Michigan football: Reasons for and against a Big Ten hat-trick
Michigan football is heading into the 2023 season, stepping into territory uncharted for decades, as preseason favorites to win the Big Ten title. With Ohio State dominating the conference for the better part of two decades, it’s been a long time since Michigan, or any other team, has been an offseason favorite. Even before last season, when Michigan was defending the Big Ten champions for the first time since 2005, almost every national news outlet singled out the Buckeyes to get back on top of the conference hill. Even the Big Ten media had picked Michigan to finish second in Big Ten media days.
Now, after proving everyone wrong a season ago and walking out of Ohio Stadium as the winner, Michigan football has tightened its grip on the Big Ten crown. So what are their chances for the coveted treble in 2023? Here are three reasons Michigan will win the Big Ten in 2023 and three things that could prevent them from winning a third straight conference title for the first time since 1990-92.
Three Reasons Michigan Will Win 1. Experience
It’s no secret that Michigan will be one of the most experienced teams in the country in 2023. At that point, the Wolverines will return 81% of their total production from a season ago, which is the 5th most in the country, according to ESPN. This includes 84% of offensive production (4th in the nation) and 78% of defensive production (16th in the nation). In 2023, Michigan will face just two teams ranked in the top 40 for the return to production, Rutgers (23rd) and Nebraska (39th), two teams that combined 4-14 in conference last season. The Wolverines’ biggest threats to the East Division crown, Ohio State (49th), Penn State (56th) and Maryland (65th), are all reporting significantly less production.
Michigan not only returns the most production in the Big Ten, but much of it comes in key positions, including quarterback. With the departures of many longtime quarterbacks from most of the Big Ten, experience in that position could be a crucial determining factor in crowning a champion. Of the teams with a winning record in 2022, only Michigan and Maryland return their starting quarterback.
Not to mention, this will be coupled with Michigan football returning four guys with starting experience along the offensive line, the return of Blake Corum, and a whopping 99% of last season’s rushed production. The defense is also loaded with guys who played a huge role in last season’s top-ranked unit, including Michigan’s top five tacklers of 2022 (Junior Colson, Micheal Barrett Jr., Rod Moore, Mike Sainristril, Kris Jenkins). Adding insult to injury, the Wolverines bring back what could possibly be their best defenseman and one of the best cornerbacks in the entire country, second Will Johnson.
2. Winning Culture
Team culture is one of the most underrated aspects of college sports, not just football. Does everyone on the roster buy into the team? A football team is like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link, and it only takes one link to not cost a team a game. A winning culture is also vital; guys who have “been there and done that” in the biggest games on the biggest stages.
The Wolverines roster is currently loaded with guys who have played in one or two Big Ten title and college football playoff games. Today’s upper classes can say they’ve won games at Ohio Stadium, Happy Valley, Kinnick Stadium, Camp Randall and Memorial Stadium, a row of Big Ten football venue assassins.
That winning mentality becomes contagious when a program kicks off and follows the type of streak the Wolverines are currently enjoying (25-3 on aggregate over the past two seasons). Guys go to the biggest games of the year hoping to win. Sometimes this can lead to overconfidence or arrogance and the downfall of a team.
Yet, with the right leadership, coaching, and preparation, this belief in success can help teams weather adversity. Players and coaches who don’t believe in themselves pucker up in the biggest moments. What we used to see this year with the Wolverines against Ohio State, they have now turned it around and the Buckeyes were the team that faltered with the game and the conference title on the line a season ago.
3. “The Game” is in Ann Arbor
Speaking of Ohio State, the Wolverines get the Buckeyes at ‘The Big House’ for the first time as defending conference champions since 2005. It’ll also be the first time they’ve faced off in Ann Arbor since that Hassan Haskins rushed for five touchdowns in Michigan’s fifteen-point victory of 2021.
While Michigan had to go to Columbus last season and still won the conference, it should be much easier to catch Ohio State at home. Besides the Wolverines winning at ‘The Shoe’ for the first time since 2000 and Ohio State losing just four total home games in the past 10 seasons, Michigan football has always played much better at home. With fans in attendance, Jim Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 45-5 record at Michigan Stadium. Comparatively, he has twice as many road losses (10) in nearly half as many games (33).
Now, that’s not to say Ryan Day can’t lead Ohio State to Ann Arbor with a freshman starting quarterback and win. This is precisely what happened in 2019. Yet, is Kyle McCord the same as Justin Fields? Is JT Tuimoloau equal to Chase Young? Is Denzel Burke (or Ole Miss Davison Igbinosun transfer) as good as Jeff Okudah? We will see.
One thing is certain, if Michigan wants to win the Big Ten, they have to beat the Buckeyes. The last time Michigan won an all-time Big Ten title while losing to Ohio State was in 1982 (they were co-champions with losses to Ohio State in 1998 and 2004). So don’t expect Wolverines to go to Lucas Oil Stadium after a loss the previous week.
Three Reasons Michigan Won’t 1. Complacency
Let me start by saying that I don’t think Michigan football will become complacent in 2023 after consecutive 12+ win seasons. Not only with the amount of experienced Wolverines leadership, but after Michigan’s very disappointing performance in the College Football Playoffs, I expect this group to be focused and eager to achieve their ultimate goal. It’s something that the leaders of this team will have to keep in mind all season to avoid any slippage in the early parts of the season.
Michigan opens the season with three non-conference cupcakes before facing a single Big Ten team that finished above .500 before November. This means Wolverines need to prepare for a tough game every week, as they will have a target on their back for every game of the season. Coaches like PJ Fleck or Matt Rhule would love nothing more than to score a home win against a Wolverine side likely to be in the top three. Thereafter, Michigan will most likely play its four toughest games (at Michigan State, at Penn State, at Maryland vs. Ohio State) in the final six weeks of the season. It will not be an easy end to the season. Can the Wolverines stay hungry enough to get away with it?
2. A considerably more difficult road program
I can admit Michigan didn’t have the toughest schedule last year en route to a perfect 12-0 regular season. They still played against some outstanding teams, including those that finished 4th (Ohio State) and 7th (Penn State) in the last AP poll, but overall they’ve seen their fair share of mediocre teams and n have only had to play four games on the road. This year they have five such matches, and it’s a noticeably tougher stretch. While yes, the Wolverines had to travel to Kinnick Stadium and Ohio Stadium, places they hadn’t won since 2005 and 2000, respectively, their remaining road opponents (Indiana and Rutgers) won three games combined. of the Big Ten.
Michigan has five road games this season (Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan State, Penn State, Maryland), including two straight road games. Michigan football will have to defend two rivalry trophies in hostile environments. Even more difficult is the fact that every road contest will be a strong candidate to be a night game, and at least two or three most likely will be. How’s a likely top 10 game going, in a night game, among a whiteout in Happy Valley?
Everyone hates to talk about it, but unfortunately injuries are only part of the game, and there’s not much you can do to avoid or minimize them. That’s why depth is key, and luckily Michigan has recruited and developed very well and has enough guys to back up every spot. That said, the only all-too-realistic way Michigan won’t win the Big Ten again is through serious injury.
A fully (or even mostly) healthy Wolverine team should be favored to win every game on their schedule. Even in Michigan’s two biggest matchups this season, Ohio State and Penn State, the Wolverines will face both teams’ new starting quarterbacks. Notably, the Wolverines are also a combined 4-0 against them over the past two seasons.
Michigan football has been bitten by the injury bug in 2022, with several key guys missing multiple games and three expected preseason starters missing all or most of the season. In the end, injuries most likely cost Michigan a playoff win, because I think this game against TCU plays out very differently with a healthy team.
Ultimately, Michigan’s ability to stay healthy and keep their playmakers on the field for the biggest games will be the biggest deciding factor in their chances of winning the Big Ten title.