Typically, a coach’s third season with a team is his most critical. He should have his own players developed and schemes implemented.
For Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, his third season felt more like a coach’s first.
Harbaugh fielded two 10-win teams without his own personnel. Last season, the Wolverines stumbled to 8-5 and 5-8 against the spread.
Michigan 2017 ATS Results
Michigan replaced almost its entire defense and offensive line entering 2017. It ranked 127th of 129 teams in returning production, which accounts for everything from catches and tackles made.
I won’t sugarcoat it: 2017 was a bad year for Michigan. No matter how many players Harbaugh lost, the offensive struggles killed the image of the ‘QB Guru’.
Starting QB Wilton Speight got hurt in September, John O’Korn was historically bad and Brandon Peters missed time after looking competent under center. Plus, the offensive line allowed 36 sacks; only 13 FBS teams surrendered more.
Harbaugh realized things needed to change, and he acted this offseason.
Here are three reasons Michigan’s offensive changes and its returning personnel will make it a good team to bet on against the spread in 2018.
Michigan’s struggles last season, both against the spread and not, were due to abysmal offensive numbers. It started and ended with the quarterbacks.
In 13 games, Michigan’s three quarterbacks (Speight, O’Korn, Peters) completed 185 passes on 346 attempts (53.5%). The killer was Michigan’s nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions. It was the program’s lowest number of touchdowns since 1975, when it ran the option.
The offense averaged 348.9 yards per game, the program’s third-worst total in 28 seasons. Its 5.18 yards per play ranked 101st in the country, just ahead of lowly Oregon State and Cal.
Lucky for the Wolverines, the hottest free agent in college football chose Michigan. Former 5-star recruit and Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson transferred and was ruled eligible by the NCAA.
Patterson is better than any other quarterback Michigan returned in 2018, by a good margin.
So much so that for the first time in his tenure at Michigan, Harbaugh announced his starting quarterback publicly. And he did it 12 days before game day, the biggest surprise of Michigan’s offseason.
The defense will be great again. But this program’s success in 2018 starts and ends with its offensive output and quarterback play. Last season was proof that the defense can’t win 12 games — over even nine for that matter — on its own.
Compared to Michigan’s 2,226 passing yards in 2017, Patterson totaled 2,259 yards … in seven games. He averaged a strong 8.7 yards per attempt. The rising junior missed the rest of the season following a leg injury that has since healed.
Patterson had 17 passing touchdowns to nine interceptions, totaling eight more than Michigan’s entire quarterback room in about half the games.
Patterson put up those numbers against three ranked teams in his seven games, including national champion Alabama and SEC West winner Auburn.
His best performance came on the road against Auburn, when he passed for 346 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions. He finished with a 66.7% completion percentage (34-of-51) in a 44-23 loss.
Patterson’s numbers do the talking for him. Nonetheless, you need to see it believe it.
His escape ability is Johnny Manziel-esque — as is his pocket presence, No. 2 jersey at Michigan and overall body language. The two are even friends.
What separates Patterson from Manziel most? Patterson’s arm talent.
And if you want to watch it all, click here for some highlights.
Michigan returns most of the first team from the nation’s third-best total defense and top pass defense. It returns all of its defensive backs and five of its front seven.
Couple that with a much better quarterback, and you’ve got a good recipe for success.
Michigan’s personnel finally matches its scheme
A Harbaugh offense is complicated.
In 2018, it’s expanding, yet becoming simpler.
According to sources, the Wolverines are running more shotgun plays than under center during fall camp. That includes the oh-so-popular RPO, a fit for Patterson’s skill-set.
The days of lining up in I-Formation on 3rd-and-11 while trailing in the second half of a game against the No. 2 team in the country could be over. Yes, that actually happened last season.
With an adjusted playbook that isn’t as much of an overhaul as it is a modern refresh, the tweaks fit Patterson. He can go under center, but his game plays better in the shotgun. He’ll see a mix of both as Michigan runs the ball a lot better under center.
The playbook’s expansion is just half the battle, though. You need the right guys to fit in that scheme. This season, Harbaugh has exactly that: A team that matches his playbook.
In Harbaugh’s first season, despite the 10 wins, there were obvious holes for Michigan, especially defending against the read option.
So Harbaugh recruited guys fast enough to stop it, then hired defensive coordinator Don Brown. The next two years, Michigan had the nation’s second- and third-best defenses, trailing only Alabama.
The defense got faster pretty quickly, thanks to Brown finding plug-and-play underclassmen such as Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Khaleke Hudson, LaVert Hill and David Long — all stars within their first two years on campus.
The offense was far from solved.
Last season, Michigan started two seniors on the offensive line and zero at any other position. The offense included eight starters who were underclassmen. Of those eight, six are upperclassmen now, and the rest are Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black.
While its defense was able to plug and play so many underclassmen with no experience, the playbook was too complicated for the offense to flourish so fast — which led to this year’s simplification to match its personnel.
Lastly, and arguably most importantly, Michigan tried to address its issues at offensive line by hiring one of the country’s best assistants in Warinner.
Warinner spent five years at Ohio State (2012-2016) as its offensive line coach/offensive coordinator. With the Buckeyes, he won a national championship in 2014 and went to the College Football Playoff in 2016. He had issues as a coordinator, but he’s a proven line coach.
All of Warinner’s starting offensive linemen at Ohio State in 2013 went on to become rookie starters in the NFL. In 2014, he was named National Offensive Line Coach of the Year by FootballScoop.
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Last year, Warinner was Minnesota’s offensive line coach and run game coordinator. He described his ideas to simplify the offense in an interview with 247Sports.
“From an offensive line standpoint, I was able to clean that up as a newcomer saying, ‘why do we need to have that many words to say it if we could do it in this many? Why don’t we consolidate some of those?’”
Warinner has recruited and developed a plethora of professional linemen. After spending the offseason developing once-pitiful offensive line, have the Wolverines found their solution to a potent offense?
The staff believes simplicity is the resolution to the offense’s problems.
Based on all that, Michigan will field an improved offense in 2018. It has the talent and has made the necessary changes to have more than just a serviceable offense, but a lethal one.
Michigan scored 20 points or fewer in five of its eight ATS losses in 2017. Its highest point total was just 36, against Cincinnati.
Four ATS losses were decided by single-digits, three by less than 20 points and one by 21.5.
With Patterson as the starter, an expanded playbook, a proven offensive line coach and a team full of Harbaugh-recruited personnel — this Michigan team will be one that’s a lot easier to bet on in 2018.
Even with that tough schedule, but that’s for another day.
Brandon Justice is the founder of WolverineLounge.com. He’s been covering Michigan and Michigan recruiting since 2014.