Earlier, we looked at the most compelling reasons why Michigan has garnered multiple top-5 preseason poll rankings.
Among the reasons both the data and media members give for including Michigan among the likes of Alabama and Clemson are Michigan's statistical performances last season (eighth in the final F/+ rankings), solid recruiting (a 55% blue chip rate), and several star players including Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, and incoming number-one recruit Rashan Gary. The strength of the team is clearly supposed to be the defensive line and secondary, where last year's strong defense almost entirely returns.
But there are plenty of reasons why the data isn't exactly abandoning the Buckeyes as Big Ten favorites. Let's dig in to where the Wolverines might be deficient in 2016.
About the quarterbacks
Let's get it out of the way from the beginning: Michigan currently does not have a quarterback. Noted Quarterback Whisperer Jim Harbaugh managed to get a serviceable performance out of Iowa transfer Jake Rudock last season -- enough for Rudock to get drafted by the Lions in the sixth round -- but that one-year experiment now means that Michigan is back to square one.
One of the primary challengers, Wilton Speight, served as Rudock's backup last year, but his action was extremely limited. Speight managed just nine completions on 25 attempts for under a hundred yards. He turned in a more efficient spring game performance, going five for six, but his primary competition is presumptive favorite (and Houston transfer) John O'Korn.
O'Korn has the momentum even after sitting out last season, and should enter the year with more team and playbook experience than Rudock had to begin 2015. Even despite his early shakiness, Rudock was developed in Harbaugh's system quickly, eventually providing a steady enough hand to lead the 17th-ranked passing S&P+ attack. But this critical uncertainty makes it difficult to really buy stock in the Wolverines offense.
The defense could use some linebackers
Speaking of uncertainty, how about replacing an entire starting position group? James Ross, Joe Bolden, and Desmond Morgan have all left, leaving only Ben Gedeon with significant experience at the position. Bolden and Morgan led the team in tackles, and their loss, along with senior defensive back Jarrod Wilson, is the only reason Michigan only returns 73% of their defensive experience from last season. As Bill argues in that article, returning defensive backs matters significantly more in terms of predicting defensive S&P+ than any other defensive position group, but a mostly-green linebacking corps isn't exactly a dream situation for the Wolverines defense.
The other side of recruiting -- contending with Ohio State
Michigan's recruiting was a strength last week. Despite moving from Brady Hoke to Jim Harbaugh and the rollercoaster of expectations that coincided with declining expectations in the previous regime and the subsequent coaching transition, the Wolverines have maintained an exceptional blue chip recruiting ratio of 55%. That's certainly reason to put them ahead of most of the field for College Football Playoff contenders.
The issue is that Michigan's primary rival and division mate has recruited even better -- and really, significantly better. Where Michigan recruited 48 blue chip players to Ann Arbor, a 55% blue chip percentage, with an average 247 Composite Ranking finish of 17th over the last four years, Ohio State has snagged 69, with a 71% blue chip percentage, and an average finish of fourth.
Ohio State could essentially field an entire extra starting offense and defense worth of blue chip recruits that Michigan doesn't have on their roster. Where Ohio State has been consistent in recruiting, with fourth, seventh, third, and second-place finishes, Michigan had fifth, 37th, 20th, and fourth-place finishes due to the coaching transition.
Accumulated talent is a strong predictor of on-field success, which is why, as Bud said back in 2014, Ohio State "is the safe bet to win the Big Ten every year."
The offense is not very inspiring, even outside of the quarterback race
Going back to Bill's chart of returning experience, Michigan is 76th overall in returning experience (Ohio State is ranked much lower here, obviously) with only 53% of the offensive experience returning.
Sure, Michigan returns De'Veon Smith, who is hot off a 100-yard Citrus Bowl performance, and has four-star and former Buckeye commit Kareem Walker on the way, but the Wolverines rushing attack ranked just 61st on the year in rushing S&P+ and 52nd in adjusted line yards. The only early All-American level candidate on offense is probably tight end Jake Butt, who at least joins experienced wideouts Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. These are all strong, experienced skill players, but it would be a stretch to expect a top-20 rushing attack, given last year's offensive line performance, the lack of returning offensive experience outside of the top receivers, and the need to break in a new quarterback.
Problems on the road
Michigan's schedule is interesting. Don't be surprised if the Wolverines appear to justify a top-5 or top-10 preseason ranking through the first seven games. Of their first seven opponents, only Penn State has a remote chance of knocking the Wolverines off, though they've got quarterback turnover and a new offensive coordinator to break in as well.
But Michigan faces their three toughest opponents all on the road at the tail end of their schedule next year, beginning with Michigan State at the end of October. From there, the Wolverines face Iowa and Ohio State on the road in the last five weeks of the regular season. The optimistic way of looking at this is that it gives the team time to develop -- especially for a green quarterback. But it also means that the Wolverines could cruise through easy games and not give us a true sense of how good they are or not until late.
Overall there's no doubt that Michigan is going to be a good, if not great, team in 2016. Jim Harbaugh has the chance to prove he won't follow Brady Hoke's path of diminishing returns following a stellar debut season. But the biggest issue for Michigan's success in 2016 isn't any issue on the team -- even the quarterback race. Instead, it's Ohio State and The Game. Which is exactly how it should be -- for both teams.