Michigan enters the 2023 college football season as back-to-back Big Ten Champions, looking to win a third-consecutive outright conference title for the first time in school history. If they do so, they would match Ohio State (2017-2020) as the only Big Ten schools to accomplish the feat.
The good news for the Wolverines — and the bad news for everyone else — is that they are favored to make this happen. With a non-conference schedule made of cake batter, and a conference schedule featuring nine games that they are currently favored to win, Michigan should have no problem doing something they’ve never managed to ever do before.
Of course, there are always going to be concerns. Such as the old football adage that if you have five head coaches, you don’t have one. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is serving a self-imposed (by Michigan, not by Harbaugh) three-game suspension to start the season, which stems from NCAA infractions regarding COVID restrictions, and not being as truthful with NCAA inquisitors as they would have liked. Harbaugh has now named four assistants to be head coaches in his stead, which includes a split-squad effort between Jay Harbaugh (first half) and Mike Hart (second half) of the UNLV game.
It is an odd and atypical way to handle a suspension, but leave it to Jim Harbaugh to always have it his way.
But if you were ever going to design a three-game schedule for a three-game suspension, it would be Michigan’s 2023 slate of East Carolina, UNLV, and Bowling Green. You know during spring games when head coaches allow local celebrities or athletes to be head coaches? This is kind of like that, except it’s also really good experience for each of the four assistant coaches who will get the nod this coming month.
The Wolverines could set up a 1-800 number for fans to ring in and call the plays and they’d still go 3-0. Ultimately, this suspension will have no material impact on the 2023 season. It could, however, still have an impact on the 2024 season.
When Michigan Is On Offense
The starting backfield returns for Michigan, featuring junior quarterback JJ McCarthy and senior running back Blake Corum. Corum rushed for 1,463 yards last year, but only carried the ball twice over the Wolverines’ final three games. Could he have been the difference in the playoffs against TCU? (Perhaps, but only if he would have been able to make a couple of tackles on those two pick sixes.)
Corum got hurt in the November 19 game against Illinois. In the seven Big Ten games prior to that contest, he averaged 27.6 carries per game in conference play. Was that workload responsible for an injury against the Illini? Who’s to say, but it is safe to say that he didn’t need to carry the ball as much as he did a year ago.
This year it seems like Corum’s workload is going to be determined in part by Donovan Edwards’ availability. Edwards was Corum’s backup last year and he also dealt with various nicks and dings. He was strong as hell in those three games that Corum was out, however.
Even though Corum is arguably the best running back in the nation, it may be inaccurate to call Edwards his “backup” this year. Think of them as co-headliners on a stadium tour, but Corum has more Gold records.
Michigan would be well-served to find more production behind those two, especially if injuries hit again.
JJ McCarthy enters this season as the favorite to be a First-Team All-Big Ten quarterback. If that happens, it’ll be the first time for a Michigan quarterback since 2010 when Denard Robinson earned the honor. The last time the coaches named a Michigan quarterback First-Team All-Big Ten was Chad Henne in 2007. The Wolverines are due.
Whoever is coaching Michigan week to week this year will hopefully have a more accurate McCarthy. Last year started out great for the QB, as he completed 74.6% of his passes the first two months of the season, but that dropped to 50% in November games. Weather becomes a factor later in the season, but so does the opposing talent.
McCarthy will be throwing to two veteran receivers in Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson. Can one of them become a 60-catch guy like Ronnie Bell was last year? Johnson’s numbers actually dropped from the year before. They obviously can’t have that again, not that it’s expected. Can a young guy step up and be a threat?
The tight ends will be pretty fantastic with Colston Loveland and Indiana transfer AJ Barner.
On the offensive line, this is going to be a very familiar story for Buckeye fans reading this. Michigan returns two very good guards, and they feel good about the new starting right tackle, but went into the portal looking for a starting tackle and a starting center. The left tackle that they went and got — from out west — didn’t even play left tackle last year.
This is essentially the same situation as Ohio State finds themselves in. Both teams feel good about 8-10 of their guys, but right now it looks like only the Buckeyes have their top five set. The good news for Michigan is that they have enough guys to figure it out. Plus, they have a history of putting a good group together, as their back-to-back Joe Moore Awards will attest.
When Michigan Is On Defense
Defensively, there is obviously a lot to like, but the best feature is probably the sum of the parts. There has been a consistency on defense the last two years that isn’t expected to stop this year. By every standard measure a year ago, the Wolverines had a Top 10 defense. The expectation is that they will do the same this year.
Up front, the interior duo of Kris Jenkins and Mason Graham should be one of the Big Ten’s best. Graham had some really nice moments last year as a true freshman. He is much more of a known quantity now, however, so it will be interesting to see how offenses approach him. Jenkins is always active, but not always active in the backfield. He’s had just four tackles for loss the last two seasons.
There are a couple of big guys behind those two in Kenneth Grant and Rayshaun Benny, but they are still waiting to make an impact. The edges return 7.5 combined sacks from last year, led by Jaylen Harrell. That number doesn’t include Coastal Carolina transfer Josaiah Stewart, who has tallied 16 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss the past two years. At 6-foot-1 and 240-odd pounds, however, he is not your typical edge guy.
Braiden McGregor has been around forever, and Derrick Moore has potential. They should play at least four guys on the outside as they try to find the right combination of disruption.
The linebackers will be good once again this year. Junior Colson is one of the top middle linebackers in the Big Ten. Michael Barrett is one of the most versatile linebackers in the conference, and Nebraska transfer Ernest Hausmann was the top free agent B1G linebacker in the portal. If the defensive line can keep these guys clean, they’ll be very good.
The secondary could be outstanding, or it could be as concerning as its weakest link. With an outstanding cornerback in Will Johnson, two talented safeties in Rod Moore and Makari Paige, and possibly the best nickel in the Big Ten in Mike Sainristil, the Wolverines have the makings of a dominating starting five.
However, they’re still looking for the fifth, and unfortunately for a secondary, “80% of the time, it works every time” is not a winning mantra. Will Johnson may be the best corner in the conference this year, but he can’t do it alone. Rod Moore will probably be a pretty significant help to whoever has that job, however.
The Special Teams
This is going to be an all-new unit as punter Brad Robbins and kicker Jake Moody have finally exhausted their Michigan eligibility and now they’ll have to go be consistent and productive somewhere else.
Expect the kicking game to be fine. Sophomore Tommy Doman was one of the nation’s top-ranked punting recruits back in the day, and the place-kicker will either be a transfer who brings experience from his previous school, or be a younger guy who has beaten out that experience.
There are some interesting options in the return game, but those options are starters on offense and defense, so they should probably stay there. (Not that we all wouldn’t love to watch Donovan Edwards or Roman Wilson returning kickoffs.) Michigan just needs somebody who can fair catch a punt and give the ball to the ref so that the offense can get on the field.
(If you would like to listen to the Buckeye Weekly Podcast where Tom Orr and I compare Ohio State and Michigan position by position, you can do so via the player below. You can also download the show for later.)
What Does It All Mean
It means that Michigan has every reason to think that they can win a national title this year, but do they have the passing game? They didn’t last year, so it will be interesting to see if they have gotten materially better. As everyone knows, the longer a Michigan quarterback is around Jim Harbaugh, the worse he gets. This is JJ McCarthy’s third season at Michigan, and he’s almost certainly going to be the exception to the rule.
It’s not just about not getting worse, however, it’s also about getting much better. JJ McCarthy is the closest thing to USC quarterback Caleb Williams east of the Rockies. He has the escapability of a billionaire, and the willingness to match. But this year, if Michigan is going to win it all, he needs to be able to hit tight windows. There will be games where his receivers aren’t getting as open as he’d like. In a game of inches, McCarthy needs to be more accurate than he has ever been.
It also means that this is basically a two-game season for the Wolverines. Michigan has a road game at Penn State and a home game against the Buckeyes. They are currently 2.5-point favorites in both of those games, but heavy, heavy favorites everywhere else. Can they avoid a silly let down on the road at Nebraska or Minnesota? Even if they can’t and things get tight, they should still have enough to grab a pair of wins.
The rivalry game at Michigan State is always entertaining, but Mel Tucker’s $95 million lottery ticket isn’t walking through that door. With a schedule this weak, Michigan may need to go undefeated to make the playoffs. Any team with a loss will need some kind of help, but the Wolverines won’t be able to erase a loss with a quality non-conference win.
The irony here, however, is that a bad loss for Michigan before the PSU or OSU games could be erased with wins over both the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes. There are no games that can do the same should UM lose to one of Penn State or Ohio State, except for the Big Ten Championship Game, should they make it.
But this is all conversation for another day. Right now, we need remember that this is East Carolina Week and it’s time to start acting like it!
(Those of us who aren’t suspended from the game, that is.)
The Road To The Game
Sept 2 – East Carolina
Sept 9 – UNLV
Sept 16 – Bowling Green
Sept 23 – Rutgers
Sept 30 – at Nebraska
Oct 7 – at Minnesota
Oct 14 – Indiana
Oct 21 – at Michigan State
Oct 28 OPEN
Nov 4 – Purdue
Nov 11 – at Penn State
Nov 18 – at Maryland
Nov 25 – Ohio State