Getty Images

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan, a preseason title contender

7 Comments

Notre Dame and Michigan have no further games scheduled. This late October matchup will be the end of the rivalry for the foreseeable future, at least on the field. Fittingly, it should be a make-or-break game for both teams.

The regular season finale against Ohio State is more important for Wolverines fans, and the mid-September date at Georgia projects to be tougher for the Irish, but a loss in either of those games would be cushioned by a win in this matchup, far as postseason concerns go.

2018 REVIEW
Michigan was on the path to prove that concept last year, losing in the opener at Notre Dame 24-17 before getting on a 10-game roll, outscoring opponents by an average of 39-13, during that stretch. Despite the opening loss, the Wolverines were in the Playoff conversation. A win at Ohio State in late November would have pushed Michigan not only into a Big Ten title game against Northwestern, but also into a vicious debate with Oklahoma competing for the final Playoff berth.

Instead, the Buckeyes rolled the Wolverines, 62-39. In the third quarter, it was only 24-19. The game could have gone either way. Instead, Ohio State blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown and then intercepted a Shea Patterson pass within Michigan’s own 20-yard line. Things spiraled from there as the Buckeyes racked up 567 yards.

The Wolverines did not recover in the Peach Bowl, albeit playing without their two best defenders. Florida cruised past Michigan, 41-15.

WHAT MICHIGAN LOST
Those two defensive stars heard their names in the first round of the NFL draft, within the first 12 picks to be exact. First-team All-American linebacker Devin Bush and defensive end Rashan Gary were the stars of the Wolverines’ defense, but two more defenders also went in the draft, second-team All-American defensive end Chase Winovich and first-team all-Big Ten cornerback David Long, both in the third round.

Third-team Big Ten tight end Zach Gentry completed the draft class in the fifth round.

The biggest loss may have been one of five undrafted free agents. Running back Karan Higdon finished last season with 1,178 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. On an inconsistent offense, Higdon was often the only reliable piece, at one point running for 100 yards in seven consecutive games.

Higdon’s departure may have been readily mitigated if No. 2 rusher Chris Evans (423 yards, four touchdowns) was not suspended for the 2019 season (academics).

But speaking of that inconsistent offense, coordinator Pep Hamilton was not retained, landing with the yet-to-have players XFL, which probably says more than it needs to about Hamilton’s standing in some coaching circles.

WHAT MICHIGAN GAINED
The No. 10 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com, included a few players who may make day one impacts. Early enrollees Mike Sainsritil and Erick All are likely already in the two-deep at slot receiver and tight end, respectively. Sainsritil, in particular, impressed during the spring while the Wolverines’ front-line receivers battled injury.

Another early enrollee, running back Zach Charbonnet, could not impress on the field while he recovered from an MCL injury, but there is speculation he may end up the starting running back, nonetheless.

Five-star safety Daxton Hill may also end up a starter by season’s end, and if not a starter, certainly a frequent contributor. Notre Dame fans can compare the hype to Hill to the hype around Irish freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, Hill having elite speed while Hamilton has notable size.

Up front, Michigan added five-star defensive tackle Christopher Hinton to a position group needing depth, and Central Michigan grad transfer defensive end Mike Danna will provide a similar luxury on the outside.

One last name, one that should not much matter in 2019, will stand out to Notre Dame fans: The Wolverines indeed signed former Irish commit four-star quarterback Cade McNamara.

Jim Harbaugh is 38-14 in his four seasons as Michigan head coach and 67-35 in his nine total years of collegiate head coaching. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
For as ridiculed and doubted as Jim Harbaugh is, it is hard to remember he has coached Michigan to three 10-win seasons in his four years there. That is far from unsuccessful.

Wolverines fans will remain dissatisfied until he starts reeling off wins against Ohio State and Michigan State, but Harbaugh’s overall body of work should not be so quickly diminished.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
If Harbaugh has a weakness, it is on the offensive side of the ball. He and Andrew Luck found offensive efficiency during Harbaugh’s time at Stanford, and then Harbaugh pushed the envelope a bit as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. But since returning to his alma mater, Harbaugh has not established an offensive identity.

All that said, Michigan still averaged 35.2 points per game last year, No. 21 in the country. Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson (pictured at top) completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The Wolverines found their way past 40 points in half a dozen games. It may have been an inconsistent offense, but it was hardly ineffective.

But to catch up with the times, exeunt Hamilton; enter former Alabama receivers coach Josh Gattis. He brings a “pro spread” system, meaning it is largely a pro style offense, but one incorporating spread tendencies and formations. Gattis’ charge is to move quickly, occasionally sans huddle, and get his playmakers into space.

Michigan has those playmakers, primarily at the position of Gattis’ expertise. Leading receivers junior Nico Collins (38 catches for 632 yards and six touchdowns) and junior Donovan Peoples-Jones (47 catches for 612 yards and eight scores) both return, as does junior Tarik Black, coming off a foot injury. No individual receiver had 100 yards in a game last season, but Gattis is likely to change that and change it quickly. (Read: Michigan opens its season Aug. 31 vs. Middle Tennessee State.)

To solve the running back question, the Wolverines may simply lean into their offensive line. Four starters return, with 89 career starts between them, and all four earned all-Big Ten honors last year, led by left tackle Jon Runyan making the conference’s first-team. Center Cesar Ruiz, third-team all-Big Ten, is a distinct NFL prospect and forms a strong duo with third-team all-Big Ten right guard Michael Onwenu. That line was considered a question mark as recently as 12 months ago. What changed? Harbaugh hired Ed Warriner away from Ohio State.

Oftentimes a shutdown cornerback is best noticed by his lack of stats, as opposing quarterbacks try to avoid throwing toward them. Such is the case for Michigan senior Lavert Hill, who finished last season with just 14 tackles, five pass breakups and one interception. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Don Brown has led Harbaugh’s defense for three years now, and last year’s 19.4 points per game was the worst of the stretch. Clearly, that is still quite good, No. 16 in the country.

Brown loves himself a pass rush, and will turn to junior defensive end Kwity Paye to create one. In limited action last season, Paye still managed 5.5 tackles for loss, including a pair of sacks. Sophomore Aidan Hutchinson will line up opposite Paye, and he is seen as the next in line now that Gary and Winovich are in the NFL.

Senior linebacker Josh Uche did not start last year, but he led the team with seven sacks, positioning to pick up where Bush left off.

Senior cornerback Lavert Hill returned after a third-team All-American campaign, providing some stability to the secondary.

SEASON OUTLOOK
The hype around Michigan this preseason has resulted in two general public responses: “Sure,” or “That makes no sense whatsoever.”

Forget what school it is, however, and the logic behind the projections makes sense. Veteran quarterback + excellent offensive line + more modern offensive approach + proven defensive success … that does not equal a collapse.

The season win total over/under on the Wolverines is at 9.5, with little value to be found on the over, indicating that is the general consensus. Furthermore, Michigan is tied for the fourth-best odds to win the national championship, behind only Clemson, Alabama and Georgia.

Then comes the paradox: While the preseason media poll pegged the Wolverines as the favorites to win the Big Ten, Ohio State actually has better odds to do so.

That is when Michigan’s season will be determined, the finale against the Buckeyes, again. Though Notre Dame and Michigan State will both visit Ann Arbor before then, and the Wolverines will travel to Wisconsin and Penn State (the week before the Irish game), the season’s success is likely to hinge on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, and with it, one more rash verdict on Harbaugh.

RELATED READING: Louisville, fresh off a needed coaching change
New Mexico and former Irish head coach Bob Davie
Georgia, undeniably the season’s greatest challenge
Virginia and Bryce Perkins, a dangerous dual-threat quarterback
Bowling Green and a familiar defensive coordinator
USC, coming off its first losing season since 2000