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College Football Preview 2018: 7. Michigan Wolverines

7. Michigan Wolverines

They face a brutal schedule, but the addition of Shea Patterson should finally awake this slumbering offense

Karan Higdon
Offense: Michigan endured some of the worst quarterback play in the entire country last season, ranking 111th in the country in pass offense. Veteran Wilton Speight went down with a back injury early on in 2017, leaving the offense to John O'Korn, who had a rough year. Brandon Peters came on as a redshirt freshman and looked like he had potential, but he struggled with injuries. This off-season, Speight transferred and O'Korn graduated, leaving Peters as the last remnants of the position, which may not such a bad thing. 

That QB position got even more interesting this spring, when Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson was ruled eligible. Patterson was a five-star recruit with the Rebels who showed flashes, but suffered an injury halfway through 2017. He is taking advantage of an NCAA rule allowing any Ole Miss players to transfer anywhere without sitting out the year, per their sanctions. Many Michigan fans feel like the rocket-armed, athletic Patterson is finally the savior to their recent quarterback woes. There is no denying Patterson's talent, and he will have plenty of help. He will be aided be a revamped coaching staff that now includes Ed Warriner and Jim McElwain, two great offensive minds that should get the best out of him. However, I wouldn't count Peters out of this quarterback competition just yet; it is going to be an extremely intriguing battle to keep an eye on.

Even if Patterson is the savior at QB, Jim Harbaugh will still run the football quite a bit. Harbaugh is equipped with a deep backfield with a number of different skill sets. Senior Karan Higdon is the feature back with 994 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago, and could be even better. Higdon isn't very physical, but is incredibly shift and potent when he gets the ball in a little bit of space. Junior Chris Evans should see plenty of action, after adding 685 yards a season ago. Evans is a superb receiver out of the backfield, so expect to see the Wolverines try some different things with him to try and jolt the offense. Christian Turner, a four-star newcomer, is a guy Harbaugh could utilize as well, after Michigan managed to keep him away from a number of SEC schools in his home state of Georgia.

Michigan lacked experience and depth at wide out last season, another major contributor to their offensive pains in 2017. This group should be much better in 2018, with a number of breakout candidates ready to emerge. The most likely No. 1 guy is going to be sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones, who has limitless potential. Peoples-Jones was a five-star recruit who came in with plenty of fanfare and had some moments, but finished with a quiet 22 receptions and 277 yards. The addition of Patterson changes things, as the new signal-caller's huge arm is a perfect fit for Peoples-Jones' blazing speed and home run ability. Fellow sophomore Tarik Black could also have a huge season after missing most of 2017. Through the first three games Black looked like the Wolverines' best receiver, but he lost the rest of the season to a broken foot. At 6'3" with terrific agility, Black looks like he could be quite the playmaker. Senior Grant Perry and junior Kekoa Crawford will be an ideal supporting cast. Perry is their most veteran receiver and was proven he can move the chains for this offense. Tight end should be a huge strength, as UM is equipped with juniors Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry, who combined for over 600 receiving yards a season ago.

It will be interesting to see how Michigan's offensive performs this season. It has been a sore spot for the team for some time, but there is some talent returning. Junior left guard Ben Bredeson looks like he can step up and be the leader, and the veteran has earned national respect, making it on to the Outland Trophy (nation's best interior linemen) watch list. Senior right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty is also a key returnee, but the left tackle spot is a major concern.

Is this the best offense Harbaugh has had since arriving in Ann Arbor? On paper, Patterson throwing to Black and Peoples-Jones on the outside with Higdon busting up the middle sounds like it is, but there are some concerns here. Patterson will need to time to develop chemistry with the young receivers, and learn a tough offense. The O-Line also needs to prove it can hang with the best the physical Big Ten has to offer. With that being said, this offense at the very minimal should be able to create some more big plays than last year's group, and is overall much more versatile.

Defense: Patterson and the offense are going to get plenty of deserved attention, but the real backbone of this Michigan team is going to be the defense. The Wolverines were decimated by the NFL Draft prior to 2017, and yet still had the country's best pass offense and third best overall defense in yardage. Now, eight starters return, and there is some really intriguing talent set to play larger roles.

Harbaugh and staff got a late Christmas present when defensive end Chase Winovich announced he would return for his senior season in early January. Winovich's tenacity and power attracted a lot of NFL attention, as did his 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. His return almost guarantees this defensive line is going to be special, but he isn't the only supreme talent on it. Junior Rashan Gary is the former national No. 1 recruit, and he has had his moments in limited time with the Wolverines. Now likely to start at the end spot opposite of Winovich, people are expecting big things. He has All-American talent, and had 11.5 TFL in 2017. Up the middle, the Wolverines bring back a number of veterans, including likely starters Bryan Mone and Michael Dwumfour. Sophomore Aubrey Solomon is another former high-profile recruit who looks ready to do some serious damage. He had 16 tackles as a reserve last season, but has bulked up and looks ready to go. If he is able to step up and Gary fulfills his vast potential, this D-Line is terrifying and comparable to some of the best in the country.

The linebacker corps is stacked as well, led by All-American inside linebacker Devin Bush. Bush emerged as a do-it-all, intelligent defender early on in 2017 and finished with 95 tackles, five sacks and seven pass deflections. He is a key cog in run support but his athleticism also allows him to be one of the country's top coverage linebackers. Junior outside linebacker Khaleke Hudson offers plenty of support for Bush, and he could have a huge year. Defensive coordinator Don Brown is known for aggressive blitzing, and Hudson could be his top weapon in that aspect, after the veteran had 16 tackles for loss last season. Michigan will miss Mike McCray at the other outside linebacker spot, but sophomore Josh Ross has huge upside and looks ready to take over the starting job.

This is going to be an absolutely lockdown secondary, as all four starters are coming back to a pass defense that allowed just 150 yards per game in '17, the best in the entire nation. Juniors Lavert Hill and David Long are typical Harbaugh cornerbacks; they are physical and superb in man-to-man coverage, giving this defense some serious bite. Senior free safety Tyree Kinnel is another important face back, as he had 66 tackles and two interceptions last year. There is some fascinating young talent to keep an eye, including sophomore corner Ambry Thomas, who will find a way to get on the field.

This defense is going to be terrific this season, without any real weaknesses to point to. They have stars at every unit and depth and experience throughout, not to mention one of the game's top coordinators in Brown. It could certainly make the case as the best defense in the country.

Special Teams: Even though he had some ups-and-downs, placekicker Quinn Nordin still finished 19 for 24 on field goals last season and is now returning. If he can get more consistent, he has the leg strength to be among the best in the conference. Donovan Peoples-Jones is going to be a factor in the return game, as he returned one punt to the house a year ago.

People are quick to criticize Harbaugh and his success at Michigan, where he is 1-5 against their two main rivals OSU and MSU and has yet to finish higher than third in the East, but this 2018 team looks like his best yet in Ann Arbor. The defense is so talented top to bottom, and it could get even better if some of the younger guys fulfill their potential. That will allow this offense time to figure things out and grow into what could be a pretty good group. If there is one thing not to like about this team it is their schedule, which may be the toughest in college football. Not only does UM have to deal with the Big Ten East, possibly the toughest division in college football, it gets Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West and Notre Dame in the non-conference. Yet, the schedule also allows them some wiggle room; if they impress enough and still find a way to win the conference they could theoretically still impress the Playoff Committee enough to make the four-team field. That's a real possibility but my most likely bet? The Wolverines survive the East, but come up short in the Big Ten Championship, still a fine result for a team that lost five games a year ago.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten, Loss in Big Ten Championship)
Offensive MVP: RB Karan Higdon
Defensive MVP: LB Devin Bush
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

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