BY JEFF SLADE
As football season inches closer, we take a look at the early preseason previews of every team for the 2015 Big Ten Season, ranking numbers 14 through one until we finally hit September 3rd.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Key games: at Utah, at Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State
Players to watch: LT Mason Cole, LB Joe Bolden, S Jabrill Peppers
Jim Harbaugh enters his opening year at Michigan knowing nothing but success.
After all, the man hasn’t had a losing season since 2008, then his second season rebuilding a depleted Stanford program.
Since that time, Harbaugh has gone 64-25-1, including four seasons on the game's highest level in San Francisco.
His tenure there included three visits to the NFC Championship, and with 44 wins to 19 losses; Harbaugh has the best winning percentage of any NFL coach in the last 35 years. Well, he's now in Ann Arbor, and he won’t look to leave his winning ways behind.
Michigan fans were hoping 2014 would be the year Brady Hoke and company finally figured it out, this after an 11-2 inaugural season preceded regression in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for Hoke, the trend continued, as then team went 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the first time in the Hoke era. The season included familiar losses to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, while also losing to both Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers.
Enough was enough for Michigan, and Brady Hoke was soon packing his bags. This would begin a tremulous and dramatic coaching search for the Wolverines, whose dream candidate was still fighting for playoff contention in San Francisco. Rumors came and swirled; and most assumed Harbaugh wouldn’t leave behind his NFL success to return to college, especially for a program all but a shade of its former glory.
But – then he did. As quick as analysts said he’d never wind up at Michigan, he was on a plane to Ann Arbor with a signed contract in hand. The team he walks into returns many of the players from 2014’s lackluster campaign, leading most to predict only slight to moderate improvement in Harbaugh’s first year home.
This isn’t helped by a difficult schedule for the Wolverines, traveling to Utah in Week 1 before more non-conference tests against Oregon State and BYU. The conference slate is no slouch as well, facing off in the daunting Big Ten East against the likes of Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State. It won’t be an easy year for Michigan, especially with a new coaching staff in place.
However, there may be more talent in Ann Arbor than many realize. For all the faults of Brady Hoke, he was a more then decent recruiter, pulling in top-10 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013. So, there is at least some talent there – Harbaugh will just have to find it.
On the offensive side of the ball, they’re abundant questions heading into the season. The first is at quarterback, where 5th year Iowa transfer Jake Rudock and junior Shane Morris will battle it out for the starting role. Morris has more athletic ability and the stronger arm, but Rudock has shown to be the cautious “game-manager” that Harbaugh has at times won with.
Whoever’s running the huddle; they’ll be aided by an improved offensive line and capable stable of running backs. In the trenches, offensive line guru Tim Drevno hopes to turn a weakness for the Wolverines into a strength. In prior years struggles have been attributed to inexperience and youth. That’s no longer the case; as there’s more than enough experience and talent to succeed. Look for players such as sophomore left tackle Mason Cole and senior guard Kyle Kalis to make that success happen.
At the running back position, it’ll likely be a two-way battle between five-star recruits Derrick Green and USC transfer Ty Isaac. Also don’t sleep on bruiser De’Veon Smith and speedster Drake Johnson, who showed promise last season before going down with a torn ACL.
At wideout, Amarah Darboh and Jehu Chesson will probably be the guys on the outside. But, it might be from the tight end position where the team possesses its best passing threat, as tight end Jake Butt looks to build on a promising freshman season. Harbaugh has shown to push out NFL tight ends with ease, and Butt will hope to be next in line.
Overall, if the offensive line makes significant progress and a lead running back emerges, this offense has potential.
The defensive side of the ball represents less potential than reality, as the unit was already fairly strong a year ago. They will likely rely on the front seven, which features a deep group on the line and experienced unit at linebacker to both stop the run and get after the quarterback. Look for junior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and stud senior linebacker Joe Bolden to lead their respective position groups.
It’s the secondary where Michigan will hope for significant improvement from last season. Although senior Blake Countess transferred to Auburn, the team adds 5th year transfer Wayne Lyons from Stanford to likely start opposite junior and number one cornerback Jourdan Lewis.
At the safety position, the Wolverines add a true difference maker to the mix in redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who was hampered by injuries in 2014. The second ranked recruit in the nation out of high school, Peppers is an athletic freak who has the potential to be one of the team’s best player’s from the safety position. He might even find himself on the other side of the ball a few plays a game, bringing back memories for Michigan fans a la Hesiman winner Charles Woodson.
Overall – look for the development of the offensive line and improvement of the secondary to play pivotal roles towards Michigan’s success or failure in year one of the Jim Harbaugh era.
In his first year in San Francisco, the 49ers went 13-3, this after not a single winning season the previous eight years. Can Harbaugh find similar success in first year returning to his alma mater? With a team returning most of its players from last year’s 5-7 squad, there’s certainly no guarantee he will.
However, there’s also no guarantee he won’t.
Prediction: 9-4 (5-3); third in Big Ten East