Bowl loss to Florida State, and doubt about Speight’s abilities intensified.

Still, it was assumed Speight would be the starter entering 2017. But Harbaugh said at Media Days the position had an open competition between Speight, senior John O’Korn and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, a four-star recruit in 2016.

This was Harbaugh’s assessment of the position entering preseason camp:

“Wilton’s in a good spot. He comes in really tied for first with John O’Korn and Brandon Peters, legitimately, through competition, throughout all the spring, went through 15 practices and was a dead heat,” Harbaugh said. “Brandon really shot up. John O’Korn really played consistently good. And Wilton really had some impressive moments as well. We’ll go through training camp, just throw the balls out there and let the fellows compete.”

Speight is still likely the starter, but if he struggles early in the year — UM opens against Florida — you know some fans will start clamoring for a change. It’s unavoidable. Speight, only a redshirt junior, still has room to progress, but in 2017 he’ll have a weakened support cast around him. The running back depth with Chris Evans, Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and Kareem Walker will be fine, but there is a ton of pass-catching production to replace with Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson all on NFL rosters.

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

• Harbaugh’s first two seasons have resulted in third-place finishes in the Big Ten East, despite winning 10 games in both years. It could happen again.

The Big Ten East may be the nation’s toughest division. After a blowout in Ann Arbor last year, UM heads to Penn State for an Oct. 21 whiteout at Beaver Stadium and later hosts the rival Buckeyes in the regular season finale on Nov. 28. The Wolverines also drew a tough trip to Madison the Saturday before the Ohio State game. But before all that, there’s a chance to really pile up some wins against the likes of Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana. Michigan also gets Rutgers and Minnesota at home.

Harbaugh has six losses at Michigan, four of which came by four points or fewer. Aside from the 2015 Ohio State game, Harbaugh’s Wolverines have been in every game they’ve played. That means whether Michigan competes for a conference crown or not could come down to just a few possessions. And for most programs contending would be quite a feat when replacing the amount of talent Michigan has to replace. For most programs in Michigan’s position, this would be a rebuilding year. But Harbaugh, in a little more than two years, has turned UM back into a program that reloads instead of rebuilding.

Still, with Ohio State and Penn State surging, Michigan still feels like it is a year away from a conference crown and a possible College Football Playoff berth.

For more Michigan news, visit TheWolverine.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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