With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
Next up is Michigan, which Northwestern faces after a bye week. Most casual fans know Jim Harbaugh well, and there are some familiar faces for the Wolverines, but this will undoubtedly be a different Michigan team than the one we saw last year — in large part because of transfer and former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson, who should start from the get-go, though that isn’t 100 percent set in stone.
Here’s what to keep in mind when the Wolverines visit Ryan Field September 29:
Returning production: 78 percent (74 percent on offense, 83 percent on defense)
2017 record: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)
Coach: Jim Harbaugh (Fourth season, 28-11, 18-8 Big Ten)
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.
2017 S&P+ Overall: 27th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 86th
2017 S&P+ Defense: 10th
2018 S&P+ Projection: 10th
Michigan finished 8-5 in 2017, which was widely considered a disappointment, though it was probably always going to be a rebuilding year. With injuries at quarterback, and no great options under center anyway, the offense often sputtered. The defense, on the other hand, played at an elite level throughout the season, helping to salvage at least some of the season for the Wolverines.
Beating Florida in the season-opener looked like a big win at the time, but turned into a “meh” win once the Gators completely self-destructed and made the 86th-ranked Michigan offense look like the Greatest Show on Turf. Closer-than-expected wins wins against Air Force and Purdue exposed some offensive flaws, before Michigan State took full advantage of those flaws en route to a 14-10 win.
Michigan beat the teams it was supposed to beat — Purdue, Indiana, Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland — but lost to every good team it played (Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State). And, most of the losses weren’t close. Penn State opened up a can of Saquon Barkley and whoop-ass in a 42-13 win, Wisconsin out-physical’ed Michigan to win by two touchdowns, and Ohio State came-from-behind to beat the rival Wolverines in a game Michigan probably should’ve won.
The most confusing result was a loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, in which Harbaugh’s team imploded and gave up a 16-point second half lead.
At many schools, 8-5 is a solid season. At Michigan, it’s a borderline disaster, and now the pressure’s really on for Harbaugh & Co.
As previously mentioned, Michigan struggled offensively last season, mostly in the passing game.
Three quarterbacks threw at least 80 passes last season, but none of them reached 1,000 yards passing. If they were one player, they’d have thrown for 2,226 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. As a result, Harbaugh elected to run the ball...a lot.
Karan Higdon, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac all got work — Higdon rushed for 994 yards on 6.1 yards per carry, Evans rushed for 685 yards on 5.1 yards per carry and Isaac rushed for 548 on 6.2 yards per carry. Higdon and Evans will return in 2018, and will be one of the more dynamic backfields in conference.
The offensive line returns four of five starters and six players with starting experience, and there are plenty of highly-touted receivers and tight ends waiting in the wings. Players like Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black should become more productive players if the quarterback situation gets sorted out.
Speaking of the quarterbacks, that brings us to maybe the most important position group in the conference, if not the country.
Everybody knows about Shea Patterson, the former five-star signal-caller who threw for 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions in what was an up-and-down, weird season for Ole Miss. He elected to transfer to Ann Arbor, and was deemed eligible immediately, which was a huge boost for the Wolverines. There are other talented QBs on the roster in Dylan McCaffrey (Christian’s younger brother) and Brandon Peters, who got some experience last year as a sophomore, but this is Patterson’s job. Michigan can be pretty good without a good quarterback, but they can’t be great. Patterson will have to take Michigan’s offense — and its team — from good to great.
The Michigan defense was absolutely ferocious in 2017 at all three levels. Let some of these numbers sink in: 3rd nationally in passing S&P+, 8th in rushing, 1st in success rate. The defense did give up some big plays at times, but it was consistently stout. 10 of its top 17 players were underclassmen, so there’s a lot of talent coming back, and several stars.
In the Jabrill Peppers mold, defensive back Khaleke Hudson was all over the field, breaking up nine passes and racking up 17 tackles for loss.
Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are two of the best defensive linemen in all of college football, combining for a whopping 30.5 tackles for loss last season. Devin Bush, the team’s leading tackler last season, is also back.
Simply put, this defense should be really, really good again.
Three players to know
Patterson is talented, but there are still questions to what his ceiling is. Michigan’s offense hasn’t been dynamic the past few seasons, so the the system — whether it’s a spread of pro-style — will be an interesting storyline to follow heading into the season. At the very least, Patterson is a big upgrade at the most important position on the field.
Gary was the top recruit in his class, and has proved to be a stud. He’s versatile on the line, and should be an early pick in the NFL Draft should he choose to leave school early. He could wreck an entire running game single-handedly.
Hudson is one of the best defensive playmakers in college football. He’s effective both in the box and in coverage, and gives Michigan a wild card defensively, which is difficult to gameplan for.