Due to Ohio State’s departure of talent to the NFL Draft, the Michigan Wolverines are poised to defeat the Buckeyes in 2016 for just the third time since 2001.
1. Ohio State’s Exodus Of Talent
In the 2016 NFL Draft, it seemed like every time you looked up, another Buckeye was taken off the board. Despite the fact that the record-breaking draft class could help Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer in recruiting, players like Ezekiel Elliott don’t exactly grow on trees. Meanwhile, Michigan didn’t lose much in terms of their top talent. With seemingly the entire Buckeyes roster off to the pros, the Wolverines have a great chance to even the Jim Harbaugh vs. Meyer series at one game apiece.
2. Michigan’s Experienced Defense
The Wolverines’ defensive line could be one of the best in the nation. Returning edge rushers, junior Maurice Hurst and senior Chris Wormley, will likely serve as veteran leaders on a front seven stacked with young talent. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis is a legitimate lockdown corner, and he may have been a first-round pick had he declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. Despite standing 5-foot-10 and weighing roughly 175 pounds, Lewis’ physical play positions himself to be successful against top wide receivers. The Wolverines’ returning defenders combine high football IQs with constant physical play, which is why the unit could finish next season ranked in the top 5 on defense.
3. Ezekiel Elliott’s Departure
When a team loses a player who rushed for nearly 3,700 yards and 41 touchdowns in two seasons, a replacement of equal caliber probably won’t come around for at least a couple of years. Elliott burst onto the scene in the Buckeyes’ 2014 championship run. In the Big Ten Championship and the two College Football Playoff games against Alabama and Oregon, Elliott rushed for 696 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2015, he maintained his elite status and closed his Ohio State career with 149 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 44-28 romping of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Elliott was selected fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys and hopefully, for Michigan’s sake, another Ezekiel Elliott won’t magically appear this upcoming season.
4. Jabrill Pepper’s Development Into A Star
Michigan used Jabrill Peppers in just about every way possible last season. In addition to Peppers’ contributions as a defensive back, the former five-star recruit was used as a running back, wide receiver and even a decoy. His ability to make something happen when nothing is there is what separates Peppers from the rest of the Wolverines’ offensive playmakers. Expect Peppers’ roles on offense and defense to increase in the 2016 season. He could be a top 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, so expect the Wolverines to take advantage of Peppers’ unique talent while he’s still a collegiate athlete.
5. Jake Butt’s Decision To Stay For His Senior Year
Similar to Lewis, Jake Butt may have been a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft had he decided to go pro. However, Harbaugh’s persuasive skills proved effective, and the 2015 Big Ten Tight End of the Year decided to stay for his senior year. Butt’s offensive consistency will likely be used as a safety valve by whichever quarterback is awarded the starting job. His ability to high point the football and come down with contested throws is why Butt could be a high pick in next year’s draft.
6. Special Teams: Advantage Wolverines
Michigan has a plethora of offensive and defensive playmakers who will likely return kicks and punts in the 2016 season. Wide receiver Jehu Chesson is, according to his teammates, the fastest player on the Wolverines’ roster. Chesson’s 96-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff against Northwestern last season is proof of his prolific speed. Other than Chesson, there are players who are perfectly capable of producing big plays, including Lewis, who also returned kickoffs last season. Lewis’ relatively light frame is the primary reason why game-breaking speed is a part of his offensive repertoire. And, of course, there’s always Peppers.
7. Instant Impact Freshman: Advantage Harbaugh
In his first full recruiting year, Harbaugh was able to bring in 29 recruits. One of the 29 is five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary. Standing roughly 6-foot-4 and 287 pounds, one would think Gary lacks the speed needed to be an elite pass rusher. However, the former Paramus Catholic standout ran a 4.74 40-yard dash, which for a player with his physical stature is unbelievable. Given the Wolverines’ question marks at the quarterback position for the 2016 season, Michigan will most likely need an elite rushing attack to be successful. Freshman Kareem Walker will serve as a much-needed reserve for the more physically imposing De’Veon Smith. Walker resembles a hybrid of Smith and current Jacksonville Jaguar Denard Robinson. The Buckeyes depleted front seven could be extremely vulnerable to the Wolverines’ elite running back combination.
8. Hiring Of Don Brown
For those of you who don’t know who Don Brown is, here’s a brief background. Brown was the defensive coordinator for Boston College in 2015. Last season, the Eagles ranked No. 1 in total defense, allowing just 254 total yards per game. Brown proved he can use mediocre talent to produce the best defense in college football. Fortunately for Brown, there’s an abundance of elite defensive talent on Harbaugh’s 2016 squad. The Wolverines’ defensive depth will allow Brown to develop multiple rushing packages that could prove problematic for an Ohio State offensive line that seems to return little talent for the 2016 season.
9. J.T. Barrett Is Now A One-man Show
For all of the Buckeyes departures in 2015, quarterback J.T. Barrett remains on the Ohio State roster. Barrett is the most dynamic quarterback in the Big Ten and is a dark horse for this year’s Heisman Trophy. If the Buckeyes can replicate their 12-1 record from last season, much of the credit will go to the 2016 Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP. The Buckeyes lost seemingly every offensive weapon from last season, so Michigan should be able to focus on containing one playmaker instead of the handful they failed to effectively defend in 2015.
10. Harbaugh Will Develop A Capable Signal-Caller
The only offensive question for the Wolverines is who their quarterback will be for the upcoming season. Whether it’s Houston transfer John O’Korn or Wilton Speight, Harbaugh will be able to mold either one into a capable, playmaking quarterback. Former Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock went from a poor decision-making, one-dimensional quarterback to a legitimate dual threat quarterback with confidence in his decision-making skills. Rudock is a perfect example of Harbaugh’s ability to create solid signal-callers in very little time. Fortunately for Wolverines fans, the Ohio State game concludes the regular season, so if all goes as planned, Harbaugh will have an experienced, confident quarterback at his disposal by the time his team takes the field in Columbus.
11. Ohio State’s Lack Of Playmakers
Braxton Miller is a Houston Texan, Ezekiel Elliott is a Dallas Cowboy and Joey Bosa is a San Diego Charger. The list could include nine more names, but I think you get the point. The Buckeyes lost a total of 12 players to the 2016 draft, not to mention undrafted free agents who were signed. Barrett may not have many reliable pass catchers or running backs to depend on, and as a result, the Buckeyes’ could take a big step back on offense.
12. Michigan’s Newfound Swagger
Ever since Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater, there’s been a renewed sense of optimism in Ann Arbor. That optimism has rapidly grown into sky-high expectations for the Wolverines in 2016. Michigan went from a team fighting to make a bowl game to one with College Football Playoff aspirations in just two years. The quick turnaround has Michigan fans and players confident that the team will be a legitimate title contender this season. Confidence is something that all championship teams must have, and Harbaugh has every fan and player believing.
13. Schedule Momentum: Advantage UM
Michigan finishes the 2016 regular season against MSU, Iowa and, of course, Ohio State. If Harbaugh’s quarterback development goes well, the Wolverines should enter the Horseshoe on a big winning streak with supreme confidence in their ability on both sides of the ball.
14. Michigan’s Front Seven
The Wolverines return nearly every defensive lineman from a season ago. Wormley, Hurst and Taco Charlton return for year two under Harbaugh with expectations of an elite defense in 2016. In addition to the veterans, Harbaugh did an excellent job on the recruiting trail. The aforementioned Gary will likely start at defensive tackle, and due to Michigan’s lack of depth at linebacker, four-star prospect Devin Bush Jr. will probably see the field early and often. The Wolverines have the perfect combination of veteran experience and young talent to knock off a seemingly depleted Ohio State team.
15. UM’s Running Back Depth
The lack of a clear cut, No. 1 quarterback means the Wolverines will need a reliable, productive running game to keep drives alive and opposing offenses off the field. Given the abundance of talent in the backfield, Michigan’s ground game should excel in 2016. Seniors Smith and Drake Johnson will likely be the two primary backs in the rotation, with USC transfer Ty Isaac and Walker probably playing important relief roles for the two upperclassmen. Given their big play ability, Peppers and sophomore speedster Karon Higdon could be used in the Wolverines’ trick play packages. Michigan’s versatility and depth in the backfield is the primary reason the team should defeat Ohio State in the upcoming season. Elliott is gone; therefore, Michigan should have the advantage over Ohio State in the backfield.
16. Jehu Chesson And Amara Darboh
During Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan, Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh were extremely underutilized. Under Harbaugh, Chesson became a dangerous deep threat with excellent speed after the catch. Darboh proved he has some of the best hands in college football when he made an Odell Beckham-like snag in the Wolverines’ 31-0 win over BYU last season. The quarterback who earns the starting job will be very glad to have two experienced playmakers to throw to. The duo should prove lethal to a Buckeyes secondary that was profoundly depleted in the 2016 NFL Draft.
17. The Michigan 2016 “Hype Train”
Michigan has been the talk of college football ever since Alabama’s win over Clemson in the title game. Given that the Big Ten should be top-heavy this upcoming season, the Wolverines shouldn’t have trouble in the majority of their conference matchups. Despite preseason hype skyrocketing expectations for the regular season, it also gives every player on the roster the unabated belief that they can win it all. Supreme confidence should assist Michigan in a hostile environment in Columbus.
18. Harbaugh’s NFL Philosophy vs. Depth-lacking Ohio State
Jim Harbaugh brought a “smash mouth” football philosophy to Ann Arbor and as a result, Michigan doesn’t need a high-flying offense to win games. The Wolverines should dominate time of possession with an elite rushing attack. Michigan should wear out a vulnerable Ohio State defense, which despite excellent recruiting, likely isn’t capable of replacing all of their lost talent overnight.
19. CFP Berth And Big Ten Championship On The Line
The reality of Michigan being a legitimate title contender in 2016 has sunk into the college football world. Harbaugh has instilled a culture that won’t easily erode. The players bought into his system in 2015 and this season, they should see encouraging results that will only inspire the team to reach new heights. When they enter the Horseshoe in late November, the Wolverines could be undefeated. The Buckeyes, despite their difficult non-conference schedule, could enter the game with Michigan with maybe one loss. Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten Championship since 2004 and in 2016, the Wolverines will likely have adequate talent to support their burning desire to win their first national championship since 1997.
20. Harbaugh vs. Meyer Round 2
Containing Barrett will be No. 1 on Harbaugh’s defensive to-do list. Fortunately for the Wolverines, containing the junior signal-caller will likely be the only daunting defensive task. The Buckeyes’ versatility on both sides of the ball proved way too much for Harbaugh’s first year squad. If Meyer is able to sneak out a win with substantially less talent, much of the credit will go to the dual-threat quarterback. Brown will be able to key in on Barrett with elite pass rushers like Gary and Wormley. Harbaugh prepares too well to not take advantage of a depleted Ohio State team with a trip to the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff likely on the line.