Though prediction is an inaccurate science, I enjoy the exercise. My predictions weren't very accurate during the RR and Hoke years, but they have been since Harbaugh came to town. I predicted 9-3 in 2015 (we went 9-3), 10-2 in 2016 (we went 10-2) and 9-3 in 2017 (we went 8-4). This, of course, could be dumb luck. But I think it's more a function of predictability. What you see is mainly what you get with Harbaugh, at least so far.
So what do I see for 2018? An improved but still flawed team playing against a tougher slate of opponents.
What follows is a breakdown of that argument. Keep in mind that this is just a preliminary analysis--I'll do a follow-up sometime in August, when there's more information available. Here's where I see things right now:
We lose our best player (Hurst), but bring back nearly everyone else from 2017’s #10 defense (according to Bill Connelly’s S&P metric). This includes 6 players who project to be All-B1G or better (Gary, Winovich, Bush, K. Hudson, Hill and Long) and far better depth than we had in 2017. Combine that with the apparent upgrade in our S&C program, and you’re looking at a defense that should be stronger, faster and have more stamina than our already strong and fast 2017 defense.
We were also a very young defense in 2017, and the things we were not so great at were a function of our youth. The extra year should thus translate into fewer of the bad things that come from a lack of on-field experience (e.g. penalties, missed assignments, coverage breakdowns) and more of the good things that happen when you build knowledge of offensive tendencies (e.g. PBUs, interceptions, keeping contain on option plays).
In short, we should go from being a top 10 S&P defense to being a top 5 S&P defense, and may even match our senior-laden, NFL-bound 2016 defense in overall performance.
There are reasons to be optimistic about our offense too, though equally there are reasons for concern. Let’s start with the good stuff. We began 2017 unclear whether we would be a zone- or gap-blocking team. Gap blocking won because we were better at it, but we wasted a lot of time and reps to the ill-fated experiment with inside zone.* We start 2018 as a team with a clear blocking identity and an excellent trio of inside linemen to make it happen.
Youth among the receiving corps was another issue for us in 2017. Junior Grant Perry, playing out of the slot, was our most consistent receiver. Elsewhere the receiving corps was a flawed work in progress. Our most immediately productive freshman WR, Tarik Black, went down in the 3rdgame of the season, while our greatest raw talent, DPJ, needed more time to develop than he was given. Our sophomore receivers (Crawford and McDoom) disappointed, though a pair of underclassmen TEs (Gentry and McKeon) flashed tantalizing skillsets. Route running improved over the course of the year, but was never great—even by the bowl game. None of the receivers, aside from Perry, understood what to do when passing plays broke down, often leaving John O’Korn (or Brandon Peters, but mostly O’Korn) running around with no one to go to.
With Black returning from injury and everyone else a year older, stronger and wiser, we project to have the receiving corps we needed last year—the kind that is the right place at the right time, and the kind that knows what to do when plays break down. We are likely to see improvement in every facet, from blocking to catching, and from route running to timely improvisations. And, because they will play with more knowledge and discipline, we are also likely to see more of the athleticism advantage that players like DPJ and Gentry have over the defensive backs assigned to cover them.
Then there is our two-headed monster at tailback: Higdon (1a) and Evans (1b). By the end of 2017, both were running with vision and decisiveness—a combination we’ve lacked at the position since Toussaint’s one good year (and before that, Mike Hart). I don’t expect either to improve much over that late season renaissance, but I do expect them both to run that way from the get-go this time, which should result in one or both surpassing the 1,000-yard mark. I also expect them to improve in pass blocking, an area where neither was particular effective last year. (I’m unclear how much of an improvement can be expected, but even a moderate uptick would save a few plays per game—and by extension, a few drives—from implosion.)
Finally, there is the all-important QB position. Last year we started (1) a version of Speight suffering PTSD, (2) a madly-scrambling and erratic John O’Korn and (3) Brandon Peters with the training wheels on. None were very good, but injuries (to Speight and Peters) also meant that the team could never get used to one style of play.
Poor performance at the QB position in 2017 was not just the QBs’ fault, though no QB was good enough to overcome the offense’s structural flaws. Peters was the best of the bunch, though even he played like a first-year starter who the staff didn’t quite trust to win (and not lose) games. When given the chance to grab pole position for 2018, against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, he flubbed it.
This year we bring in Shea Patterson, who has been described as “Tate Forcier but goes to class.” That seems fairly accurate. Another way to describe him, though, would be “John O’Korn but better.” His skillset is a lot like O’Korn’s, but Patterson is a better runner, has a stronger arm and is a more accurate passer. To put it in perspective, if he starts for us last year, but everything else stays the same, we probably beat both MSU and OSU.
Now, the bad. We experienced poor play from the OT position last year, thanks to (1) Mason Cole playing out of position (a function of necessity), (2) the staff’s disastrous decision to pass on Eric Swensen in 2015 and (3) the also bad decision to start Nolan Ulizio over JBB. Once JBB took over RT, coupled with the commitment to gap blocking, we started to develop a more effective running game. But pass protection remained poor throughout.
This year we project to start JBB, who could not pass protect in 2017, at LT—where he will cover the QB’s blindside. We will start either the guard-sized Runyun or a redshirt freshmen (J. Hudson or Filiaga) at RT. Of course, if Grant Newsome comes back, and can play at or near his 2016 level, then the problem is solved—JBB can move back to RT, where his pass protection issues are less of a problem, while the freshmen can ease into their future roles as starters by being our backups in 2018. But nobody knows if Newsome will be able to come back from his injury, or whether this is advisable for his long-term health. Even if he does come back, he will have been away from contact for almost two years. Rust would be expected. So I don’t expect him to be our savior in 2018. In all likelihood, we will have to work with a bad set of options, and this is likely to create problems against the small number of good defenses on our schedule (ND, MSU, Wisconsin and OSU).
*It’s unclear whether we lost games as a result of this poor strategic decision, but it’s plausible that the MSU game goes differently if we had come in to it with a more effective running game.
Michigan vs. The Schedule
Michigan’s schedule is either the toughest in the FBS or one of the toughest. We play all 3 rival schools away, and draw Wisconsin, Northwestern and Scott Frost-edition Nebraska as our Big 10 West crossover games. By my count, there are 7 potentially difficult games on the schedule this year (@ND, vs. Nebraska, @NW, vs, Wisconsin, vs. PSU, @MSU, @OSU). For comparison’s sake, there were 5 last year (Florida, vs. MSU, @PSU, @Wisconsin, vs. OSU).
On the other hand, a couple of those games will be easier than they were, or would have been, in 2017. ND projects to have a good defense, but they got torched in the spring game. Their offensive line, meanwhile lost multiple starters to the NFL. Though I don’t quite expect to win the game in South Bend, I think it’s winnable—more so than a hypothetical matchup between 2017 ND and 2017 Michigan.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, should be about the same as they were last year, but we should be a significantly better team andwe play them at home. The biggest difference, though, should be PSU. They return an excellent QB (McSorley) and an OL that looks to improve on a shaky performance in 2017. At the same time, they lose a generational talent (Barkley), a near impossible to cover TE (Gesicki), their best WR (Hamilton) and the heart of a pretty good defense (Cabinda and Allen). Most importantly, they lose the Joe Moorhead, whose RPO-based offense fueled PSU’s 2016 transformation. And who did they replace him with? A long-time Franklin guy. That’s a big net loss. Oh, and we play them at the Big House, where they often struggle—instead of at Beaver Stadium, where we often struggle.
Projected Record, Based on Available Information and Reasonable Conjecture
It’s not possible to accurately predict our record with so many unknowns, both on our side and among our competitors. But given what we do know and what it looks like we can assume at this point, I see us going 9-3. In fact, I think the season will be quite similar to 2015. Here’s how that breaks down:
1. OSU. This will be the most difficult game on the schedule. We could win, but based on what we know now, they project to be the more complete team. Given that and recent history, it seems more prudent to expect a road loss from this one than an upset win.
2. ND. They will benefit from playing at home and playing us in week one. I expect this game to be a bit like Utah in 2015—hard fought but ultimately uphill for us. Of course, this is also what I thought would happen against Florida last year, so who knows. We could easily win; I just don’t see convincing enough reasons to predict that we will.
3. MSU. I think we win this one. Dantonio was right: home field advantage doesn’t mean all that much in this series anymore. In fact, I don’t think playing them away is much different from playing them at home. And while they were clearly ahead of us last year, we have more potential for growth.
4. The rest. I’m not sure who else we lose to, as we can win every other game on our schedule. But given the big fat question marks at OT, I see us dropping one more game—possibly on the road, or at home against Wisconsin. Probably Wisconsin.