ANN ARBOR, Mich. – What in the world is Michigan football going to look like next month?
Forget the fact that the season was canceled, then reinstated, and will now start almost two months later than usual. Or that the normal schedule was replaced, then nixed, and will now be shortened for a second time. Or that we still have to make it five weeks in this strange pandemic-consumed world before even kicking off the first game.
What does Michigan football look like without 100,000 fans in the Big House, or the Ohio State game on Thanksgiving weekend?
But even beyond all the things that have made college football such an unusual topic this year, we really don’t know much about the actual Michigan football team.
Can Joe Milton be QB1?
Let’s start at the very top. Everyone knew Michigan would have a new starting quarterback whenever it next took the field. Dylan McCaffrey was the presumed favorite at the end of last season, but considering he’s now looking to transfer, it seems Joe Milton won the job pretty convincingly.
Milton has elite arm strength and demonstrated some mobility in his appearances last seasons. But whether or not he has the tools to be great is only half the story.
Shane Morris had all the tools. Countless Michigan players have been talked up as budding stars during the offseason. In 2019, it was Mike Sainristil, who finished seventh on the team in receiving yards.
The moral of the story: No matter what coaches say, no matter what practice suggests -- don’t believe anything about Milton until he takes the field against a legitimate Big Ten opponent.
Michigan hasn’t had a difference-maker at quarterback in more than a decade. Jake Rudock has probably been the closest thing under Jim Harbaugh.
Could Milton be that guy? Absolutely. He was a four-star and a top-10 pro-style quarterback recruit who, by all accounts, has done everything he’s been asked his first two years in the program. If Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis have done their jobs developing him, he could be the quarterback the team needs to break some unflattering streaks.
Will declared players return?
All of Ohio State’s top draft prospects are either reversing their decisions to skip the season or never considered leaving in the first place. Can Michigan get its top players to do the same?
Jalen Mayfield and Ambry Thomas are the two most obvious guys to watch. Mayfield was expected to be Michigan’s best offensive lineman a year after four starters were drafted to the NFL. Thomas decided to return for one more season after breaking out as Michigan’s best defensive back, but then declared for the draft after the Big Ten canceled the season.
Both hired agents, but it seems likely the NCAA will work with players who did so under the assumption their schools wouldn’t be able to play. If Michigan can’t get those players to return, that’s a major hit on both sides of the ball.
Mayfield could be especially important. Protecting Milton will be a top priority for Michigan as he starts his tenure as the team’s QB1.
Keep an eye on Nico Collins, too. He could have declared for the draft after last season, but instead announced his return to Michigan and inherited the prestigious No. 1 jersey. He could very well elect to sit out a shortened season, leaving Michigan with a very young and inexperienced wide receiving corps around MIlton.
Who’s on the schedule?
The Big Ten is planning to play eight games during the regular season, with a possible ninth game coming on the day of the conference title game.
Assuming the six East Division opponents -- Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers -- are all on Michigan’s schedule, that leaves two open spots for crossover games.
If those spots are filled from the three crossover opponents on Michigan’s original 12-game schedule, that means the Wolverines will play two of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue.
Obviously, Wisconsin and Minnesota are much tougher matchups than Purdue, so this is an important decision for the Big Ten. Will Michigan get stuck playing Wisconsin for the fifth year in a row? It feels kind of inevitable.
Can freshmen make an impact?
Michigan’s 2020 recruiting class hasn’t quite gotten the hype of a typical top 15 class, partly because nobody was sure if the Big Ten would play football, but also because practice coverage has been shut down by the coronavirus (COVID-19).
With so many players leaving from the 2019 squad, Michigan might need some true freshmen to step up. The question is: Can they do it?
Everyone wants to see A.J. Henning. Not only was he the top recruit in the class, he’s also an absolute burner who could be a home run threat or a weapon in Gattis' short passing game. Roman Wilson shouldn’t be forgotten, either. The Honolulu native might be the fastest player in the class.
The most obvious boost from this group comes in the secondary, as Michigan landed five four-star cornerbacks and safeties: Jordan Morant, Andre Seldon, Darion Green-Warren, Makari Paige and R.J. Moten. If Thomas doesn’t come back, someone from that rotation could get in the mix early.
The hype around Daxton Hill was palpable last offseason, and he started to show some signs of greatness at the end of his freshman year.
Whether it’s as a special teams weapon or in the back of the secondary, Michigan fans are dying to see what the former five-star recruit can do as a full-time starter.
He wasn’t the only five-star in his class, either. Chris Hinton will get more reps on the defensive line, and Zach Charbonnet -- a borderline five-star running back -- is looking to build off a strong freshman season.
If Michigan wants to have a special year, these ultra-talented youngsters need to live up to their prospect pedigrees.
What do we expect?
The weirdest part of this entire saga feels like the lack of expectations.
Usually, fans have an entire offseason to glance at Michigan’s schedule and think, “This is the record I want to see at the end of the year.” That record is usually based on returning players, news from practice and the strength of opponents.
Going into this season, we don’t know much about any of those factors.
Does Michigan have to go 7-1 for the season to be a success? Undefeated? Is it good enough for Jim Harbaugh to simply field a team that looks like it’s improving heading toward what should be a more normal 2021?
Maybe the absence of concrete expectations is a hidden blessing. Everyone is just anxious to see the Winged Helmets come pouring out of the tunnel to “The Victors.” Fans don’t know what to expect from Michigan, so the familiar angst has been replaced by excitement that there’s a season at all.
Michigan has been consistently solid under Harbaugh. Maybe in 2020 they’ll be something more, or perhaps something less. Either way, at least football is coming back.