Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, leads a team that has to replace 17 starters. ASSOCIATED PRESS
ANN ARBOR — Like the man himself, Jim Harbaugh’s third Michigan team is harder to predict than a late-summer pop-up storm.
Can the most inexperienced team in the nation crank forward the hands of time and remain a national contender? Or will the Wolverines sing “Hail to the Victors,” at the ... Music City Bowl?
Here are our best-case and worst-case scenarios for Michigan:
Best case: 11-1, 7-1 Big Ten
Hail! Hail! to Michigan, the champions of the ... East!
If no team replacing 17 starters — including a program-record 11 draft selections — has any business winning the Big Ten, the Wolverines are too young to know any better.
They just know they’re good.
Think about this: Harbaugh signed 28 Rivals.com top-250 recruits the past two classes. Excluding Ohio State, the rest of the Big Ten together nabbed 43. The bottom line is Michigan has more talent than every league rival but the empire to the south, and it shows in a hurry this fall.
The Wolverines open with a grinding win Saturday against 17th-ranked Florida at Jerry World, and continue to find their bearings against a comfy early schedule.
Often as not, the question marks become exclamation points. Quarterback Wilton Speight takes a star turn, defensive coordinator Don Brown conjures another terrorizing unit, and the fresh-faced five stars begin to show a 5 o’clock shadow. Sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary and freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones are among the several teenaged former understudies who prove as capable as the veterans they replace, respectively earning All-American and all-league honors in their first years as starters.
Michigan’s perfect season ends Week 7 at Penn State. But just when a dubious nation cries, “See!,” Harbaugh fires back with his piece de resistance. Michigan wins at Wisconsin, then cuts down Ohio State, earning Harbaugh an icy on-field milk bath and touching off the hottest time in the old town in two decades.
The Big Ten East champions go on to win their first league title since 2004, and Harbaugh is named national coach of the year. Although the Wolverines fall to Alabama in their playoff semifinal, even Harbaugh’s biggest critics genuflect.
Michigan opens the 2018 season as a 5-1 national title favorite, their odds second only to Alabama.
Worst case: 8-4, 5-3 Big Ten
Turns out, filling 17 starting vacancies — the most turnover at an FBS program in at least a decade — is as hard as it sounds.
Couple the natural learning curve with a quarterback controversy between Speight and blue-chip redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, and the Wolverines are in for a long autumn.
In between the bursts of promise for the future is a lot of pain in the present, starting with a hard-on-the-eyes 12-10 loss to Florida, the defensive-minded two-time defending SEC East champions.
From there, Michigan wins a game perhaps it should lose (Week 11 at Wisconsin) because of its talent and loses a game it should win (Week 5 vs. Michigan State) because of its youth. But mostly, the season plays to form.
The Wolverines wrap up their third consecutive third-place finish in the Big Ten East with another loss to Ohio State, during which Harbaugh spontaneously combusts after an official — whom internet sleuths discover is a Michigan native who once confided his love of Spartans football to his hometown newspaper — gives the Buckeyes a favorable late fourth-down spot.
Harbaugh also begins to feel the (low) heat, his honeymoon done as the hype-over-substance crowd receives their best ammo yet. Stripped of context — any context — they remind Harbaugh’s record in his first two seasons (20-6) was only one game better than Brady Hoke’s ledger after the same span, and his third season falls well short of the standard set by his top division peers. In their third years in the Big Ten, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer won the national title with the youngest roster in the Big Ten, and Penn State’s James Franklin won the conference.
Although all signs point toward Harbaugh building an enduring national power, the pressure is on to win big — and, most important, beat Ohio State — in 2018.