By JERAMY STOVER, Sports Editor
After an impressive 10-3 season in Jim Harbaugh’s first year as head coach of the University of Michigan football team, some of the national media are expecting even more from the Wolverines. Some analysts at ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and sbnation.com are picking Michigan to make the College Football Playoffs.
That’s a lot to ask for from a program going into their second season with their head coach, but that’s just how much faith people have in Harbaugh. But while it is a lot to ask for from this Wolverines team, it’s not unrealistic. Michigan has plenty of talent, maybe even enough to make the playoffs.
The biggest difference in this team from last year will be their depth. You won’t have to squint your eyes in fear this season anytime a starter heads off the field. With a good recruiting class and more experienced reserves, the depth on this team will make them a good match up against any team in the country.
But what will make Michigan a favorite against most teams in the country is their defense. A stout defense that has one of the best defensive lines in America has added the best recruit in the country to make it even better. Veteran defensive ends Chris Wormley and Taco Charleton won’t have as much pressure on them with the presence of the No. 1 recruit in the 2016 class Rashan Gary joining the defensive line.
There are more questions on the offensive side of the ball that could hinder the Wolverines season. Not only are we unsure of who will play left tackle and guard the quarterback’s blind side, we still aren’t even sure who the starting quarterback will be. John O’Korn a junior transfer from Houston was the favorite to win the job before spring camp began, but redshirt junior Wilton Speight has had an impressive summer and could very well start the season under center for the Wolverines.
Here are my pre-season awards for the 2016 Michigan Wolverines.
Breakout Player (Offense): Ian Bunting – Tight End
This was a tough award to decide on because of the question marks still on the offense. Bunting had just five catches for 72 yards as a sophomore, but I think he’s poised to be more than just a backup to All-American candidate Jake Butt. We all know how much Harbaugh loves to use his tight ends and I think he’s going to use 6-foot 7-inch 252-pound junior tight end quite often. There are a few freshmen behind Bunting looking to get some playing time, but I think Bunting’s experience will hold the rookies off and keep him on the field.
Breakout Player (Defense): Mike McCray – Linebacker
It’s tough to dub a senior a “breakout player,” but if you know McCray’s story then you know why he fits the description. McCray missed the entire 2015 season due to injury and now he has been thrust into a starting linebacker role. I think this will motivate McCray to becoming one of the leaders on the defense. The only problem is there’s a lack of depth and experience at the linebacker position. So there is a lot of pressure on McCray to help lead his position group. But I believe an excellent defensive line and good defensive backfield will help McCray have a solid season.
Offensive MVP: Jehu Chesson – Wide Receiver
Chesson really emerged as a top wide receiver in the Big Ten last year with a productive season hauling in 764 yards and nine touchdowns. Now the senior has the chance to become one of the top receivers in the country. Chesson has a solid group of receivers around him to keep defenses not so focused on him which will only help. Chesson has the speed to turn short passes into big gains and even make some noise in the return game. I believe Chesson will become the first receiver since Jeremy Gallon in 2013 to reach 1,000 receiving yards.
Defensive MVP: Jourdan Lewis – Cornerback
Another potential All-American on the Wolverines roster, Lewis may be the most feared player on the team right now. If Lewis’s stats go down from last season, it may not be because he played any worse; it might just be because opposing quarterbacks won’t throw his way. Lewis broke the school record for pass breakups last season with 20 to go along with his two interceptions. Those kind of numbers will keep opposing quarterbacks looking to the other side of the field because they know if they throw Lewis’s way, possession of the ball might change.
Three Freshmen to Watch:
Rashan Gary – Defensive Lineman
The No. 1 overall recruit of last season’s recruiting class decided to come to Ann Arbor and many believe it won’t be long before he makes his presence felt in opposing backfields. Gary will most likely move around the defensive line and be a key rotational player. Having plenty of veterans on the line should help Gary get used to the feel of the college game which could be the only thing he lacks.
Kareem Walker – Running Back
The Wolverines have a hefty stable of running backs, but no one star ball carrier. Walker could change that by season’s end. The No. 6 running back in the 2016 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com, might have a tough time finding carries to start the season with De’Veon Smith, Drake Johnson and Ty Isaac all ahead of him on the depth chart. But if Walker can take advantage of these first three games in which the Wolverines should dominate to allow Walker some carries, then he might earn some prime-time plays in the near future.
David Long – Cornerback
Another player that may have a tough time finding the field early on this season, but he has been given plenty of praise from Harbaugh and Lewis. His fellow cornerback Lewis has talked highly about how well Long prepares and how quickly he has adapted to practices at a big time college program.
Now for a game by game prediction of the 2016 season:
Michigan 38 Hawaii 17
Thoughts: I believe Michigan will jump over the Rainbow Warriors, but with Hawaii’s high octane offense they will put up some points to make the blowout look not so bad.
Michigan 49 Central Florida 10
Thoughts: This will most likely be the easiest game of the season for the Wolverines. Central Florida didn’t win a game last season and aren’t projected to finish much better in 2016. Expect to see a lot of youth on the field by halftime for Michigan.
Michigan 35 Colorado 14
Thoughts: The final non-conference game of the season for Michigan this is the game you want to see all the kinks worked out for the Wolverines. This will be a key game for whoever the starting quarterback is to put as much confidence in the team that he can lead them through conference play.
Michigan 28 Penn State 17
Thoughts: Michigan opens conference play against the Nittany Lions, who will also have a new quarterback under center. I think Penn State won’t let this one get out of hand, but if their offensive line hasn’t improved from last season it might get a little ugly.
Michigan 31 Wisconsin 21
Thoughts: Arguably the toughest home contest for Michigan this season, but the Badgers haven’t been quite as good the past couple seasons as they usually are. Michigan keeps the train rolling.
Michigan 31 Rutgers 14
Thoughts: Rutgers won just one conference game last season and in a tough Big Ten East, they may not be too much better this season. But at home and at night the Scarlet Knights will be hungry to upset the Wolverines. Unfortunately for them talent still matters and Michigan has a lot more.
Michigan 35 Illinois 24
Thoughts: Illinois hired known NFL coach Lovie Smith this offseason in hopes to revamp the program. It will take a couple years for them to get going but their current quarterback Wes Lunt isn’t someone to sleep on. He will help them keep things interesting, but Michigan stays undefeated.
Michigan 17 Michigan State 20 OT
Thoughts: Until the Wolverines defeat the Spartans on the field, I just have a hard time picking them to beat them. If the game was played in Ann Arbor I’d be more willing to select Michigan, but with the game at Spartan Stadium I just can’t. I think the game will go into overtime and be one of the best Michigan/MSU games of the last decade; unfortunately it won’t top last year’s game.
Michigan 35 Maryland 10
Thoughts: An upset Wolverines team will take their frustration out on the Terrapins. Michigan shut out Maryland last season 28-0 and I don’t think this year’s game will look much different. With former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin now leading the Terrapins program, I don’t think a second straight shut out will occur.
Michigan 24 Iowa 17
Thoughts: Michigan will need to win this game to keep any hopes of Big Ten title or playoffs available. I think the Wolverines will rise to the occasion on the road and defeat the Hawkeyes. Michigan’s defense will lead them to victory with an important late fourth quarter stop.
Michigan 42 Indiana 35
Thoughts: Laugh at the score all you want, but don’t forget the Hoosiers took Michigan to double overtime last season. Indiana has an easy schedule the few weeks leading up to this game, which I think will help them be confident heading to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have struggled against the spread offense for a long time and I think it will continue against Indiana.
Michigan 28 Ohio State 31
Thoughts: “The Game” won’t disappoint this season. Unlike the beating Ohio State put on Michigan last year, I think the Wolverines will go into Columbus more prepared and eager to upset the Buckeyes. Michigan has the experience advantage over their rival but I’m not fully convinced they have more talent. Ohio State lost a lot of their starting 22, but they always reload and those new starters have 11 games to prepare for their final one against their hated foe.
I believe Michigan will make a New Year’s Six bowl game, but will not make the College Football Playoffs. The Wolverines need to answer some questions at some key positions before they take that giant step, but I think they’re better than last season and will show it by getting to a better bowl game. I can understand the national media hype that Michigan can make the playoffs but I’m not ready to buy in just yet.