Jim Harbaugh and Wilton Speight

We’re closing in on the final 10 of The Comeback’s Top 50 countdown. As part of our 2017 college football preview, the list gets shorter each day, leading up to the opening of the regular season. Up next at No. 17, the Michigan Wolverines.  

Michigan is annually one of the most polarizing teams in college football. Will they meet lofty expectations? Is the program “back,” whatever that means? Can they beat Ohio State? Will Jim Harbaugh finally win the division?

The truth is, Michigan is in a healthier place than it’s been in a long time. There’s a ton of talent to replace, but that’s why you recruit well. Michigan could win the conference and compete in the CFB Playoff or they could flatline into third place again. Either way, the media will obsess over Harbaugh, no matter what. No team was talked about more over the offseason. Which I guess happens when you meet the Pope. But how many other teams are even thinking, “Hey, we should totally take the team to meet the Pope?” The Michigan Difference, I guess.

No. 17 Michigan

2016 Record: 10-3 overall, 7-2 Big Ten (Lost to Florida State, 33-32 in the Orange Bowl)

Coach: Jim Harbaugh (49-27, 20-6 at Michigan)

Last year in a nutshell

Being stuck on 10-3 is something most programs would die for, but 2016 was a little bit of “what if” for Michigan. The Wolverines spent the entire season ranked in the top 10, ascending to No. 2 before a last-second loss at Iowa brutalized their dream season. The team never really seemed to get over it, limping over Indiana by 10 the following week before ending the season with a controversial loss to Ohio State and then a heartbreaking L in the Orange Bowl. All that being said, Michigan looked like old Michigan, with a bludgeoning running game and stingy defense. And 10-3 would have been to die for about 3-5 years ago in this same spot.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 4th

The Wolverines continue to pack the halls with top shelf classes. High-profile trips to places like ROME don’t hurt in putting the program on the consciousness of any recruit. Yeah, ROME. When you’re meeting with the Pope, you’re probably on the right side of karma. Michigan has a lot of spots where starters have departed, but look for Donovan Peoples-Jones to potentially electrify a very green wide receiver position. Same with Tarik Black.

Three Key Stats

138 – Catches by Amara Darboh (57), Jake Butt (46) and Jehu Chesson (35) that have departed, the three top players in that category from 2016. The leading receiver in terms of catches is a fullback. No, Michigan isn’t mid-1990s Florida, but they’ll need to find some reliable hands to meet their goals. Quarterback Wilton Speight will without question need to make the throws that win a few games this season with a young corps, something he wasn’t asked to do last season.

2.4 – Michigan’s yards per carry in their three losses to Iowa, Ohio State, and Florida State. On the season, they averaged nearly five yards per rush. The success of Michigan football always has been and always will be in the trenches. They’ll break in three new starters, which has to be a concern given the correlation of “low yards per carry” equals “loss.”

1 – Returning “starters” on defense. This is sort of a “gotcha” number, since guys who start sit for significant portions of games and guys who don’t often have a weekly impact, but you won’t find many teams returning so few regular starters. What’s more, Michigan’s defense was one of the best in the country last year, so losing those guys isn’t good. They had more players drafted than any other college team in last year’s NFL draft.

Make-or-Break Games of 2017

Nov. 25 vs. Ohio State

Record in the last five meetings: 0-5
Last year’s result: Lost, 27-30

Why it matters: This is the easiest game to put in this category of any team in the country, every year. If you go 0-11 and win The Game, the season’s still sort of a success. It’s the best rivalry in sports, let alone college football, and with Harbaugh and Meyer stalking the sidelines, it always means something bigger for everyone else, too, than just a win. The ramifications should be the same this time around.

Three Key Players

(Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rashan Gary, DE – Most everyone who watches Michigan football understands he’s probably the best talent on the team. He has eye-popping talent, the kind that made him one of the best recruits in the country. He’s destined to be a star, and this year likely is his breakout stanza where the country gets to know him. It’d be no shock if he ascends to being a first team All-American.

Mason Cole, OL – Without question the Wolverines’ most experienced offensive lineman, he may be asked to move all around the line to fill holes and most certainly will have to settle down a young group that’s vital to Michigan’s success. He could be in the NFL right now, but he’s in Ann Arbor.

Lavert Hill, DB – Michigan returns all of zero starters in what was a terrifying secondary last season, one that saw all members drafted. Someone will need to step up and be that guy you simply don’t throw at, and Hill, who played in only nine games last year, is a good of a bet as any.

Bold Predictions

Michigan will win the Big Ten and be selected to play in the College Football Playoff. That should be bold enough for you.

Follow the rest of The Comeback’s Top 50 College Football Countdown leading up to the regular season.