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College Football Preview 2023: 1. Michigan Wolverines

J.J. McCarthy, Michigan

1. Michigan Wolverines

2022 proved the Wolverines had staying power; now, the next step for Harbaugh and company is to take home their first National Title since 1997

2022 Review
How was Michigan going to follow up a breakthrough 2021 in which they won a Big Ten Title, beat Ohio State, and played in the College Football Playoff? Evidently, the encore was even more impressive. The Wolverines ripped through a breeze of a non-conference and then survived a tricky early Big Ten slate, which included Maryland at home, Iowa on the road, and Indiana on the road. They entered the season's back-half undefeated, but faced a gauntlet down the stretch that included a pair of Top 10 foes and a rematch against a Michigan State team that was their lone regular season defeat of 2021. Instead of slowing down, the Wolverines kicked it into another gear. They blew out Penn State, Michigan State, Rutgers, and Nebraska before surviving a stinker against Illinois. In their biggest game of the year, a rematch of "The Game" with Ohio State, Michigan went into Columbus and tossed around the Buckeyes for sixty minutes, resulting in 45-23 win. It was a statement by Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines, who for years heard relentless criticism about their lackluster performances in one of the sport's defining rivalries. With another impressive victory in the Big Ten Championship Game, Michigan entered the College Football Playoff with their eyes on a National Title. Instead, an early pick six by TCU seemed to immediately change the momentum of the Fiesta Bowl, and a shockingly bad defensive showing doomed the Wolverines to a 51-45 defeat, putting a damper on an otherwise unbelievably successful season. It proved that, despite all the progress of the last two seasons, there was more work to be done in Ann Arbor. With several big pieces turning down the NFL for one more run with the Wolverines, it's clear the theme of unfinished business has permeated itself throughout the program and should set up a big 2023 campaign.

2023 Outlook
Offense: The major storyline for Michigan's offense entering 2022 was the quarterback situation. Cade McNamara had just led the Wolverines to a Playoff appearance, but rising sophomore J.J. McCarthy was widely considered the future of the program and it seemed only a matter of time before it was his time. That time came earlier than some may have expected, as McCarthy took ahold of the job by Week Three and started every game since, finishing with 2,719 yards and 27 touchdowns. 

Now, McCarthy enters 2023 as the unquestioned guy at quarterback, as McNamara has since transferred to Iowa. The junior was awfully impressive as a first-year starter last fall, but still has plenty to work on as he prepares for his third year in the program. For one, developing more consistency will be a top priority, as will taking more shots down the field, which did start to materialize down the stretch in 2022. There was also the TCU game; despite throwing for 343 yards, McCarthy's two interceptions were really the turning point of the game. The haunting image of him watching the Horned Frogs celebrate their eventual win seemed like a warning to the college football world, that McCarthy would be back with a vengeance this fall. 

Flanking McCarthy in the backfield will be the nation's top running back duo in Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Corum seemed well on his way to national awards before a late knee injury suffered in the Illinois win forced him to miss their final few games. He still tallied 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns and decided to wait on the NFL, looking to wrap up his Michigan career in a big way. Edwards ran for 991 yards beside him, including over seven yards per carry, and gives the Wolverines a home-run hitter to pair with the hard-running Corum. Even third-stringer C.J. Stokes should get in on the action, after running for 273 yards in limited action a season ago.

With such a loaded running back room, one would assume that would take some pressure of a receiver corps that will miss top weapon Ronnie Bell in 2023. I would actually argue the complete opposite. The ground game is going to produce no matter what; it's up to the receiver corps to help Michigan take the next step in their evolution. 

The good news is that, despite the loss of Bell, there are still ample weapons for McCarthy to play with. Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson have both emerged as legitimate playmakers who both could be in store for even more as they gear up for the fall. Johnson in particular will need to show out; the 6'3", 210-pounder has all the physical tools and seems on the cusp of stardom, it's just a matter of putting it together over the course of an entire season. It is a bit thin behind these two, although the Wolverines appear high on sophomore Tyler Morris, who came down with three receptions in eight games as a true freshman.

The tight end position is going to play its usual outsized role in this passing attack and should be in good hands, even though it also loses a key piece in Luke Schoonmaker. Sophomore Colston Loveland was very impressive as a true freshman last fall and seems like the next great Wolverine at the position. He's more athletic than Schoonmaker and can make things happen in the open field, which should terrify Big Ten defenses. Indiana transfer A.J. Barner will come in and play plenty alongside Loveland in an offense that uses two tight end sets frequently. Barner isn't that much of a pass-catcher, but he's a powerful blocker who should open things up in the running game.

Michigan's entire offense deserves ample credit for their work the last two seasons but at its heart, the offensive line has been the driving engine. This group has shredded every defensive front they've faced throughout 2021 and '22 and is reminiscent of the Alabama O-Lines of the early 2010s that looked more like NFL blockers than collegiate ones. They have won two consecutive Joe Moore Awards as the nation's top O-Line and despite a few notable departures, should be in the mix for a third.

Center Olu Oluwatimi leaves a major void after moving on to the NFL, but the Wolverines brought in a capable replacement in Stanford grad transfer Drake Nugent, who should slide right into the starting position. He'll be joined on the interior by a pair of All-Big Ten guards in Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan, and there are additional Pac-12 reinforcements at tackle in LaDarius Henderson and Myles Hinton. With 145 career starts on the line, this is going to be a deep and experienced group that should set a physical tone for Michigan all season long. 

Jim Harbaugh has his best offense at Michigan as he embarks on Year Nine with his alma mater. McCarthy elevates their ceiling with his upside, Corum and Edwards should run wild, and the O-Line should overwhelm just about every opponent on the schedule. This is going to be an efficient and productive group that should be among the best nationally.

Defense: For the first time since 2020, Michigan will be entering a new season with a returning defensive coordinator, as Jesse Minter is back after engineering an elite defensive showing last fall. The Wolverines allowed under 300 yards per game and just 16.1 points per game on the year, although that TCU game proved there was still work to be done entering 2023.

The defensive line will be undergoing a transition as two of their top pieces, Mike Morris and Mazi Smith, left over the offseason. Both are significant losses; Morris was the team's most consistent pass rusher off the edge, while Smith was a physical force in the middle who swallowed up opposing rushers. Juniors Jaylen Harrell and Kris Jenkins, the two returnees to the line, will have to step up and make their presence felt. Harrell has been a quality contributor over the last few seasons but it still feels like there's something more waiting, while Jenkins earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten in 2022.

Fortunately, an elite linebacker corps should ensure there's not too much slippage in the front seven. Veterans Michael Barrett and Junior Colson are two of the best the Big Ten has to offer and are both back in Ann Arbor after combining for 173 tackles a season ago. Colson is the tackling machine at middle linebacker, a rangy defender who seems to always be in the right spot at the right time.

As if those two weren't enough, Michigan went out into the transfer portal and landed one of the top rising linebackers in the country in Ernest Hausmann from Nebraska. Hasumann was one of the few bright spots for the 'Huskers during a miserable 2022 campaign, becoming the first true freshman linebacker to start for the program in thirty years. He's going to factor in heavily into the rotation and has a bright future for a university that is churning out impact defenders at an impressive rate.

Much like the defensive line, the secondary loses a couple big names in D.J. Turner and R.J. Moten, but should remain one of the best in the Big Ten. Sophomore Will Johnson was a high-profile recruit who lived up to the hype his first season on campus, making five starts and notching six pass breakups. Is he ready to slide into the No. 1 cornerback role? UMass transfer Josh Wallace or converted wide receiver Amorion Walker are competing for the starting spot opposite of Johnson, locked into an interesting position battle. Michigan has had success converting receivers to defensive backs before, as nickel Mike Sanristil was tremendous last fall and will man the position once more.

The two safeties don't quite have the star-power of the cornerbacks, but veteran Rod Moore has proven to be an ultra-reliable, productive piece at the important free safety position. He'll play an even larger role in 2023 with Moten moving on, although junior Makari Paige saw plenty of action last fall and shouldn't have too much difficulties acclimating to a starting role.

There is no Jabrill Peppers or Aidan Hutchinson-type star on this Michigan defense that's going to command Heisman consideration. But, few programs in the country reload as well on this side of the ball as the Wolverines, with a distinct culture that they can plug pieces into. Even with a few big names moving on, this is going to be a stout group again this fall.

Special Teams: There are questions on special teams, as Michigan said goodbye to both kicker Jake Moody and punter Brad Robbins over the offseason. Both were not only incredibly reliable, it's clear they were adored by NFL personnel, and Moody even went as high as the third round of the NFL Draft. Louisville transfer James Turner has the inside track to take over at kicker, while sophomore Tommy Doman is probably the guy at punter. The return game is also going to need someone to emerge with A.J. Henning transferring, although Roman Wilson showed he was capable last season.

Bottom Line
For years, I've argued that the turnaround Jim Harbaugh has achieved in Ann Arbor doesn't get the national respect it deserves, and the last two seasons have felt like validation. But instead of silencing the doubters, the two College Football Playoff losses have seemingly led to more questions on whether Harbaugh can get the program over the top and win the big one. That's been followed by a tumultuous offseason of Harbaugh drama, starting with the NFL head coaching rumors and concluding with a Michigan-imposed suspension announced within the last week. Instead of all of this leading to a step-back for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, I envision it going the exact opposite direction, towards Harbaugh and this program achieving the ultimate goal of a National Title. Of course, it won't be easy; Ohio State and Penn State will be breathing down their backs in a brutal Big Ten East and the Georgia Bulldogs are an absolute machine that isn't slowing down anytime soon. But, when has winning a National Title ever been easy? This team is motivated and hungry after what went down to close out 2022 and with all the talent on both sides of the ball, they have the pieces in place to bring back a National Title to Ann Arbor for the first time in two-and-a-half decades.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Sometimes the flashy alum hire doesn't work out (ahem, Scott Frost), but it certainly has at Michigan. Jim Harbaugh has gone 74-25 in eight years with the Wolverines, which now includes a pair of Big Ten Titles. It's a truly remarkable run, but especially impressive when you consider Michigan had won 10 games just once since Lloyd Carr left after the 2007 season. On offense, Sherrone Moore will now be the full-time OC after serving as co-offensive coordinator last season. The 37-year old has been with the program in various roles since 2018 and will split interim head coach duties with several other staff members while Harbaugh serves his suspension. On the other side of the ball, Jesse Minter is back for his second season as defensive coordinator. The former John Harbaugh assistant with the Baltimore Ravens earned Broyles Award consideration for his work as coordinator last fall and should be at the helm of another elite group in 2023.

Recruiting Breakdown
What I find particularly impressive about Michigan is that they've been so successful despite recruiting that pales in comparison to most of the sport's true elites. That's not to say the Wolverines aren't bringing in strong classes, but these groups tend to be more in the Top 10-20 than Top 5. The 2023 Class lands at 17th nationally, headlined by the next great Michigan edge rusher, Enow Etta. Etta was a big get from the state of Texas who was also considering Alabama, Michigan State, and Stanford. Along with him, the Wolverines further bolstered their defense by landing a pair of superb corners in Jyaire Hill and Cameron Calhoun, both from the Midwest. Both were with the program during spring and although they may not see significant playing time this fall, have bright futures ahead of them. Another name to keep a close eye on is receiver Karmello English, the type of athlete that the Wolverines have occasionally been missing at the position. From Alabama, the former Auburn decommit can line up either at the slot or on the perimeter and has game-breaking speed.

2023 Schedule Analysis
For the second straight season, the Wolverines will enjoy a remarkably soft non-conference slate, with home games against East Carolina, UNLV, and Bowling Green. Coincidentally, those just happen to be the three games that Jim Harbaugh is suspended for. In fact, the schedule doesn't really pick up until late September and early October, with road back-to-backs against Nebraska and Minnesota, but even those contests Michigan should be comfortably favored in. A road trip to Michigan State begins a really tough final month of the season, but the Wolverines are blessed with a bye before things get super difficult. The month of November includes Purdue at home, Penn State and Maryland on the road, and then "The Game" with Ohio State, which is back in The Big House this fall. That three-game stretch from November 11 - 25 will tell us a lot about this Michigan team. They could potentially lose one and still make the College Football Playoff, but the Wolverines don't want to leave it up to chance. They've overcome difficult stretches countless times under Harbaugh, but this year represents a whole new challenge.

2023 X-Factor: Cornelius Johnson, WR
As the world of college football shifts one thing is becoming very clear: you need elite receivers to win National Titles. Sure, Georgia hasn't had a Biletnikoff Award piece on the outside, but they have had Brock Bowers, and a deep receiver corps. Before them, Alabama boasted DeVonta Smith, LSU Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, and Clemson a boatload of game-changers on the outside. If Michigan wants to take the next step and win the big one, they are going to need more from this receiver group. It's been a solid unit and Ronnie Bell had no issues leading the way this past fall. But, it simply has not been at the level of the SEC elites and even though Michigan has beaten Ohio State the last two seasons, the Buckeyes feature significantly more firepower at the position. That doesn't mean Michigan is devoid of options, as Cornelius Johnson notched 32 receptions, 499 yards and six touchdowns last season and has the chance to be even more in 2023. He's an athletic build and is a crisp route-runner who leaps out of his breaks, especially near the sideline. With McCarthy getting him the ball, he could take off and be the game-changer at the position that Michigan has lacked. If so, the Wolverine offense becomes much more intimidating, and their chances at a National Championship increase exponentially.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (9-0 Big Ten, Win Big Ten Championship)
Offensive MVP: RB Blake Corum
Defensive MVP: LB Junior Colson
Impact Freshman: WR Karmello English
Impact Transfer: OL Drake Nugent
Breakout Player of the Year: TE Colston Loveland

Five-Year Trend

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