It's been a long eight months since the Outback Bowl disaster for Michigan. A lot has happened with the program since then in the way of coaching changes, positional philosophies and development of personnel in general. 8-5 was sobering for all of us Michigan fans, most of all the team itself and they've been aware of it from the beginning, which is why so many changes were made in the offseason after the abysmal 26-19 loss to South Carolina to end the 2017 season as the only B1G team to lose its bowl game, a fact that the rivals and haters love to chirp about.
Now the 2018 season stands before us and it's time to see what's next for Michigan Football going forward. We all know the big changes that have been made, most notably the addition of Ed Warriner to coach the offensive line, Jim McElwain to coach the wide receivers along with former Michigan WR Roy Roundtree, and of course the addition of junior transfer QB Shea Patterson from Ole Miss, who was cleared to play this season and has won the starting job to begin the year. Aside from all that, the biggest change we've also heard about and seen evidence of now is Strength and Conditioning coach Ben Herbert, who has appeared to make huge gains with the team's size and build since arriving in the winter.
If you're noticing that all of the major organizational changes occurred on offense, that's what happens when your previous year's offensive unit ranks 105th in the nation in total offense and tied for 91st in scoring offense averaging 25.2 points per game. Michigan had a plethora of issues offensively in 2017 ranging from a substandard offensive line that allowed two QB's to get hurt, a QB room that was anything but strong and confident, and inexperienced WR's that struggled to hold their own even when the QB's had time to throw.
That was all last year though. Now it's time to officially turn the page to this year, this season and this team. The biggest question remains, what is it all going to look like in 2018?
Depending on who you talk to will provide a variety of answers. Nationally, the Wolverines aren't getting the respect some seem to think they are getting or deserve. Most pundits are looking at the 8-5 2017 campaign, the 1-5 record against the rivals since Jim Harbaugh was hired and the five preseason Top 5 opponents that are on Michigan's schedule this season, three of which are on the road, and they're projecting a ceiling of 10-2 if Michigan is lucky. Most are thinking 9-3 at best and a few trolls that love to trigger Michigan fans are saying 7-5 with another third or fourth place finish in the B1G East Division. Those same trolls are also the ones calling Patterson a bust already because of his less than stellar efforts against Alabama and others in the SEC West at Ole Miss, and they expect he will be no better than what Michigan has had at QB since Harbaugh took over. Obviously the trolls who say that Patterson is all the talent the team has on offense would disagree with that, but they still see the Wolverines playing fourth fiddle to Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State respectively.
The other side of that locally is a divided Michigan fanbase that is both confident and leery of the upcoming season. You've got fans that think Michigan has finally added the missing piece it's always needed in a QB like Patterson to lead the offense and have bought into the reports from the off season about the gains that the OL and WR's have made, not to mention the reportedly improved pass blocking of the running backs, all of which has them thinking 10-2 is the floor and undefeated is within reach. Then you have many other Michigan fans that have been snakebitten far too much since The Dark Times of 2008-2014, have seen too many losses to the rivals under Harbaugh since 2015 and believe the schedule is too daunting to overcome given the history of the program in the last decade. Michigan has not beaten a top-ranked opponent on the road in a long time and many fans are unwilling to say that they will do so this year without any proof on the field. In other words, they're not trolling when they say 9-3 or 8-4, they're actually afraid that it will happen and don't see a way that it doesn't, especially now with the injury to WR Tarik Black.
So which is it? Is the ceiling high for Michigan Football in 2018 or is it over-inflated out of hype? Well to begin with, there's no hype. At least not from the team or the coaches themselves. They have talked openly and honestly about the changes they have made on offense with regards to strength, scheme and functionality as a unit, and they've praised Patterson's work ethic and ability that they have seen to this point, but they haven't made any bold proclamations or predictions for people to chew on. They want to win the B1G and they want to win a national championship, as would any major Power 5 school have aspirations for, but any hype behind what this team is doing is media driven and further fueled by the fanbases, many of them from the rivals are who are predicting a giant misstep and continued mediocrity for the program as a whole.
The thing is, it's difficult to look at Michigan's situation logically and think that some improvement from 2017 won't happen at all even with the tougher schedule. Of the 4 teams they lost to in the regular season last year, the only one that wasn't close was Penn State, who will be in Ann Arbor this year without RB Saquon Barkley who is now playing for the New York Giants, and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead who is now the head coach at Mississippi State. They lost to MSU by 4 and the other two losses to Wisconsin and OSU were close in the fourth quarter, and that was a team that had trouble running the ball and protecting the QB all season long, but the argument could still be made that a better QB at the helm wins them at least MSU and OSU, given the other circumstances of what happened in those games.
That being said, it's tough to know exactly just how much Michigan will improve on offense, so calling for an undefeated season and an unstoppable offensive unit might be pushing it as far as expectations go. All we can reason is that they will be better than last year based on all of the changes made. How much better is what this season will decide.
If you're wondering why I'm not talking about the defense until now, it's because nobody's really worried about the defense. That doesn't mean there aren't concerns, like how the defensive line will replace Mo Hurst in the middle and whether or not the safeties have improved upon last year's issues, but based on the track record that the entire unit had even last year, the general belief is that Michigan's defense will be stout under Don Brown once again, but of course where they would greatly benefit is from a stronger offensive unit giving them more point margins and efficiency to work with and more time on the sidelines to rest up due to ball control, despite the positional rotation that keeps the defensive units fresh throughout a game.
So the reality of the situation is that Michigan's offensive unit is likely somewhere in the middle of "better than last year" and "unstoppable," which is actually a pretty significant improvement to compliment that defensive unit. Despite what many pundits and trolls will tell you, Shea Patterson is not being asked to be a savior or to put the entire offense on his back. Any ability that he has to make plays and be a playmaker will be complement options to add to what should be a more steady performance from the entire unit. The OL is all a year older with 2017 filed away as experience for this season going forward, which before factoring in all of the other reported changes, should make them a better unit than 2017 by default, with an opportunity to be better than that being open. The same goes for the WR's who all have a lot to prove themselves, but now have the benefit of a more experience OL to steady the line of scrimmage more than it did last season.
It should also be noted that just about every player on this Michigan offensive unit has something to prove, including Shea Patterson himself. There is a lot of talent there without question, but the need for it to be displayed on the field to silence all doubters is also there. The people who think Ole Miss is better off without Patterson are part of why he has to prove he is a steady, winning QB that just needed the right school to unlock the full range of his talent. The OL has heard all of the criticism from last year and knows how important it is that they prove themselves a stout and capable unit this season. The wide receivers know this as well and understand that they are mostly young and have a lot to prove in the passing attack along with Patterson and the OL's help, and the running backs all want as many yards on the ground as possible and be able to salt close games away in the fourth quarter when necessary, as well as pass block with competence and strength when they are on the field.
Putting all of this together, Michigan is certainly a team with a lot to prove to many especially the team itself, but it has the talent, experience and coaching to be able to make sizable improvements from last year's squad at the very least, and that should be enough to mean another double-digit win total and above all, a trip to Indianapolis for the first time in school history for the B1G Championship Game. Those should be the minimum expectations from fans for the Wolverines this season without question. It doesn't require them to go undefeated (though they certainly can) and there is a realistic margin for error that will get them there in the B1G East, but it's also got to be decisively better than last year's 8-5 campaign, and it's difficult to believe that it won't be based on all the changes made in the offseason and the experience that this team gained from going through the ringer in 2017.