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Jack Freifelder and Anthony Chiusano | | August 28, 2016

Will Michigan make the Playoff?

  Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is hoping to get his team to the CFP in 2016.

Note: Over the two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Michigan, a team that finished 10-3 last year and is ranked seventh in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.

Michigan will make the CFP because... Michigan won't make the CFP because...
  • Michigan's defense will maintain top form.
  • of its uncertainty at the quarterback position.
  • the Wolverines will find steady QB play.
  • the team must fill in gaps at linebacker.
  • most of the team's skill position players return.
  • of its difficult slog through the Big Ten.

Jack Freifelder: Alright Anthony, let’s dig into the season that was for the Michigan Wolverines. Sure a 10-3 record would have most teams quite high on their prospects going forward, but a lot of teams don’t have head coach Jim Harbaugh running the show.

If not for a season-opening misstep against Utah and a midseason loss to Michigan State, this team could have gone into its season finale against Ohio State with an undefeated record. But that was then and this is now.

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That said, there are a number of questions facing the maize and blue ahead of the 2016 campaign. At the top of that list is the quarterback play coming into camp.

Jake Rudock has moved on to the NFL, but his steady play will surely be missed behind an offensive line that returns three seniors. Michigan was in the top 50 in points per game a year ago, a mark that is likely to dip with the team adjusting to a new signal caller.

The team has yet to name a starting quarterback despite entering the final week of training camp, but many on the coaching staff are confident that either John O’Korn or Wilton Speight can get the job done from under center.

So, what do you make of the whole rigmarole at the QB spot?

Anthony Chiusano: What was crazy about Michigan's season last year was how quickly they rose. This was a team that went into 2015 unranked, but with Harbaugh leading the charge in his first season, the Wolverines proved that they are big players in the competitive Big Ten.

I'd go as far as to say Michigan possesses the most talented and dynamic group of skill players that the conference has to offer. With that said, the question at quarterback still looms large as you noted.

Rudock, a transfer from Iowa, fit in nicely to lead the offense last year. He did nothing especially flashy, but he was fairly consistent and did a nice job not turning the ball over. O'Korn, a transfer from Houston, can fit this same role in the offense this year if he wins the job. O'Korn has previous starting experience but I'm a little weary of believing Michigan can strike gold twice with transfer quarterbacks in consecutive seasons.

O'Korn is only a redshirt sophomore and he familiarized himself with the offense last year while sitting out per transfer rules, so it wouldn't be surprising if O'Korn can adapt and become Michigan's answer under center. But I'm not sure how quickly that will happen. Of course, the other option would be to go with the junior Speight, who has six career appearances off the bench. With his limited sample size, there's no way to be sure he's the answer either this year.

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Michigan undoubtedly has the pieces around whoever gets the nod to rise in the rankings and become elite. But with no sure answer at quarterback, it's hard to believe the Wolverines take the next step to make the CFP -- at least this year anyways.

JF: Point taken, and it's a good one.

Throwing a new QB into the mix on offense is not the best addition to a recipe that needs work, but there is reason for optimism given the skill players that will surround whoever emerges at QB.

  Michigan's senior tight end Jake Butt (88) will be one of the team's leaders in 2016.
Michigan returns all three of its leading receivers (senior wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, as well as tight end Jake Butt), a trio that accounted for nearly 160 receptions, 2,000+ yards and 17 touchdowns.

Lead running back De’Veon Smith will be back in the mix as well, which should help alleviate the stress placed on O’Korn or Speight come crunch time. Michigan’s coaching staff has also toyed with the idea of putting Jabrill Peppers into the lineup for some special packages on offense, so there will be no shortage of weapons to work with.

Regardless of who is available at the skill positions, this team’s success will largely hinge on the quarterback’s ability to get the ball to his playmakers. And in some cases, the QB’s job will be just to play game manager — as condescending a moniker as that has become in football circles.

That said, this is a team that suffered a negative turnover margin (-4) in 2015, a stat the coaching staff will surely look to turn in 2016. But in my mind there's reason for optimism here, especially when you look at the defensive side of the ball.

Michigan Football: Rudock to Butt for 19 yard TD
AC: As much praise that big-play guys like Chesson, Butt and Peppers deserve on the offense, you're right about Michigan's defense being the glue of the team. The unit finished fourth in total defense in 2015 while allowing the sixth-least touchdowns in the nation. It's a balanced group throughout that features similar skillets as the offense in terms of speed, athleticism and versatility.

But if there is a hole, it's up the middle where an unproven group of linebackers look to solidify the Wolverines' seemingly rock-solid defense. Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden have graduated to leave way for names like seniors Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray (who missed all of 2015 with an injury) and a whole lot of freshmen.

You mentioned the two-way ultra-athlete Peppers, who will be a ton of fun to watch wherever he lines up on the field. However, whether he's as effective in an increased defensive role is yet to be seen.

Related: Michigan-Michigan State play recreated in animated LEGO form

There shouldn't be a significant drop-off from Michigan's defense in 2016 but it will be interesting to see how the linebacking crew steps up against some strong running teams.

  Michigan's Jabrill Peppers is a jack of all trades for head coach Jim Harbaugh.
JF: I have to agree with you there.  A potent D-line and a strong defensive backfield can only do so much to make up for potential shortcomings in the linebacking corps.

The points per game average (17.2) and sack totals (32) from a year ago give fans good reason for optimism, but that said, this unit is capable of making more big impact plays all over the defensive side of the ball.

The Wolverines forced just 12 total turnovers (10 interceptions, two fumbles) a year ago, which will simply not cut it with this year's squad. As such, the upperclassmen will have to lead by example.

Senior defensive end Chris Wormley (6.5 sacks) returns to lead an experience group up front and the cornerback tandem of senior Channing Stripling (two interceptions despite missing four games in 2015) and senior Jourdan Lewis (two interceptions, including one returned for TD in a 38-0 drubbing of Northwestern) will hold down the outsides.

In Michigan's three losses last year the team averaged six penalties a game, so another thing that the coaching staff will surely look to cut down on is the team's penchant for drawing flags. A run to the CFB Playoff is not likely to be littered with yellow flags, so Michigan would be wise to clean up its act.

AC: In the end, I feel like Michigan is still a year away. Michigan surpassed expectations last season and will be in the thick of the Playoff conversation deep into 2016. But ultimately, I don't think Michigan is ready to earn that top spot in the Big Ten. Reigning conference champion Michigan State is still formidable, Iowa and its strong defense is likely to be a pesk once again and then there's top rival Ohio State ready to reclaim a coveted spot in the CFP.

Michigan not only faces all three of these potential conference champions this year, but the Wolverines must do so on the road for all three contests. That's a scary back half of a schedule to deal with and I'm not sure Michigan is ready to take the jump after losing to both the Spartans and Buckeyes last year -- granted, Michigan State pulled out its last-second win in unimaginable fashion.

Ask me this question next year and I will be happy to argue that Michigan will be one of the last teams standing. But for now, I will hold off on this claim.

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