Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 7 Michigan

Is this the year that Michigan makes the College Football Playoff? Or even the Big Ten title game? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
Is this the year that Michigan makes the College Football Playoff? Or even the Big Ten title game? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame | No. 8 Texas

No. 7 Michigan

2018 record: 10-3

Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense

Is this the year UM avoids the big loss?

Jim Harbaugh has a record of 38-14 in his first four years at Michigan. But his tenure — rightfully or wrongly — is more known for big losses than any of those 38 wins.

In Harbaugh’s first season at Michigan in 2015, the Wolverines lost 42-13 to Ohio State despite a game that was a pick’em at kickoff. The next season, Michigan started the season 9-0 and entered a game at Iowa as a 21-point favorite. The Hawkeyes won 14-13 and then Michigan lost to Ohio State two games later.

The 2017 season was (relatively) ugly at 8-5. There, Michigan got blown out at Penn State and lost by four to Michigan State at home despite being a 10-point favorite. And then last year, well, you know about last year. The Wolverines finished the season at 10-3 but were 10-1 before the wheels fell off in a 62-39 loss to the Buckeyes and a 41-15 Peach Bowl drubbing by Florida.

With Urban Meyer gone from Columbus, this is the year that Michigan fans expect the Wolverines to finally beat the Buckeyes and take the Big Ten East. Beating Michigan State for the second straight season would be a good idea too. Both of those games are at home. And Michigan needs to win each of them or, at worst, split, if the Wolverines are going to go to the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time.

A new — and faster — offense

After parting ways with passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton following the 2018 season, Harbaugh got former Alabama assistant Josh Gattis to run his offense. And if the offseason practice reports are any indication, Gattis’ offense is going to look a lot different than the offenses we’ve seen during Harbaugh’s tenure.

Michigan looks committed to running a faster tempo and spreading the field more often in 2019 than it has in recent memory. Though it wouldn’t take much for the Wolverine offense to speed up.

Michigan was No. 74 in the country in 2018 in plays per game and averaged just under 71 plays in each contest. Wake Forest, the fastest team in the country last season, averaged 85.

Quarterback Shea Patterson likes what he sees so far from the new system.

“It hasn’t been much of an adjustment,” Patterson said this week (via The Wolverine). “As soon as Coach Gattis came in, we all adapted and it was natural to us.

“I liked the offense we ran last year too and had a lot of respect for Coach Pep [Hamilton], and we all bought in. I think we’re just moving on to the next thing and Coach Gattis has done a great job implementing the scheme.

“All our position coaches have put us in the right mindset and are making sure we’re in the right spots. I just like how fast we’re going and how fast the guys are going in the open space.”

Patterson was efficient in his first year as Michigan’s starter after coming over from Ole Miss. The former five-star recruit was 210-of-325 passing for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.

Michigan threw the ball just 27 times per game in 2018 compared to 42 rushes per game. If that split evens out and Michigan ends up running more plays per game, look for Patterson to throw 400 or so passes this season and easily break the 3,000-yard mark.

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Restocking Don Brown’s defense

Michigan’s defense has been exceptional ever since Don Brown came to the team when Harbaugh was hired. The Wolverines have given up fewer than 20 points per game in each of those four seasons. While last year’s number of 19.4 points per game is the highest in any of the last four seasons, it’s skewed by that Ohio State disaster. Take it away and Michigan’s defense gave up fewer than 16 points per game.

The Wolverine defense will be feisty again in 2019. But there are a lot of significant pieces to replace. Gone are linebacker Devin Bush (first round, Pittsburgh Steelers) and defensive lineman Chase Winovich (third round, New England Patriots). Tyree Kinnel, the team’s second-leading tackler in 2018, is also gone too along with Rashan Gary and Brandon Watson.

Just five starters return on the defense and Carlo Kemp is the only returning starter on the defensive line. Khaleke Hudson and Devin Gil will be counted on to step up at linebacker and Josh Metellus could very well end up leading the team in tackles from the strong safety position.

Michigan’s recruiting prowess over the last few seasons will serve the defense well, though a Sept. 7 visit from Army will test the unit’s early discipline against the Knights’ threatening and unique triple-option attack.

Biggest game: at Penn State (Oct. 19)

OK, we all know that the biggest game is actually the Nov. 30 matchup with Ohio State in Ann Arbor. As we stated before, it’s the best chance for Harbaugh to finally rid himself of his Buckeye demons.

But we’ll know a lot about Michigan with the Penn State game. The game is Michigan’s toughest road test and is right ahead of a home game against Notre Dame the following week. A win over the Nittany Lions puts Michigan in a fantastic Big Ten position with Michigan State and Ohio State still on the schedule.

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins (4) makes a 44-yard touchdown reception as Western Michigan defensive back Harrison Taylor (13) closes in during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins led the team in receiving yards in 2018 and could do so again in 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Impact player

WR Nico Collins

Collins was Michigan’s top receiver in 2018 with 632 yards on just 38 catches. That’s 16.6 yards a catch and Collins also scored eight touchdowns.

If Michigan is committed to running more plays and throwing the ball with greater frequency in 2019, Collins and receivers like Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black are going to be massive beneficiaries. At 6-4 and 218 pounds, Collins can be a deep threat and a big red zone target for Patterson, especially with tight end Zach Gentry off to the NFL.

Biggest question mark

From Chris Balas at The three biggest question marks on this Michigan team are running backs (no provens), interior line and secondary depth; of those three, it appears cornerback depth in particular is the biggest concern. Junior Ambry Thomas has been suffering from colitis since summer and still isn’t practicing, so a newcomer will be handling second corner duties … probably redshirt freshman Vincent Gray. He’s talented but inexperienced, and there isn’t much depth behind him. Junior Jaylen Kelly-Powell has spent some time there this fall, but he’s more safety than corner, and others like redshirt freshman Gemon Green are still coming along. Don’t be surprised if true freshman DJ Turner ends up in the two-deep here.

The Wolverine’s breakout player

RB Zach Charbonnet

The true freshman Charbonnet is “coming on like a freight train,” Harbaugh said Aug. 13, and he’ll factor into the running back rotation. He’s been a weight room warrior in the offseason and was well ahead of the curve in learning the offense. He’s got the size, the feet and the passion to be a potential great down the road.

Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones celebrates his 23-yard touchdown reception against Penn State in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones could be one of the first Wolverines taken in the 2020 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: This was a very tricky call, as the Wolverines have several NFL prospects for 2020 but none who are guaranteed to be top-75 picks the way things stand now.

CB Lavert Hill might be the safest choice here, as he’s been one of the best cover corners in college football, but his lack of size (and a potentially banner class at the position) is worth considering.

It also wouldn’t stun us to see WR Tarik Black put together a strong season and emerge as a high pick next spring. And then there’s QB Shea Patterson, who has upside but also enough drawbacks to frighten NFL evaluators until he proves otherwise. There also are three Wolverines offensive linemen with strong NFL potential who could be drafted next spring.

But we’ll go now with Peoples-Jones, who has the physical gifts to be a mid-round selection, perhaps as high as early on Day 2, if he continues to evolve. He’s a confident route runner with really nice physical traits and is adept at adjusting to off-target passes with good hands and nice body control. Where Peoples-Jones can improve is using his length to make more plays in traffic, and he could stand to gain better separation in his routes.

Fantasy sleeper

WR Ronnie Bell

Bell was originally going to play basketball in college before Michigan came in with a football offer. The 6-foot sophomore had eight catches for 145 yards and two scores in 2018 and could easily double those numbers or more in 2019. Keep an eye on him early in the season in case you need to make a waiver pickup.

Over/under projection

Push (10)

Time to be a cop-out. Michigan has one of the toughest schedules in the country with trips to Wisconsin and Penn State and home games against the Buckeyes, Spartans, Iowa and also that sneaky visit from Army. Michigan is fully capable of going 11-1. But that seems a tad optimistic.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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