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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 6: Michigan

Jim Harbaugh is the source of a lot of optimism, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on offense.

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With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we preview Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines, Northwestern's week six opponent.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 7
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Coach: Jim Harbaugh, 1st year (29-21 at Stanford)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P+ Overall Rank: 45th
2014 S&P+ Offense Rank: 73rd
2014 S&P+ Defense Rank: 37th
2015 S&P+ Projection: 35th


Let's just say it like it is: 2014 was a complete disaster for Michigan football. The Wolverines won five games, two of which were against Appalachian State and Miami (Oh.), and one of which was... this. They lost seven, one of which was to RutButtgers. They also lost to Maryland at home, and got shut out, 31-0, by Notre Dame. Their quarterbacks threw 10 touchdown passes; they threw 18 interceptions. They let one play through a concussion.

But all of that is irrelevant, because the savior has arrived. Yes, a khaki-wearing, whistle-and-sharpie-sporting god has returned to Ann Arbor. And he's had quite the offseason. He has trolled the SEC. He's played football shirtless. He wants Judge Judy on the Supreme Court. He wants you to think like an... egg? Yup. And he has modeled recruiting pitches after prom proposals.

It's almost as if Brady Hoke and 2014 never happened.

Offensive overview

Brady Hoke and 2014 did happen though, and things weren't pretty, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The UM offense didn't generate any big plays (118th nationally in isolated points per play), and turned the ball over 26 times. The raw numbers actually paint a deceivingly ugly picture, because Michigan's offense played at an extremely slow pace under Hoke, but nonetheless, the 2014 unit really struggled.

A lot of that had to do with quarterback play. Devin Gardner really struggled. Gardner is gone in 2015 though, and things will be, if not better, at least different. Just like at Northwestern though, there's a competition for the starting gig. Shane Morris came out of spring ball as the leader over a group of underclassmen, but he'll be joined in fall camp by Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock. Both have had underwhelming careers so far, but Rudock has more experience, and is somewhat familiar with the type of pro-style, west coast offense Harbaugh wants to run. He also led a beatdown of Northwestern last year. Whoever wins the job will be counted on as a game-manager, though — less Colin Kaepernick, and more Alex Smith.

For a program that traditionally recruits so well though, there's a startling lack of established talent elsewhere on offense. The offensive line is senior-laden, but shaky, and there are no standouts at wide receiver. However, that doesn't mean there isn't talent at all. Tight end Jake Butt could be a stud, left tackle Mason Cole was a freshman All-American in 2014, and the running back room is overflowing with highly-touted recruits. Former five-star recruits Ty Isaac (USC transfer) and Derrick Green will be relied upon heavily.

For a detailed breakdown of the offense Harbaugh could bring to Michigan, and how prepared the Wolverines are to run it, read this.

Defensive overview

Michigan's defense was actually quite good last year, especially against the run, but many leading contributors are gone. Defensive end Frank Clark and middle linebacker Jake Ryan were 2nd and 4th round NFL Draft picks respectively, and defensive end Brennen Beyer and cornerback Raymon Taylor are both now in NFL camps. To exacerbate things, cornerback Blake Countess transferred to Auburn.

However, the cupboard is anything but bare. There's a ton of size up front, and Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton (All-name team!) should be able to fill the voids left by Clark and Beyer. The linebacking unit features six upperclassmen, including fifth-year senior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan.

The secondary is the Wolverines' strongest position group though. The cornerback duo of junior Jourdan Lewis and Stanford graduate transfer Wayne Lyons should be stout, and top 2014 recruit Jabrill Peppers will be a playmaker at safety after injury forced him to redshirt last year. The defensive backs totalled just two interceptions in 2014, but with Peppers, depth, and new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin coming from Florida, this group, and the defense as a whole, could be even better in 2015.

Three players to know

Jake Rudock, QB - Rudock is a classic low ceiling, high floor senior quarterback. His career at Iowa was pretty simple. He wasn't asked to do much, and... well, he didn't do much, good or bad. He was anything but a prolific downfield passer, but he took care of the ball well (16 touchdowns, five interceptions in 2014) and made many of the simple throws. He lost his starting job to C.J. Beathard though, which prompted him to transfer. He is likely the favorite to start at Michigan.

Shane Morris, QB - You'll likely only have to know one of the QBs come gameday. But for now, you have to know two. Morris, a lefty, was the No. 3 pro-style QB in the class of 2013, but his first two years at Michigan were rough to say the least. His career stats, in two starts and ten appearances: 43-87 (49.4%), 0 TDs, 5 INTs. Perhaps Harbaugh can make a player out of him though. He's the high-risk, high-reward option for Harbaugh.

Jabrill Peppers, FS - Peppers, with his 247 composite score of .9992 coming out of high school, is an outstanding athlete who some believe could already be Michigan's best player. And while he may not be positionally sound right away, he'll be able to cover an extraordinary amount of ground in centerfield to make up for any mental mistakes. He also may see some time on the other side of the ball, according to Harbaugh.

Behind enemy lines

SB Nation Michigan blog Maize N Brew manager Joshua Henschke gives best and worst case scenarios for Michigan this season:

Best Case Scenario:

Michigan shows up and performs against its biggest rivals this season in Michigan State and Ohio State. A victory against one or both teams would be the perfect start to the Michigan coaching career of Jim Harbaugh. It's highly unlikely and probably a reach, but it would go a long way toward righting the ship.

Worst Case Scenario:

I think at this point, Michigan has seen rock bottom. Everything that happened last season couldn't get any worse. So, at this point, I think the worst case scenario for the 2016 season would be a lack of improvement. There are a few areas that the Wolverines could improve upon in the quarterbacks and receivers. Not seeing progress in both areas would be a huge disappointment considering who Michigan hired as their head coach and assistants.

Season Prediction:

I think we're looking at an eight-win football team this season. There are swing games early on that could either improve or make the season worse in Utah and BYU. If Michigan could come away from the non-conference schedule unscathed, it could make some noise in the conference schedule. However, I expect Michigan to be a growing team and be about average in the Big Ten. There's potential for an upset or two, but I don't believe they have enough established talent to sustain success from start to finish. However, there's plenty of opportunity for growth for next year.

Bill Connelly says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Michigan preview on Harbaugh's turnaround capabilities:

No one is guaranteed success when taking on a new job. If previous history correlated with future success, the last two Michigan hires would have worked out.

But Harbaugh is as close to a sure thing as you can hire. In just 11 years, he has raised the standard at every stop. He hires hungry assistants, builds an ultra-competitive environment, and then wins. He has coaching in his bloodstream, and he's been successful just about everywhere.

Hell, the Oakland Raiders haven't had a winning season since he was their quarterbacks coach in 2002. As a volunteer assistant, he recruited a large number of players on his father Jack's 2002 FCS championship Western Kentucky team. He almost reached the Super Bowl at age 32 with the Indianapolis Colts. He beat No. 1 Miami in his first start as a Michigan sophomore in 1984, then came back from injury and went 21-3-1 in 1985-86.

Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes a couple. But he has won as a head coach in three completely different environments, and it feels like more of a "when" than an "if" when talking about his prospects of winning at Michigan.

Final thoughts

Well, this is the year to get them. For Northwestern, Michigan has now surpassed Nebraska when it comes to heartbreaking losses — 2012, 2013 and 2014 brought a combined four overtime periods, three losses, and one M00N — and the window for getting revenge could be close to closing. It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Harbaugh will turn Michigan into a national championship contender. But while some immediate improvement can be expected, the Harbaugh effect might be being overstated for 2015. This should be another slugfest between two strong defenses and potentially-out-of-sorts offenses. NU will likely be an underdog on homecoming weekend in Ann Arbor, but don't expect a blowout.

The Game

Date: Oct. 10
Time: TBA
Home/Away: Away (Michigan Homecoming)
Projected Betting Line: Michigan -7