Last week we took a look at how multiple preseason top-25s -- many from respected media members -- include Michigan in their top-5 overall teams. For many Ohio State fans, last November's 42-13 final score precludes any scenario where the Wolverines are rated drastically above the Buckeyes.
So I decided to take a look at what the absolute best arguments could be for Michigan as a top-5 team.
Michigan has recruited pretty darn well
In their last four classes, the Wolverines have recruited 48 blue chips recruits, or an average of 12 per class. That's a 55% blue chip percentage and an average finish in the 247 Sports Composite rankings of 17th.
Brady Hoke actually put together a pretty stellar class in 2013. That class finished fourth in the country and included guys like Derrick Green (who didn't work out at Michigan, but that's besides the point here), Shane Morris, Patrick Kugler, Kyle Bosch, and Dymonte Thomas, all of whom were rated above .95 in the 247 Composite. Harbaugh's last class was the other big one, ranking fifth and including the number one overall recruit in the country -- defensive lineman Rashan Gary.
Back in 2014, Bud Elliott wrote a piece about the blue chip ratio, arguing that it is highly likely that the next championships will come from teams that recruit at a high (>40%) ratio of blue chip recruits to non-blue chip players. Blue chip percentage has proven to be a valuable concept, as the first two College Football Playoff winners, Alabama and Ohio State, were the top-two in blue chip percentage from 2014.
Michigan made that list with a 55% blue chip percentage, a number they've maintained over the last four years as well (despite two top-5 recruiting finishes). In the last four years, their blue chip percentages have been: 69%, 56%, 43%, and 52% in last year's class. Put simply, Michigan has amassed a ton of talent in Ann Arbor -- the second-highest concentration of talent in the Big Ten.
Michigan has a few star players and there's a lot of young talent
The Wolverines have a few proven stars that are likely in All-American contention for 2016, including defensive backs Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis, and tight end Jake Butt. The former two contributed to the second-overall team in defensive S&P+, the ninth-ranked team in defensive back havoc rate, and eleventh-ranked passing S&P+ defense in the country. Jourdan Lewis was fourth in passes defended. Jake Butt was third in receiving yards last season and should be one of the first tight ends taken in next year's draft. These players form the core of the Michigan roster.
However, going back to the last point on recruiting, Michigan has a number of young players that could step in to starting roles immediately. The most obvious choice is Rashan Gary. Gary looks like a future star and should force playing time despite players like Bryan Mone, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, and Taco Charlton all returning.
Michigan struggled somewhat running the ball last season despite two former five-star running backs in Derrick Green and Ty Issac filling the depth chart. But new recruit Kareem Walker could challenge De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson for carries.
The Wolverines were really good last season
Michigan finished eighth last season in overall F/+ with losses to just Utah, Michigan State, and Ohio State. In terms of quality losses, few three-loss teams could have had a better lineup than that.
Their success, as mentioned before, was built largely on the defense, which is almost entirely returning. Apart from their linebacker corps -- which is getting a full overall, as only Ben Gedeon returns with significant experience -- the Wolverine defense returns 73% of last year's experience using Bill's updated formula. If you take a high-performing defense from last year, hardly replace anyone, then supplement it with the number one overall recruit... it's easy to predict a top defense for 2016. Plus, nothing matters more for predicting elite defenses than the percentage of returning passes broken up -- even more than returning sack numbers. And Michigan shines in the secondary.
Further, the defensive line might be the best unit on the entire team, ranking 25th in adjusted line yards and 26th in adjusted sack rate last season. Sacks and tackles for loss were split fairly evenly between returning players Wormley, Charlton and Green, without a clear standout defender on just a solid overall line.
Overall -- and Harbaugh
So, overall, it's clear that Michigan has recruited at a very high level -- high enough to have the talent base necessary for a playoff run in 2016. Specifically, the combination of an excellent, and largely intact defense, combined with enough experience on offense -- particularly from the receivers and tight ends -- should convince most Ohio State fans that the Wolverines are worthy of a great deal of their preseason praise -- enough to potentially re-balance a one-sided rivalry.
But beyond the numbers, predictors and depth chart reasons for Michigan's top-5 rankings, most reporters and Michigan fans hinge their preseason expectations primarily on Jim Harbaugh's influence. They use Harbaugh's history with Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick as evidence for him as a quarterback whisperer -- so there's little need to worry about that glaring issue on offense. It's Year 2 in the Harbaugh regime, after all, when many hot-shot coaches first make their title runs. In short, Harbaugh's presence seemingly fills in the holes for many of Michigan's deficiencies.
Next we'll look at the reasons why we should pump the brakes a little on Michigan as a top-5 team -- and the Big Ten favorite.