ANN ARBOR, Mich. - As the final days of the college football season wind down, the Jim Harbaugh era of Michigan football seems to have entered uncharted territory.
For perhaps the first time since December 2014, the country isn't paying much attention to the Wolverines.
Sure, Michigan was included in the top 10 of the preseason Coaches Poll, and people are very excited about young players like Rashan Gary and Donovan Peoples-Jones. But for the most part, people seem to expect a transition year in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines try to replace 10 starters on defense and a slew of others at the skill positions.
Is Penn State for real? Can Ohio State get back to the playoff? Will Wisconsin go undefeated? Those are the questions currently dominating Big Ten discussions, which have centered around Michigan's resurgence and Harbaugh's unique antics for nearly three years.
But is this really a transition year for Michigan football? Is there such a thing for a program of its magnitude? Michigan fans desperately want to beat Ohio State and capture a Big Ten championship. Here are five reasons why that could happen this season.
1. Jim Harbaugh is in contention every year
Let's kick off the list with an obvious one. In college sports, everything starts at the top, and Michigan couldn't have a better leader of its football program.
Despite losing dozens of major contributors from last year's team, Michigan was in a much tighter spot when Harbaugh first arrived in Ann Arbor. It was coming off a 5-7 season and had gotten worse for four straight years. Harbaugh stopped that slide in its tracks, doubling the win total in his very first campaign.
In his first coaching job at the University of San Diego, Harbaugh went 7-4 his first season before ripping off two straight 11-1 records to give the school its first ever conference titles.
When Harbaugh arrived at Stanford, the Cardinal had suffered through five straight losing seasons, including a 1-11 nightmare in 2006. In three years, Stanford was in a bowl game, and in 2010, Harbaugh led them to an Orange Bowl win and a top-five ranking.
Even the San Francisco 49ers, which had been a disaster before 2011, went to the NFC Championship Game in Harbaugh's first three seasons. A team that won a total of 39 games in seven seasons before Harbaugh's arrival won 41 games (including playoffs) during his first three years.
Harbaugh has been a winner everywhere he goes, no matter how tricky the situation appears.
2. Elite recruiting classes
When Harbaugh was rebuilding the Stanford program en route to a BCS bowl, he never had the benefit of a top-20 recruiting class. His first full recruiting classes at Michigan have been ranked eighth and fifth, respectively, according to 247 Sports.
Whenever recruiting is brought up, there's always a devil's advocate who claims it doesn't matter how highly ranked a player is, because he has to prove his worth on the field. While that's true, bringing in top talent out of high school is as important as it's ever been.
Look no further than Alabama and Ohio State, which have been the two most consistent championship contenders of the last decade. They're always near the top of the recruiting rankings, along with recent national champions Florida State and Clemson.
Great coaches can win big without elite recruiting classes, but when it comes to knocking off a team like Ohio State to win the division, Michigan has to close the talent gap.
The upcoming season will be a perfect example of how important recruiting can be. Harbaugh will ask several of his top recruits from 2016 and 2017 to step in and make an immediate impact.
3. New playmakers on offense
Michigan's losses on the defensive side of the ball have drawn the most attention this off-season, but the offense also lost most of its top weapons.
De'Veon Smith and Jabrill Peppers combined for more than 200 carries last season, and Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson combined for 138 catches. That means the five most-used players from that year's offense are gone.
Luckily for the Wolverines, they have even better playmakers waiting in the wings.
Fans got a glimpse of that new crop of weapons when Chris Evans and Eddie McDoom burst onto the scene last year. Evans averaged seven yards per carry and was by far the most explosive option in the running back group.
McDoom was used in a wide range of roles, averaging 10 yards per carry and 11.8 yards per catch. His versatility will be a major asset for Harbaugh as he looks to piece together a new core of wide receivers.
That's just a taste of the athleticism Harbaugh has brought to Michigan. Kekoa Crawford and Nate Johnson have a year under their belts, and Michigan's ridiculous 2017 wide receiver class -- Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Nico Collins, Oliver Martin and Brad Hawkins -- will only add to the depth.
Michigan's playmakers will be younger, but they also have a good chance to be better.
4. Defensive line strength
If there's one obvious strength on Michigan's roster heading into the season, it's the defensive line.
The turnover on the defensive line is a testament to the depth Harbaugh has built at Michigan. Despite losing all four starters from a year ago, the Wolverines figure to have one of the stronger units in the conference.
Rashan Gary will lead the way as a true sophomore after getting his feet wet and showing signs of his elite talent last season. Gary was the consensus No. 1 overall recruit in the 2016 class, and chose Michigan over offers from almost every major school in the nation.
If there's one player expected to step into Taco Charlton's shoes as a pass rusher, it's Gary. His combination of strength and quickness give him a ceiling as high as any other lineman in the nation.
Beside Gary will be the veteran tandem of Chase Winovich and Maurice Hurst. Hurst chose to return to Michigan for a fifth year after picking up 34 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a backup last season.
Winovich played a less prominent role, but has been a standout on defense all off-season, according to Michigan coaches.
The rest of the snaps will be filled by the likes of Bryan Mone and a deep crop of young players. Mone got off to an excellent start his freshman year before going down with an injury. If he's fully healthy, he'll have every opportunity to secure a regular role.
Five-star Aubrey Solomon and four-star James Hudson are the top incoming defensive linemen in Michigan's recruiting class, so they can't be forgotten, either.
5. Ohio State comes to Ann Arbor
As long as Harbaugh and Urban Meyer are in the Big Ten East, there's a good chance the division title will come down to the last week of the regular season.
Last year, it took two overtimes for Ohio State to top Michigan in Columbus. The Wolverines were one play away from securing the Big Ten East and a chance a play in the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State figures to be even better than last season, with many key contributors returning and an embarrassment of riches on the depth chart to fill holes in the roster.
Two factors that work in Michigan's favor: the time and place of this year's matchup.
Michigan will host Ohio State in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines have been much more comfortable in the Harbaugh era. Last season, Michigan went 8-0 in the Big House and struggled everywhere else.
Time is also important for Michigan, as it will have 11 games to mature and improve under Harbaugh before facing its greatest test. The young Wolverines defense will be vulnerable early in the season, but by the time they square off against Ohio State, they'll have played against Florida, Wisconsin and Penn State, all away from home.
What to expect
Youth and inexperience are the two biggest road blocks for Michigan this season, and the schedule is particularly brutal in a stacked Big Ten.
Even after a tough nonconference schedule that includes SEC East champion Florida and an Air Force team that won 10 games, the Wolverines have to travel to Penn State and Wisconsin and host Ohio State. It's one of the toughest schedules in the country, and Michigan will be breaking in new players on the fly.
But the talent is obviously there, and Harbaugh will get the most out of his players. Would it be shocking to see Michigan lose four games? No. Would it be shocking if they won the Big Ten? Not to anybody who's paid attention the last two seasons.
With young players comes a larger range of potential outcomes. When Michigan takes the field in Dallas next month, we'll get a pretty good idea of what this team can accomplish.
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