Big Ten season preview: Michigan Wolverines

Michigan has been at the forefront of college football for the first eight months of 2016. Since beating Florida soundly on the first day of the year, the Wolverines have kept a steady upward trajectory thanks to head coach Jim Harbaugh’s convention-shucking approach to, well, just about everything he touches.

Most coaches try to tamp down sky-high expectations (like being picked as College Football Playoff team by both ESPN and Sports Illustrated) by saying they’re taking things one day at a time. Love him or hate him, Harbaugh isn’t most coaches. Michigan sees your brazen predictions, and raises you a title game.

“Dream big,” Harbaugh has told his players frequently this summer. “And realize that all those can be accomplished once the work is realized. If people aren’t making fun of you for what your dreams are and what your goals are, then you haven’t set those goals and dreams high enough.”

A defense replete with future NFL players, one of the best receiving corps in the conference (if not the country) and an experienced offensive line all give the Wolverines reason to be optimistic heading into the fall. Two years after finishing below .500, they are safely in the group of schools that could be playoff bound if the many bounces of a college football season go in their direction.

Trips to Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa will make their road to a Big Ten title game and beyond hairy, but the potential exists for Michigan to be college football’s headline team of 2016 from wire to wire.

2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Jake Rudock, OL Graham Glasgow, S Jarrod Wilson, DL Willie Henry, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Joe Bolden

Key returners: TE Jake Butt, CB Jourdan Lewis, LB Jabrill Peppers, OL Mason Cole, RB De’Veon Smith, WR Jehu Chesson, WR Amara Darboh, DE Chris Wormley, DT Ryan Glasgow, DE Taco Charlton

Instant impact player: Michigan’s freshman class lends a new layer of depth to an already experienced team. Versatile offensive weapon Chris Evans has wowed teammates with his athleticism through the first couple of weeks of camps and big men Michael Onwenu and Ben Bredeson could make an impact on the offensive line if any injuries occur. The one rookie who seems certain to help the Wolverines in 2016 is defensive end Rashan Gary, the No. 1 prospect in the country. Gary’s speed and strong hands will get him into the rotation of a deep defensive line from the very start of the season. Playing with Wormley and Charlton will also keep the pressure off him as he develops during the early part of the year.

Most important game: This category doesn’t change often for the Wolverines. Reaching their goals this year will require a win over rival Ohio State in Columbus. Michigan has not won a game at the Horseshoe since 2000 and is 1-11 overall against the Buckeyes since then. Ending the drought against Michigan State is a major objective as well, but Michigan could potentially still find a way into the Big Ten title game (and thus the playoffs) with a loss to the Spartans in October. Losing a rivalry game on the final weekend of the season is much more likely to damn their quest for a semifinal appearance.

Best-case scenario: Harbaugh joins the likes of Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer as coaches to win a national title in their second year on campus. The Wolverines don’t play an away game until the second week of October. That should give them plenty of time to settle the quarterback position and work out any kinks under new defensive coordinator Don Brown. Even if they slip up once after that, a one-loss Big Ten champ probably still has a home in the playoff. From there, anything can happen.

Worst-case scenario: Michigan’s offense can’t find its rhythm in September and drops a game at home to Penn State or Wisconsin at the start of Big Ten play. This team is talented, but not yet immune to bad bounces or adversity on the road. They drop two of three to conference contenders Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State and end up right where they were a season ago at 9-3. After starting the season with high hopes, a veteran team is disinterested in playing a second-tier bowl game and loses to someone in the SEC. That starts the 2017 year by providing fuel for their doubters instead of the rush of momentum they had in January 2016.