The Wolverine

2018 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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4 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2018 FOOTBALL PREVIEW D iscussing the 2018 season for Jim Har- baugh's crew without mentioning the schedule equates to analyzing a march across Northern Africa sans any reference to the Sahara. Tough? This slate is a $3 steak, overcooked and left to dry in July on Arizona asphalt. On paper, it's the stiffest test for a Michigan team in the past quarter century. What better time for a building program to show up, grow up, and in the determined blunt assessment of one Charles Woodson, just win? That's the test for a highly talented collection of Wolverines, aching for a breakthrough. They'll just need to be really, really good to get it done. At Notre Dame, under the lights? The Irish return a very strong defense and get to trot it out at home, at night, in front of a well- lubricated crowd ready to make the "magic" happen. Former Michigan All-American Jon Jansen loves the opener. He's not interested in the Wolverines dodging their way to greatness, and he's all about the Notre Dame showdown. "I'm just excited they're back on the sched- ule," Jansen said. "If you're going to be a team that is considered to play for a spot in the playoffs, you want to play a Notre Dame." The Wolverines want to be considered for everything out there. It's just not going to be easy. After a manageable remainder of the non- conference slate at home (Western Michigan and SMU), the Big Ten hits. Old nemesis Scott Frost brings in new-era Nebraska, likely adorned in "National Champs, 1997" patches and lobbying for a 10-point spot as a late retirement gift for former head coach Tom Osborne. Harbaugh's team then travels to Northwest- ern for a sleeper challenge, before a home- coming contest against Maryland. After that, it gets nasty. Over the course of three consecutive games, the Wolverines take on three programs that they lost to a year ago. Wisconsin, at Michi- gan State, a bye week, then Penn State form a trio that could make or break the conference season. Michigan fell to the Badgers in Camp Ran- dall last year, losing a second starting quarter- back to serious injury. They dropped the ball (over and over) in the home monsoon versus MSU, then got ambushed 42-13 in Happy Valley. The Wolverines are capable of turning that 0-3 into 3-0, but not via the plague of turn- overs, sacks and QB wreckage that sunk them a year ago. Even if they survive that stretch, a trip to Columbus looms three weeks later. Two decades earlier, former head coach Lloyd Carr used a sojourn up Mt. Everest as a metaphor to inspire his troops in what became a national championship season. It's even tougher these days. That team didn't have to survive a Big Ten championship game, following a brutal slugfest against Ohio State. It didn't need to battle through a pair of playoff games to reach a national title, al- though Washington State in the Rose Bowl wasn't any gimme. Now for the good news. This group should be as well equipped to take on a serious climb as any Harbaugh has fielded in four seasons at Michigan. The ball stoppers return almost all key ele- ments from the No. 3 total defense in the nation last year. A defensive end combo of ju- nior Rashan Gary and fifth-year senior Chase Winovich, backed by hugely productive junior linebackers Devin Bush Jr. and Khaleke Hud- son, and four returners in the secondary plan to unleash fury all season. The question becomes, can an offense that drove into the ditch a year ago become ad- equate, and beyond, for the tough trip ahead? Nobody can say Harbaugh didn't retool for the journey. He brought in one of the nation's best young quarterbacks in transfer Shea Patterson, and the NCAA even played ball, making Pat- terson immediately eligible. That's a massive breakthrough. "I don't think you snap your fingers and Michigan is instantly a playoff contender," U-M radio network sideline reporter Doug Karsch cautioned. "But it helps. It helps a lot, to say the least." The finger snap isn't there, until Michigan's offensive line starts snapping people back- ward. That's new O-line boss Ed Warinner's job, and he's been successful at it everywhere he's worked. Another new coach, former Alabama of- fensive coordinator and Florida head coach Jim McElwain, inherits a group of receivers that should be on the verge of huge results, given better protection and production from the offensive line-quarterback combo. So much goes into a season, from injuries to breaks, and yes, who plays who and when. This slate stands flat-out grueling, admitted a former Michigan assistant coach. But, he challenged, with a gleam in his eye, think about what happens if they get through that schedule. He set his jaw, and raised an index finger. It's why-not-us season, and the Wolverines are ready to roll. ❏ WOLVERINE WATCH JOHN BORTON Powerhouse Needed To Meet Schedule Challenge Editor John Borton has been with The Wolverine since 1991. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @JB_Wolverine. Junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr. is part of a stout defense that will be counted on to help navi- gate a brutal schedule, but the Wolverines will need to show marked improvement on the other side of the ball to become a College Football Playoff contender. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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