ANN ARBOR, Mich. - College football season is less than a week away, and if the two major preseason polls have it right, the University of Michigan will pick up right where it left off.
Michigan football is ranked No. 9 in the preseason Coaches Poll and No. 11 in the preseason AP Poll. The rankings suggest the Wolverines should be among the top teams in the Big Ten and contend once again for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
But this season really could go either way.
Jim Harbaugh has brought stability to Ann Arbor with a pair of 10-3 seasons, but with unprecedented turnover and a tough schedule, is double digit wins a realistic expectation for 2017?
Even though the sheer number of new players makes the season difficult to predict, the roster is clearly loaded with talent. Harbaugh has brought in consecutive top-10 recruiting classes to replace dozens of the team's top players who graduated or moved on to the NFL.
Does Michigan have what it takes to go undefeated? Technically, yes. A team ranked as highly as Michigan with a coach like Harbaugh could win any game on its schedule. But all 12 games, without a single slip-up? It's not likely for a team with so many young players.
If Michigan can get past Florida in Dallas, its next stretch of games offers a valuable chance for young players to improve against mid-level competition. Its following five opponents -- Cincinnati, Air Force, Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana -- aren't pushovers, but they don't come close to stacking up against Michigan in terms of talent.
The second half of the schedule is a different story. Michigan has to go to Penn State (No. 6 in the preseason polls) and Wisconsin (No. 10 in the Coaches Poll, No. 9 in the AP Poll), and finishes the season against Ohio State (No. 2 in both polls).
In the best-case scenario, Michigan would win one of the road games, defend the Big House against Ohio State and finish the season a surprising 11-1, which would probably earn the Wolverines a Big Ten East Division title.
There's a lot that has to go right for the best-case scenario to become reality.
Pre-injury Wilton Speight picks up where he left off
Quarterback is the most important position on the team, and Michigan still hasn't named a starter for the 2017 season. In this case, we'll assume last year's starter, Wilton Speight, wins the job to start the season.
Very few college football teams can be successful on a national level without elite quarterback play. Take a look at last season's College Football Playoff teams. National champion Clemson was led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson. Washington was led by Jake Browning, who finished sixth in the Heisman voting. Alabama's Jalen Hurs won SEC offensive player of the year as a freshman, and Ohio State was led by J.T. Barrett, who has broken several Big Ten records in his college career.
It's no coincidence Michigan started the season 9-0 while Speight put together almost a full year of strong quarterback play. In nine games, Speight threw for an average of 228.1 yards, completed 15 touchdown passes and threw only three interceptions.
But during the team's 10th game in Iowa, Speight injured his left shoulder, and the change in his play was drastic. In his final three games -- against Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State -- he threw for 161.7 yards per game, completed three touchdown passes and threw four picks.
The competition at the end of the season was tough, but Speight played well early in the season against Penn State and Wisconsin, the two teams that ended up in the Big Ten Championship Game. He's shown the ability to lead a strong Michigan offense, but he'll need to be much more consistent if the Wolverines hope to compete at the highest level.
Young playmakers improve offense
Last week, I wrote about the young players who could make or break Michigan's season. Obviously, they need to be very good to help the 2017 team achieve its best-case scenario.
On offense, the holes are glaring. There's no Jake Butt, Amara Darboh or Jehu Chesson in the passing game. There's no De'Veon Smith on the ground. Almost all the production at the skill positions will have to come from freshmen or sophomores who have little game experience.
There's no denying Michigan's offense has a higher ceiling this year. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Eddie McDoom, Kekoa Crawford, Nico Collins, Oliver Martin ... you get the picture. Harbaugh's last two recruiting classes have brought in an embarrassment of riches at receiver. The question is whether they can step in as freshmen and offer the same production that Butt, Darboh and Chesson did as seniors.
If the answer is yes, then Michigan's offense will be even better than it was a year ago, despite losing more than half its starters. The potential is higher this season than it was in years past, and there's no doubt Harbaugh could get the most out of his new players right away.
Don't forget, there are critical positions to fill on both lines, as well. Cesar Ruiz might step into a starting role on the interior offensive line. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary is largely expected to be the best player on the team. If they turn out to be better than, for example, Ben Braden and Chris Wormley, Michigan can take a step forward.
Thin secondary grows up really, really fast
The most glaring concern for Michigan heading into the season is the lack of experience in the secondary, which lost Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, Jeremy Clark, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas.
On Monday, the position got even thinner when Keith Washington, who was expected to contribute at cornerback or safety, announced his intention to transfer. He wasn't as highly touted as some of Michigan's other recent commits, but he was a redshirt sophomore who had shown promise on special teams and during the spring game.
Suddenly, Lavert Hill and David Long have become the presumptive leaders in the secondary as true sophomores. Long was the No. 8 cornerback in the 2016 recruiting class and Lavert Hill was No. 12, but cornerback is perhaps the most difficult position for young players to adjust to.
CHART: Rankings (according to 247 Sports) for each cornerback and safety committed to Michigan's last two recruiting classes.
But it can be done. Look no further than Ohio State's defense from last season. Urban Meyer broke in multiple new players in the secondary, and the team went to the College Football Playoff and sent two cornerbacks and a safety to the first round of the NFL draft.
While that might be an extreme outcome, Michigan has the pieces in place to put together a secondary that holds its own in coverage and makes big plays when given the opportunity. Harbaugh didn't ignore the problem during the offseason, as Ambry Thomas, Jaylen Kelly-Powell, Benjamin St-Juste and J'Marick Woods signed with Michigan.
At the very least, Harbaugh's recruiting classes give him many options to pick from, and more chances to strike gold with a young player who contributes right away.
The worst-case scenario for any team in any sport probably centers around injuries, but those are largely possible to predict. Without a crippling number of impact injuries, it's hard to imagine Michigan losing more than four games.
When I take a quick glance at Michigan's schedule, I see four difficult games and five games that could prove tricky. But that doesn't mean the worst-case scenario is 3-9.
Harbaugh is a professional winner, and he's done it at every level of major football in the United States. It's difficult to imagine Michigan losing all four games against Florida, Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, even though the Wolverines could conceivably be considered underdogs in each individual game.
An 8-4 season doesn't sound like much of a worst-case scenario for a team replacing 10 defensive starters and most of its offense, but it's safe to say Michigan fans would be disappointed.
How could that disappointment come to fruition?
Struggles continue away from Ann Arbor
Michigan has always been better in front of its home crowd, but last season was especially impressive as the Wolverines went 8-0 in Michigan Stadium. Included in those eight games was a 17-point win over Colorado, a 39-point win over Penn State and a 14-7 win over Wisconsin. All three teams went on to play in their conference title game after losing to Michigan.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, it was a much different story away from home. Aside from a 78-0 dismantling of Rutgers, Michigan wasn't impressive in any of its games outside Ann Arbor.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts on the sidelines while playing the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 29, 2016 in East Lansing, Michigan. Michigan won the game 32-23. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
In Michigan's final four trips away from home, it suffered its only three losses and played a game against Michigan State that was too close for comfort. Michigan was simply a different team on the road, even with an overflow of veteran players.
This season, Michigan's schedule is arguably tougher on the road, with games at Penn State and Wisconsin, and a neutral-site battle with Florida.
If Michigan is bad on the road, there's no guarantee it will breeze through Indiana and Maryland, either. Both teams played in bowl games last season, and Michigan has traditionally struggled against the Hoosiers in recent years.
Defensive line falls short of preseason hype
One of the main reasons Michigan is regarded so highly in preseason polls is the presumed strength of its defensive line, but that's not a sure thing.
As a sophomore, Rashan Gary is expected to be one of the leaders on Michigan's defense (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).
Gary is the most talented player to commit to Michigan in the modern recruiting era, and he was the consensus No. 1 player in the 2016 class. In the worst-case scenario, what if he's only good, and not great, in his first year as a full-time starter?
Next to Gary, Chase Winovich, Maurice Hurst and Bryan Mone are expected to take steps forward and make the defensive line as good as it was last season, with Wormley, Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasgow.
There's no realistic scenario in which Michigan's defensive line falls short of being a strength, but if it's not good enough to mask deficiencies in the secondary and linebacker positions, the defense could be in trouble.
Harbaugh is relying on his defensive line more than any other position group this season, so anything less than elite performance would really hurt Michigan.
Offense still can't run the ball
Everywhere Harbaugh goes, he installs a pro-style offense that's built on running the football. Last season, Michigan's inability to do so cost it a chance at the College Football Playoff.
As a whole, Michigan's offense gained 4.8 yards per carry last season, which is well below many of the elite running teams in the country. More importantly, Michigan simply couldn't run the ball against top competition, resulting in each of its three losses.
In its only competitive game through the first two-thirds of the season, Michigan gained just 3 yards per carry on 44 attempts against Wisconsin. The Wolverines escaped with a victory, but the rushing woes got worse.
In its first loss to Iowa, Michigan gained 2.8 yards per carry and simply could not get a first down late in the game to keep the defense off the field. In the end, Michigan's inability to move the chains gave Iowa just enough time to kick a game-winning field goal.
Two weeks later, Ohio State shut down Michigan's running game to the tune of 2.1 yards per carry. The Wolverines ran the ball 43 times, but the commitment didn't pay off, and the one-dimensional offense ultimately led to three turnovers and a heartbreaking overtime loss.
Even in the Orange Bowl, with a month to prepare, Michigan couldn't move the ball on the ground against Florida State. In 36 carries, Michigan averaged 2.5 yards per carry, including a drive that started on the 1-yard line and ended with a field goal.
It's year three in the Harbaugh system, so Michigan's offense should be dominant on the ground. If it's not, Michigan will have a hard time keeping up with high-powered offenses such as those at Penn State and Ohio State.
What to expect
In any discussion about best- and worst-case scenarios, the most likely outcome lies somewhere in the middle. Would it be surprising to see Michigan win nine or 10 games during the regular season? Not for most people.
Michigan is in a unique spot with its first game of the season coming against the SEC East champion on a neutral field. We'll quickly learn what the young players are made of and that first test could even take Michigan out of the playoff conversation entirely if the team were to lose.
Luckily, the speculation will end in less than two weeks when Michigan actually takes the field.
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