May 29, 2024

Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa (97) defends Michigan running back Chris Evans (12) an NCAA college football game in the first quarter of in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

It’s year four for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan fans are expecting big things in 2018. Going 1-5 against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State over the last three years has left fans with their arms crossed. The Wolverines have come close in those losses, but the offense was always a liability. Harbaugh emphasized at Big 10 media days that improvement will lead to success and once that’s established it’ll lead to championships. The coach isn’t on the hot seat by any means, but he’s feeling the pressure to get the Wolverines to their first Big 10 Championship game.

Team Strengths: The defense. Michigan has a national championship-caliber type of defense, with nine starters returning from a unit that finished third nationally in total defense last season. There are studs along the defensive line, attacking linebackers and play-makers in the secondary. Good luck to teams trying to run on the Wolverines.

Team Weaknesses: The unknown commodity at the quarterback position. It’s no secret that Michigan has had mediocre play from its’ quarterbacks the last three seasons and that proved to be detrimental for the team. The Wolverines have already named Ole Miss graduate transfer Shea Patterson the starter for the season-opener at Notre Dame. The kid had a productive spring and there’s been positive feedback about him in fall camp, but the Wolverine fan base is still in a wait-and-see mode.

Players to watch: Defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush, cornerback Lavert Hill and running back Karan Higdon.  Gary was the nations’ top recruit in 2016 and has blossomed into one of the best pass rushers in the Big 10. Winovich, who also played tight end and linebacker before converting to an all-conference edge rusher, gives 100 percent on every play. Bush is the Wolverines’ leading returning tackler and sets the tone for this great defense. Hill made plays all over the field last year with tackles behind the line of scrimmage, breaking up passes and creating turnovers. Higdon nearly hit the 1,000-yard mark in rushing and had double-digit touchdowns while sharing carries with Chris Evans last season. He’s also on Doak Award watch list.

The schedule: A manageable home slate, but very brutal on the road. Michigan should go undefeated at home this season, although Wisconsin and Penn State may present some challenges. However, opening up at Notre Dame and playing the Spartans and Buckeyes on the road will definitely show the college football world if the Wolverines are pretenders or playoff worthy.

My take: With a proven quarterback in place and arguably the best defense in the nation, the Wolverines will snap their six-game losing streak to the Buckeyes, but fall short to the Spartans for the second straight year and back pedal its way into the programs’ first Big 10 title game.