Our ranking: No. 5 MICHIGAN
Coach: Jim Harbaugh (20-6, entering third season; 78-33 overall)
2016 record: 10-3, 7-2 in Big Ten, second in East Division
Look back: Expectations were high for the Wolverines, who began the season ranked in the top 10 for just the third time since 2007. Michigan was a double-digit favorite in every game expect one versus Ohio State and opened the season by winning its first nine games, climbing as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
But a one-point loss to Iowa on Nov. 12 and a heart-breaking double-overtime loss to the Buckeyes two weeks later knocked the Wolverines out of the College Football Playoff semifinal mix. After falling to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, the Wolverines closed the year losing three of its final four games by a total of five points.
Offensive starters returning: 5
Offensive starters lost: 7
Defensive starters lost: 10
Key losses: RB De’Veon Smith, TE Jake Butt, WR Jehu Chesson, WR Amara Darboh, OL Erik Magnuson, DT Ryan Glasgow, CB Jourdain Lewis, LB Jabrill Peppers
Top returnees: QB Wilton Speight, OL Mason Cole, LB Mike McCray
Strengths: QB Wilton Speight, who threw for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns, will most likely start the season opener. The junior is working to hold off a challenge by second-year transfer John O’Korn and freshman Brandon Peters.
Michigan finished with the second-best ground game in the Big Ten, averaging nearly 213 yards per contest in 2016. De’Veon Smith’s exit leaves the bulk of the rushing attack to fall on the shoulders of sophomore Chris Evans (614 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Ty Isaac (417 yards, 5 touchdowns). The Wolverines haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2012 (Denard Robinson).
Mason Cole, a hard-nosed senior, returns to anchor an offensive line that will need to be retooled in the preseason. Cole started every game at center for the Wolverines in 2016 and the unit did not allow single sack, but he’s been working out at left tackle this fall. Sophomore Ben Bredeson also saw action as a starter at guard and will help Cole lead a young group in 2017.
Weaknesses: The defense is unproven in many ways, with second-year defensive coordinator Don Brown pushing to quickly develop the unit. Rashan Gary, the top prospect in the country, was the cornerstone of Michigan’s 2016 recruiting class and has been earning rave reviews on the defensive line. He’ll be joined by a pair of possible future NFL talents in DT Maurice Hurst (4.5 sacks) and DE Chase Winovich (5.0 sacks). LB Mike McCray is the team’s top returning tackler (76) and one of the most versatile and menacing pass rushers on the defense. He’ll work alongside LB Devin Bush Jr. and LB Khaleke Hudson.
One of the challenges facing Speight this season will be working with an all new set of receivers after the departures of Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson, who combined for nearly 70 percent of the receiving production. Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones, who was a key piece of the 2017 recruiting class, will be called upon to step up this season.
Outlook: This will be the season we’ll start to see Harbaugh’s real impact. After back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes, Michigan has a wealth of depth and talent. An early clash with Florida will be a good litmus test for this team.