Michigan faces a critical season in the fourth year of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, with everyone from prospective recruits to informed opinion in Las Vegas turning against the Wolverines. Consider the following…
*After delivering top 5 recruiting classes in 2016 and 2017, Harbaugh’s 2018 haul only rated 21st in the country. That’s still a pretty good collection of football players, But not when the Wolverines’ overall talent base looks more like Michigan State’s than Ohio State’s.
*The Wolverines are priced at 4-1 odds to win the Big Ten title, something they have not done since 2004. Again, those aren’t bad odds—but not when Ohio State is the solid 3-2 betting favorite and Michigan’s odds are more on a par with Michigan State.
*If you want to look at total wins, Michigan’s Over/Under for this season is 9, with the odds tweaked a bit to encourage you to bet the Over..meaning the early money that has come in has gone Under. Anyone betting college football win totals in the summer can be considered an informed bettor (or someone with a problem) and those bettors don’t like what they see in the Wolverines.
That’s to say nothing of Harbaugh’s 1-5 record against Michigan State and Ohio State. There’s a number of galling things about this if you’re a Michigan fan, but maybe the worst is this—the Wolverines, for over a decade now, are less on a par with Ohio State than they are with the school from East Lansing they once sneered at as “little brother.” And with the Spartans having three recent Big Ten championships (a shared crown in 2010, 2013, 2015) and a trip to the 2015 College Football Playoff, maybe that’s being generous to Harbaugh.
The schedule is not going to be an easy one. Michigan visits Notre Dame on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. They go to Michigan State in October and they visit Ohio State in November. In between, the home schedule includes Wisconsin in October and Penn State in early November. Against a slate like that, other games—like a late September trip to Northwestern, or a home date with Nebraska—become more difficult as well, as the coaching staff tries to prevent letdowns in the wrong spot.
Having said all that…I wouldn’t bet against this Michigan team. No one disputes they know how to play defense. They ranked third in the country last season and have most of the key pieces back. The secondary is loaded, with Lavert Hill and David Long being the best corner combo in the country.
Their ability to lock down both sides of the field in man coverage frees up defensive coordinator Don Brown to turn up the heat on the quarterback. There are pass-rushers in Rashan Gray and Chase Winovich on both edges and All-American linebacker Devin Bush anchoring the middle. This defense ensures the Wolverines will be in every game they play and is the best possible insurance against letdown spots.
Michigan does have a young offensive line. They return three starters, but the two-deep is filled with six players who are freshman or sophomores. But Harbaugh, in both college and the NFL, has demonstrated an ability to get his offensive fronts playing physical football. I don’t see why this year would be any different.
That brings us to the quarterback spot where all eyes are on transfer Shea Patterson, who escaped from Ole Miss after the NCAA hammer came down there. Instability and lack of production at quarterback have held the Wolverines back. Patterson doesn’t have to be great, he simply needs to be competent—which he was during his time in the SEC.
I’ll predict Michigan to win 10 regular season games. They’ll sweep the tough home games and get a win in East Lansing or South Bend, possibly both. That would exceed the expectations of the betting market. Will it ease the angst of the fan base? Well, that requires simply beating Ohio State and nothing else really matters. Harbaugh might have to wait another year for that, when the series comes back to Ann Arbor. But he’ll win enough this season to ease the pressure.