Somehow, someway, we’re now just hours away from the first full Saturday of the college football season!! And after spending the last few months breaking down every angle in the sport, it’s now, finally time to talk about the most important aspect of the entire season: The true, national championship contenders. Therefore, go ahead and step aside, Purdue. Deuces, Iowa State. See ya later Clemso ---, oh wait, Dabo Swinney’s club is actually really good.
Still, over the last few weeks, FoxSports.com will break down all the true contenders for the National Championship and give you a couple reasons why, yes, they can win it all. Last week we kicked things off with Ohio State Monday, hit the Washington Huskies on Tuesday discussed the Houston Cougars Wednesday, the Tennessee Vols Thursday and the TCU Horned Frogs Friday. This week, we’ve already hit Clemson, LSU, Florida State and Oklahoma. Now, it’s time to talk the team everyone in Vegas loves, Michigan! That’s right, after “The Summer of Harbaugh” the Wolverines actually have a team that’s capable of not only playing for a title, but winning it. Here are five reasons why.
Getty ImagesGregory Shamus
They have by far the best defense in the Big Ten
While their biggest rivals Ohio State and Michigan State are in major rebuilding (or at least reloading) mode on the defensive side of the ball, the Wolverines have a unit which isn’t just “as good” as anyone in the conference, but is, point blank, better. No one has a combination of skill and experience quite like the Wolverines do.
It obviously starts with the All-Everything corner/safety/linebacker hybrid Jabrill Peppers, but make no mistake, the All-American and Heisman candidate is only a small part of what makes this defense great, and what helped the Wolverines have one of the most statistically impressive units in the country last year.
The other star is corner Jourdan Lewis, an All-American in his own right, who had two interceptions last year, and helped the Wolverines lead college football in two of the most impressive passing defense categories there are: Opponent’s completion percentage (just 47.5 percent), as well as fewest yards per completion (big thanks to my Fox Sports colleague Bruce Feldman for those stats). Up front, the Wolverines have depth and experience, with four seniors projected to start on the defensive line, and that doesn’t even include the nation’s No. 1 recruit last year, defensive tackle Rashaan Gary.
Point being that after finishing No. 4 nationally in total defense (allowing just 280 yards per game), and sixth in scoring defense (16.4 points per game) it isn’t crazy to think that those numbers could be even better this year.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY SportsRussell Isabella
They have by far the best running game in the Big Ten too
Credit Jim Harbaugh on this: It’s one thing for a coach to come in and say that he wants to be physical up front. It’s quite another to do it so emphatically in year one. Simply put, a year after getting pushed around by virtually everyone on their schedule in 2014 (believe me, I watched those games. I’m not afraid to say Michigan was “soft” in Brady Hoke’s final season) the Wolverines absolutely physically dominated most of the teams they played.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the running game, where the Wolverines averaged 158 yards per game, and they return the top three rushers from last season. De’Veon Smith led the way with over 700 yards and six scores and behind him are veterans Drake Johnson and Ty Issac, meaning that regardless of who’s in the game, this unit shouldn’t miss a beat.
Like the defense, it isn’t unreasonable to think that the Wolverines rushing attack will put up even better numbers in 2016 than last year.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY SportsJeffrey Swinger
Whoever wins the quarterback job will have plenty of help around him
While this article is about why Michigan will win the title this year, there are two general reasons why they might not. One, their schedule is tough (more on that coming). And two, inexperience at quarterback. However, when it comes to the latter, I’m not as concerned as others. Let me explain why.
For starters, Jim Harbaugh has basically proven to be a quarterback-whisperer throughout his career, whether it was with Colin Kaepernick in the pros, or Jake Rudock last year. Remember, Rudock was a below-average Big Ten quarterback during his time at Iowa, only to come to Michigan and, at the very least, be competent. He finished last year completing 64 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns. You think that whoever wins the job can’t do the same this year?
It’s also worth noting that whoever is the quarterback won’t have to do it alone. In addition to the running game, Michigan has --- and pardon me if you’ve heard this before --- the best set of receivers in the Big Ten this year.
That’s right, one of the few, positive lasting legacies of the Brady Hoke era was to transition from the small, shifty receivers Rich Rodriguez left over, to the bigger physical ones he brought in. And it was Harbaugh who got to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt combined for close to 150 catches last year and will give the QB plenty of help in the passing game.
The Big Ten is down
Yes, Michigan’s three toughest games (Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State) are all on the road, and yes that does concern me. At the same time, if there was ever a year to get those three teams away from the Big House, doesn’t this feel like it?
Yes, Urban Meyer has recruited his brains out in four years in Columbus, but the Buckeyes will still be one of the most inexperienced teams in college football after losing over a dozen draft picks last spring, including a near-record five first rounders. Michigan State lost a three-year starter at quarterback and has holes to fill on the defense. Iowa has plenty of question marks too. So does the rest of the Big Ten, where there are no obvious threats to Michigan.
Sometimes it’s not just how good you are, but how good everyone else is around you. It’s something Michigan could take advantage of --big-time -- this year.
Getty ImagesChristian Petersen
In Harbaugh we trust
I know, I know, every single non-Michigan fan reading right now hates me for typing this, and I already know what they’re going to say. Something to the effect of: “What did Harbaugh actually do last year?” or “He’s still got to beat Ohio State and Michigan State before he proves anything to me.” But while that last part is fair, the first is not.
The simple truth is that the “What has Harbaugh actually done?” narrative might be the single, dumbest one in college football entering the season. What has Harbaugh done at Michigan? Well, how about take a team that won five games in 2014 and in one year, completely flip them around, tallying 10 wins, with two of the Wolverines’ three losses coming by a touchdown or less. If one or two things went the other way, we could have been talking about an 11 or 12-win team. Not that 10 is too shabby.
But more than just the wins, it's how the Wolverines’ accomplished them. As I mentioned at the top, it isn’t just that Harbaugh won, but that in a few short months he completely changed the culture in the process. Prior to his arrival, Michigan was a plenty talented team, but lacked the toughness, heart and desire to compete with the best teams on their schedule. Fast forward one year and Michigan was an absolute force in the Big Ten, a team that physically overwhelmed everyone they were supposed to, and were every bit as good as the Michigan State team that beat them on the final play of their game. Only Ohio State was clearly more talented than them, and with what the Buckeyes’ lost following last season, and the Wolverines return, that gap seems to have closed.
At the same time, no one should be surprised, because, well, that’s just what Harbaugh does. Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the satellite camps and rap videos, but the one thing that gets lost is that he’s a damn good football coach. He proved it at San Diego, Stanford and with the 49ers, and once again last year.
So to answer Ann Arbor’s most rhetorical question: Who’s got it better than Michigan? No one.
The Wolverines are a true national championship contender.
Aaron Torres covers college football for Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com