5 demons Michigan football must exorcise to become true championship contender this season

Wolverines face challenging 2018 schedule

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The weeks leading up to the 2018 Michigan football season have felt a lot like the weeks leading up to most recent Michigan football seasons.

There are high expectations. There's excitement about the talent on the roster. There's a feeling that if a few things go Michigan's way, the 2018 season could be really special. But commingled in the positive vibes is a feeling of doubt that's snowballed over the last decade.

No matter what Michigan's roster has looked like in the last 10 years, the same problems have ultimately kept it from putting any hardware in the trophy case. The Wolverines haven't won the Big Ten East since divisions were created, and they haven't played in the College Football Playoff since the BCS era ended.

If Michigan wants to be a true championship contender in 2018, there are five trends that need to change.

Poor quarterback play

A decade of poor quarterback play hit its crescendo last season, as Michigan had more interceptions than touchdown passes and completed just 53.5 percent of its attempts for an average of 6.43 yards.

Since the Steven Threet-Nick Sheridan debacle of 2008, the Wolverines have been searching for a reliable player under center. Denard Robinson was electric in two full seasons as the team's starter, but Michigan ultimately couldn't overcome his 39 career interceptions.

Denard Robinson runs against Notre Dame in 2011. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Even Jake Rudock, who put together the best season under center for Jim Harbaugh, fell just short of the quarterback play Michigan needed to accomplish something special. He threw three picks against Utah and registered fewer than 200 passing yards in the next seven games.

Michigan's solution was to bring in former No. 1 overall quarterback recruit Shea Patterson, who spent the last two seasons at Ole Miss. Patterson is an elite talent, but there are questions about how he will look in the Wolverines' offense.

Michigan QB Shea Patterson (MGoBlue.com)

Harbaugh has recruiting three blue-chip quarterback recruits in the past three seasons: Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. With the addition of Patterson, who has already been named the starter against Notre Dame, Michigan has an abundance of talent in the quarterback room.

There's no reason quarterback can't be a strength for Harbaugh's team, but until Michigan fans see it on the field, there will be doubt.

Offensive line struggles

Problems with the quarterback and offensive line go hand-in-hand, but Michigan's O-line struggles have gone beyond the passing game.

In the third year of Harbaugh's run-first, pro-style offense, Michigan ranked 114th in sacks allowed (despite the 95th most passing attempts in FBS) and 61st in yards per rush. As a result, the team with the third-best defense in the nation finished at a mediocre 8-5.

Michigan was in the top 10 in fewest sacks allowed in 2010, but since then, protecting the quarterback has been a struggle. Robinson and Devin Gardner took a beating in 2013, when Michigan allowed 36 sacks.

Michigan QB Devin Gardner takes a sack against Notre Dame in 2013. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Michigan finished 27th and 39th in fewest sacks allowed during Harbaugh's first two seasons, but that was largely because the offense was run-dominated. In those seasons, the Wolverines averaged fewer than 5 yards per carry.

Many of the teams at the top of college football build their offenses around strong offensive lines, such as Alabama, Clemson, Wisconsin and Ohio State. After years of struggling, Michigan made some major changes to try to get on that level.

Michigan's offensive line has struggled under Jim Harbaugh (Getty Images)

Highly regarded offensive line coach Ed Warinner was brought in to lead the group, and there will be some new faces playing major roles. Former No. 1 center recruit Cesar Ruiz will likely hold down a starting spot, while Jon Runyan and Juwann Bushell-Beatty are apparently taking over at the tackle spots.

Patterson needs protection and the running backs need lanes, so the offensive line, as always, will be an X-factor.

Stopping rushing quarterbacks

Since Harbaugh arrived in 2015, Michigan has fielded a top-four defense every single year.

If there's one weakness in for Michigan's defenses, it's been the ability to stop dual-threat quarterbacks. Since 2015, many of Michigan's biggest losses came against quarterbacks who run the ball.

J.T. Barrett gave Michigan fits the last three seasons, rushing for 139 yards and three touchdowns in 2015, 125 yards and a touchdown in 2016 and 67 yards and a touchdown in 2017.

Backup Dwayne Haskins also ran the ball well against Michigan last season, gaining 24 yards on three carries.

Getty Images

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett (Getty Images)

When bad weather hit during the game against Michigan State last season, Brian Lewerke's legs were the difference, as he ran for 61 yards and a touchdown in a 14-10 game.

The Wolverines were hanging tough against Penn State last year before Trace McSorley took over on the ground. He scored three rushing touchdowns in what turned into a second-half blowout.

Michigan will need to be much better against rushing quarterbacks this season, as Notre Dame's Brandon Wimbush, Lewerke, McSorley and Haskins are all on the schedule. The Wolverines will also face dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez, of Nebraska, and able runner Clayton Thorson, of Northwestern.

Brian Lewerke #14 of the Michigan State Spartans rolls out to pass during the second quarter of the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

It's a schedule loaded with mobile quarterbacks, and that hasn't boded well for Michigan in the recent past.

Ranked road woes

Michigan's struggles on the road against ranked teams are well documented, and they will be tested once again this year.

Since a 47-21 win over No. 2 Notre Dame on Sept. 16, 2006, Michigan is 0-16 against ranked teams on the road, counting the undefeated 2012 Ohio State team that couldn't be ranked in the BCS rankings due to NCAA violations.

Mike Hart #20 of the Michigan Wolverines dives over the pile for a touchdown against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish September 16, 2006 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Michigan's performance on the road has been an embarrassment the last 12 years, as 11 of those 16 losses came by at least 14 points. Five of those losses came by at least 29 points.

The inability to win -- or even be competitive -- in big road games has kept Michigan from truly returning to the national championship conversation.

Road woes considered, Michigan's 2018 schedule couldn't be more difficult. It will play five games on the road -- three against teams ranked in the preseason top 12 and four against teams that won double-digit games last year.

Right off the bat, Michigan will play against No. 12 Notre Dame on the field where it won its last ranked road game nearly 12 years ago.

Rivalry nightmares

In the current format of college football, Michigan will never be a championship contender if it can't beat its top two rivals.

Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are all members of the Big Ten East Division, and if Michigan can't win the division, and therefore, the conference, it will likely be left out of the College Football Playoff.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines watches action during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Right now, the road to Indianapolis runs through Columbus and East Lansing.

Michigan State has won eight of the last 10 in-state rivalries, while Ohio State has beaten Michigan 13 of 14 times. The Wolverines simply can't play dead against the two best teams in the division if they hope to make a splash on the national stage.

Since the Big Ten split into divisions in 2011, Ohio State and Michigan State have each played in the Big Ten championship game three times.

Michigan would have played in the conference championship in 2011 with a win over Michigan State, in 2015 with wins over Michigan State and Ohio State and in 2016 with a win over Ohio State. Simply put, Michigan has to start beating its rivals if it hopes to get anywhere.

What does 2018 have in store?

Michigan still has one of the top football programs in the country, but that hasn't translated to on-field results.

The Big Ten championship game has existed for seven years. The teams that have never played in Indianapolis are Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers. Michigan is a glaring outlier on that list.

If the Wolverines can't win their own division, how can they be expected to compete for national championships?

This year, all of Michigan's demons will be put to the test. There's enough talent on the roster to meet those challenges, but until Michigan actually proves it on the field, there won't be anything to show for it.

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