Springtime in Michigan: The snow melts. The grass sprouts. And Wolverines fans across the state raise their weary voices and ask: Is this the year?
It's been 14 seasons since Michigan's football team won a Big Ten title. This December, the streak surpassed a rough patch in the 1950s and '60s to become the longest drought in program history. Adding to that pain, hated rival Ohio State has been the most consistent roadblock to a conference championship, beating the Wolverines in 13 of the past 14 meetings to close out their regular season.
Despite making demonstrable improvements in his four years as head coach, Jim Harbaugh hasn't figured out a way to close the gap with the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer's retirement provides this spring's annual dose of hope to Michigan fans that this season might be different. To make the most of any potential opportunity presented by a year of transition in Columbus, Michigan must figure out how to keep from stumbling down the home stretch. Nine of the Wolverines' 14 losses under Harbaugh have come after the first week of November. That will mean continuing to renovate the offense to make the most of good recruiting classes and rebuilding a defense that loses much of the star power that made that unit one of the country's best in recent years.
2018 record: 10-3 (8-1 Big Ten)
Spring practice starts: March 17 (subject to change)
Spring game: TBD (Michigan cancelled its spring game last year due to inclement weather and might not have a traditional spring game this year.)
Biggest question of the spring: Will the offense play to its strengths?
A run game -- usually one armed with fullbacks and tight ends -- has been a non-negotiable part of Harbaugh's offense since his first day as a head coach. Increasingly, though, Michigan's top playmakers have migrated to the edges of its formations. Wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black, if he can stay healthy, headline a deep group of capable pass-catchers. The quarterback position is also as stable and strong as it's been during Harbaugh's time at Michigan. Shea Patterson's quick release and accurate delivery make him an ideal fit for a system that distributes the ball quickly to its best players in open space.
This will be a crucial point of tension with Michigan's offense in 2019. New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has adopted a social media mantra of "speed in space" since joining the Wolverines last month. Gattis will reportedly be calling plays this fall, but it's unlikely that Harbaugh fully cedes control of the offense or allows the team to stray far from his fundamental belief in the necessity of a good running game. Michigan's offense finished 21st in the nation in scoring last season, but lacked the consistent home-run ability that has become a staple of playoff-caliber teams. Can the Wolverines find the right balance to take another step on offense?
Position group to watch: Defensive line
The defensive front that has played a big role in Michigan's success during the past few seasons is changing hands and changing shape in 2019. Defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich are on the path to becoming high draft picks. Two defensive tackles graduated and another, former five-star recruit Aubrey Solomon, transferred to Tennessee. Longtime assistant Greg Mattison also left the program, for a position on Ohio State's coaching staff.
Mattison's replacement, Shaun Nua, will enter spring with a good idea of what he can get out of electric pass-rusher Josh Uche, end Kwity Paye and defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour, who took a big step forward last season. Beyond that, much of Michigan's depth at the position and its ability to find enough run-stoppers will be a mystery to solve this spring.
Instant impact addition: DT Mazi Smith
Smith, who showed up on campus in January weighing more than 300 pounds, might be able to help Michigan find that next layer of depth on the defensive line immediately. He'll need a full spring to work on his hands and a good summer in the weight room, but if those steps go well Smith will be in better position to help the Wolverines right away than any other newcomer on the roster.
2019 game to get excited about now: Ohio State
It begins and ends with beating the Buckeyes. There is no doubt that Michigan's program is in a better place at the start of 2019 than on Harbaugh's first day on the job more than four years ago. He wasn't hired to make the Wolverines better, though. He was hired to win championships. Losing his first four shots at Ohio State -- the first Michigan coach to do that -- has kept his team from reaching that goal. Both teams, as they always do, will be keeping an eye on one another from now until Nov. 30, when they meet again at the Big House.