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Craig's 2016 Pre-Season Report

By Craig Koss

August 30, 2016

Team 137

The table has been set. The band is playing. It’s time to see if we can dance. As we begin the 137th year of Michigan Football, the greatness of the tradition at Michigan is pondered. Coaches from Yost to Crisler to Schembechler to Carr and players from Heston to Harmon to Oosterbaan to Leach to Howard to Woodson all bridge the legacy of the storied past to the evolving present. Time will tell if we add Harbaugh to that list of great coaches. As you watch this Michigan football team, listen for the echoes of the college football’s all-time winningest program. “It’s Great to be a Michigan Wolverine.” Here is to the continuance of the Leaders and the Best.

Last season was really a bridge year. Michigan needed to advance beyond the recent past and become relevant in the college football world. Enter Jim Harbaugh and the results were astonishing. With pretty much the same team as in 2014, Michigan turned a 5-7 record into a 10-3 mark, including a resounding victory over Florida to cap the season. Expectations are high for this team, both inside Schembechler Hall and across the nation. But expectations do not win games on Saturday. There is still so much for the Wolverines to overcome. Consider that Michigan has not won a Big Ten Championship since 2004. We have been pushed around by our two biggest rivals for the past decade. How could we possibly think that we are relevant?

Relevancy is more than just what you did for me lately. Every major college football program went through a similar down period. Some recovered quickly while other never returned. If you think about the time just before Michigan started its slide, Michigan had beaten MSU in 10 of 12 games. Michigan had beaten OSU in 10 or 13 games, plus a tie. Michigan had won 12 Big Ten Championships in 20 years. Sustaining greatness is the key to being the best. A few good years is an aberration. Renewed consistency in scheme, recruiting, coaching and desire will lead this team out of the darkness of the recent past and into a renewed future. Go Blue!

The 2016 Michigan Wolverines are loaded with talent and depth. The defense ranked #4 in the nation last year and return the bulk of the defensive line and secondary. Most of the offensive line, receivers and running backs also return. The incoming freshman class is loaded with talent, including the #1 overall recruit in the nation, Rashan Gary. But there are three keys to a successful season this year. The first is Linebacker.

Michigan starts the 2016 campaign with no returning starters in the linebacking corps. Sure there is talent in Mike McCrary and Ben Gideon. Add in Jabrill Peppers (who started at safety last year) as the SAM linebacker and the group could be formidable. But they are unproven. Last year’s linebackers played hard and were leaders, but they lacked athleticism. This year’s group is athletic but inexperienced. With one of the best defensive lines in the country in front of them and an outstanding secondary behind them, the linebacker’s job will be easier. Add in the new aggressive scheme from defensive coordinator Don Brown, and the defense could rival the teams from 1997 and 1976 – if the linebackers can perform.

The second key to the season is the offensive line. With a new quarterback this year and a reliance on the running game, the O-line is critical to the success of the team. Four starters return from 2015, but is that a good thing? Each of the starters from last year is a highly touted recruit. But they just haven’t fully lived up to their billing. Mason Cole, who started at left tackle as a true freshman in 2014, has now moved to center. Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis are the returning guards and Erik Magnuson starts at right tackle. Each of them is big, capable and experienced. The open position at left tackle is a reported battle between sophomore Grant Newsome and true freshman Ben Bredeson. If this offensive line can find the right combination and perform at a high level, Michigan will have an offense that will control the ball, score points and complement the defense.

The final key to the season, and probably the most important, is the ability to win on the road. The Wolverines have eight home games this year, including the first five games in a row. But the four road games will make or break the season. Game 6 on the schedule is at Rutgers – a place where Michigan lost two years ago. Game 8 is at Michigan State. While the Spartans are not as good as they have been over the past couple of years, we all know how motivated they get for this game. Game 10 is at Iowa – at night. Kinnick Stadium under the lights is probably the toughest place to play in the Big Ten. And this is an Iowa team that returns many of the key players from last year’s squad that went 12-0 before losing in the Big Ten championship game. Then to close the regular season, Michigan travels to the snake pit – a place where we haven’t won since Drew Henson was the starting QB in 2000. Ohio State has only 6 starters back from last year – and I look for them to lose by two touchdowns at Oklahoma in week 3 – but by the time they play Michigan on November 26, they could be one of the best teams in the country.

Last year on the road, Michigan lost to Utah, beat Minnesota by stopping them on the last play of the game at the one-yard line and beat Indiana in double OT. We did beat Maryland and Penn State, but those were not impressive teams. Winning away from the Big House is always critical. This year, it is the whole season.

Notice that who starts at quarterback was not one of the keys to the season. Until Brandon Peters or Dylan McCaffrey take the job, Michigan will have a QB that will manage the offense. Whether Speight or O’Korn win the job, the position will be relied upon to control the ball and minimize mistakes. While we suspect that Speight will get first crack as the starter, O’Korn is also capable. Either can make the offense successful and neither will be relied upon to be a star.

The Wolverine Den staff is very optimistic heading into the season. The consensus is that the Wolverines will finish 11-1, while post season play determined by others. It looks to be a great season – and truly the return to greatness.

We look forward to seeing you at The Wolverine Den. Go Blue!

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