#6 Michigan brought the good vibes back to Ann Arbor

#6 Michigan brought the good vibes back to Ann Arbor

College football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year, Yahoo Sports revealed teams 11 through 25 in one go before we publish each of the top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to week 1. This continues with No. 6 Michigan.

Previously: 11-25, No. 10 Oregon, No. 9 State NC, No. 8 Notre Dame, #7 Texas A&M

#6 Michigan

Michigan has finally had the breakthrough its fans have long craved.

After a disastrous 2020 season that pressured Jim Harbaugh to a record level, the Wolverines bounced back with one of their best seasons ever. Michigan had an 11-1 regular season that was crowned by defeating rivals Ohio State for the first time since 2011. From there, Michigan won its first outright Big Ten title since 2004 by defeating Iowa and advancing to the College Football Playoff.

The dream season ended with a CFP semifinal loss to Georgia, but it was still a huge achievement for a show that seemed to be treading water under Harbaugh. Harbaugh is never far from drama, but his brief flirtation with the NFL has come and gone and now the vibes in Ann Arbor are very positive for the 2022 season.

There’s a lot to like about this team, although there have been a fair amount of changes. Both of Harbaugh’s coordinators left, with Josh Gattis leaving for Miami and Mike Macdonald returning to the Baltimore Ravens. The Wolverines also need to replace three stars on defense, including Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson, who was the second pick in the NFL draft.

There’s also the task of trying to replicate the magic of such a phenomenal season. Will the Wolverines keep the lead they played with in 2021, pass Ohio State for another Big Ten title, and earn a playoff berth? Or will they fall back into the Big Ten East rankings?

The early part of the schedule is very forgiving and could allow some clue for the Wolverines to work out some new twists before diving into the Big Ten schedule.

Michigan ranks 6th in our 2022 preseason college football rankings. (Sports Illustration by Yahoo/Amber Matsumoto)

Michigan ranks 6th in our 2022 preseason college football rankings. (Sports Illustration by Yahoo/Amber Matsumoto)

The offense could be better, but who is the QB?

Michigan’s offense was pretty good last year and there’s reason to believe the 2022 version could be even better. Harbaugh promoted from within to replace Gattis, going with Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss as co-coordinators.

These two will have no problem getting acquainted with the folks in question, but there’s an important question to answer: who will play quarterback? Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy are fighting for the title holder. McNamara was the starter last fall with McCarthy, then a true rookie, mostly being worked on race packages.

Harbaugh was quick to name McNamara as a starter last offseason and he’s had a really solid season. But McCarthy could bring another level of blast to an already talented attack. With the opening less than two weeks away, the battle was still ongoing. Don’t be surprised if you both see significant action during the non-conference portion of the schedule.

Up front, the Wolverines lost some contributors but added Virginia center Victor Oluwatimi with three returning starters. Hassan Haskins, the team’s most physical running back since 2021, has departed, but Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards should form one of the best duos in the Big Ten.

Michigan didn’t have an obvious receiver last year, as running play led the way on offense. Heading into 2022, nearly all of a solid group of catchers and tight ends are back. The group will also get a big boost with the return of Ronnie Bell. Bell was the team’s No. 1 receiver last season, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.

How does the defense replace Hutchinson, Ojabo and Hill?

As good as offense might be, it wouldn’t be a surprise if defense takes a step back based on how much production has changed.

Topping the list are the two standout edge rushers, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Those two combined for 97 tackles, 28.5 tackles to a loss, and 25 sacks last fall and are now in the NFL. This is an elite production that won’t be easily replicated, nor will Daxton Hill’s versatility in safety. Hill, like Hutchinson, was a first-round pick. Ojabo dropped to number 45 after getting injured during the pre-draft process.

In addition, primary tackler Josh Ross and two other secondary starters — corner Vincent Gray and safety Brad Hawkins — are also no longer with the Wolverines.

There is talent waiting on the wings with Mazi Smith at defensive tackle seen as a potential star and linebacker Junior Colson also looking very promising. Overall though, new coordinator Jesse Minter has fewer proven commodities to work with compared to Macdonald.

Like Macdonald, Minter comes from the John Harbaugh-Ravens tree. He trained with the Ravens from 2017 to 2020 before spending the 2021 season as Vanderbilt’s DC. The scheme is not expected to change much and this non-conference soft slate (Colorado, Hawaii, UConn) can help inexperienced unit players stick together.

FILE - Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh watches an NCAA college football game on April 2, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Harbaugh's eighth team is the first in Michigan to come off a win over Ohio state.  The eighth Wolverines' new challenge is to beat the Buckeyes on the road for the first time since 2000. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, Archive)

Jim Harbaugh is entering his eighth season as head coach at Michigan. The Wolverines are coming off a Big Ten title and college football playoff appearance in 2021. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, Archive)

Biggest Game: November 26 at Ohio State

This one is obvious. The trip to Iowa and the home games against Penn State and Michigan State should be challenging, but the Big Ten East could come down to Ohio State v Michigan once again.

This time it’s Columbus, a place Michigan hasn’t won since 2000, and Ohio State will get revenge after being destroyed by the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium last year. Ohio State is expected to have an elite offense and improved defense, with Jim Knowles coming from Oklahoma State to be the new defensive coordinator.

If both teams take care of business during the regular season, this could end up being one of the games of the year with implications for both the conference and the playoffs.

Impact Player: WR Ronnie Bell

If the offense has to carry a bigger load for Michigan this year, Ronnie Bell should certainly help in that cause. Bell led the Wolverines in receiving in 2019 and 2020 and was well on his way into 2021. His first touch of the season was a 76-yard touchdown, but the senior soon after injured his knee on a punt return.

Now fully healthy, he is a true #1 wideout target that can help this attack go to the next level. Bell, who caught 74 catches for 1,159 yards in 18 games combined between 2019 and 2020, provides just one more explosive element for Michigan’s offense.

Up down

Choice: Above 9.5 (-125)

I’m usually pretty leery of placing a higher bet on a team coming off such a triumphant season, but it’s hard to go through that schedule and imagine three defeats.

The non-conference list is easy, both the PSU and MSU games are at home and the Wolverines drew at home against Nebraska and Illinois as two of their interdivision games. Going to Iowa is never easy, but the way Michigan plays is not a good game for the Hawkeyes in my opinion.

That leaves Ohio State’s game as the only one where Michigan will almost certainly be the underdog. Even if UM loses in Columbus, you can afford another slip up somewhere and still get 9.5+ wins.

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