The conference media days are fast approaching, and that means the unofficial kickoff to the college football season. In the meantime, we’re taking a look at the reasons why each league team will or won’t reach a specific goal in 2016.
Next up are the Michigan Wolverines, who are coming off a 10-3 season. Jim Harbaugh has continued to make headlines over satellite camps -- and what jersey he’s decided to wear at each of them -- but can he back up all the continued hype once fall begins? In Year 2, can he guide the Wolverines to a coveted spot in the College Football Playoff?
Let’s take a look:
Why Michigan will make the College Football Playoff in 2016:
One of the nation’s top defenses: Who’s the country’s best cornerback? According to Pro Football Focus, that would be Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis. What about the nation’s most versatile linebacker? Has to be Jabrill Peppers. And how about the best defensive lineman in the conference? Well, Chris Wormley at least belongs in the conversation. There are no weaknesses on this unit. Sure, it’d be nice if Willie Henry decided to return one last year instead of declaring for the NFL draft, or if the linebackers were a bit stronger. But there’s so much production returning, any small remaining question marks should be moot. This defense ranked No. 4 in the nation last season -- and it should be even better in 2016. It could very well wind up as the best in the country. The players are aiming for nothing less. “We can be the best,” Lewis told MLive in the spring. “I know we can be the best.”
Easier path to the playoff: Based on FPI, Michigan has the second-easiest schedule of any Power-5 team. (Oklahoma has the easiest.) The Wolverines will leave the state only once prior to Nov. 6, and that’s to take on Rutgers in New Jersey. Their three non-conference opponents -- Hawaii, UCF, Colorado -- went a combined 7-31 last season. That’s not to say the schedule is without challenges, but those challenges appear to be the exception. That’s why Michigan is expected to have some of the most blowout wins in the country based on ESPN analytics.
Why Michigan won’t make the College Football Playoff in 2016:
Wrong side of the turnover battle: Last season, only Notre Dame fared worse than Michigan in the turnover battle while still pulling off double-digit wins. Neither team was very good in that department. On offense, the Wolverines turned the ball over 16 times -- but the defense forced just 12 turnovers. Michigan ranked No. 92 nationally in turnover differential (minus-4) and ranked No. 117 in turnovers gained. Defensive coordinator Don Brown is banking on a more aggressive unit to increase those numbers, but a new quarterback also has the potential to cancel out any defensive gain. At any rate, it’s rare for a playoff team to wind up on the wrong side of the turnover battle. That’s something Michigan needs to correct.
Ohio State and/or Michigan State: Remember how we just said the Wolverines had an “easier” path to the playoff? Well, that’s true -- but it’s also true that these two teams have caused a lot of recent trouble for the Wolverines. Michigan is 2-14 in the last eight years against the Buckeyes and Spartans. And if Harbaugh’s team is going to stumble, chances are it’s going to come against one of those two. Granted, both opponents lose quite a bit of firepower, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single fan or player who’ll overlook Mark Dantonio or Urban Meyer. It also doesn’t help U-M that both rivalry games happen to be on the road.