Yahoo Sports' Top 25: No. 15 Michigan

Yahoo Sports
Jim Harbaugh is entering his fourth season as Michigan’s head coach . (AP Photo/Tony Ding, File)
Jim Harbaugh is entering his fourth season as Michigan’s head coach . (AP Photo/Tony Ding, File)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU

No. 15 Michigan

2017 record: 8-5 (5-4)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense

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Is Shea Patterson the Michigan QB everyone’s been waiting for?

Welcome to Michigan, Shea Patterson. Are you ready for some incredibly lofty expectations?

The former five-star recruit and Mississippi quarterback is more-than-likely to open the season as Michigan’s starter. And boy, are Michigan fans excited for that.

After two serviceable seasons with Jake Rudock (2015) and Wilton Speight (2016), Michigan’s quarterback play was a disaster in 2017. Speight, John O’Korn, and Brandon Peters combined to complete 53.5 percent of their passes. Michigan’s passing game averaged 171 yards a game and the quarterbacks threw nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions.

Florida’s quarterback numbers were better than that. Florida!

It feels fair to think that Rudock’s 2015 season is a good standard for Patterson’s 2018. Rudock completed 64 percent of his passes for 7.8 yards an attempt and had 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In 10 games at Ole Miss, Patterson completed nearly 61 percent of his passes for 8 yards an attempt, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In an injury-shortened sophomore season in 2017, Patterson’s completion rate was almost 64 percent and he averaged 8.7 yards a pass.

With running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans back in 2018, the offensive load isn’t all on Patterson. But he needs to be productive. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t going to declare him the starter at Big Ten media days, but it would be nothing less than a shock if Patterson wasn’t the team’s starter on Sept. 1 against Notre Dame.

“And I would say overall [our quarterback room is] better as a group than we were last year. And I feel like our starting quarterback will also be better, play better,” Harbaugh said. 

After two seasons at Ole Miss, Shea Patterson is expected to take the reins at Michigan. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
After two seasons at Ole Miss, Shea Patterson is expected to take the reins at Michigan. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

The defense should be feisty once again

Michigan’s defense under Don Brown has been nothing short of fantastic. 2017 was Michigan’s “worst” year in his tenure in terms of scoring defense, as the Wolverines gave up 18.8 points per game thanks to giving up 42 points at Penn State.

The defense still allowed less than 300 yards per game for the third-straight season and defensive front recorded 42 sacks.

Most of that pass rush is back in 2018 as Michigan returns nine starters. Though Michigan will have to replace Maurice Hurst in the middle of the defensive line and second-leading tackler Mike McCray, Chase Winovich and do-it-all linebacker Khaleke Hudson return for the Wolverines.

Winovich was a linebacker before Michigan converted him into a defensive end.

“The first thing that comes to mind with Chase is the incredible work ethic that he has, the great effort that he always plays with,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of people talk about the motor he has, and that’s a great analogy. He’s always playing all out. And the talent has really, really gone up and up each year. Really finding his position, which is defensive end, has been great for his career and for our football team.”

Ohio State and Michigan State loom

At Big Ten media days Harbaugh was not at all interested in talking about his record against Ohio State and Michigan State in his three years with the Wolverines. It’s 1-5 by the way and Michigan travels to both East Lansing and Columbus in 2018.

“We feel like just improvement,” Harbaugh said when he was asked about that 1-5 record. “We need to improve. And that will lead to success. It will lead to championships. It’s that simple.”

He was asked again.

“The improvement will lead to success, will lead to championships.”

Michigan faces the enviable task of being a top-15 team that’s No. 4 in its own division. That’s how good the Big Ten East is. Oh, and Michigan also plays Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Nebraska. The Wolverines may have the toughest schedule in the country.

That schedule makes it hard to think that a championship is in the offing this season. Michigan should be good. And has a lot of talent. It’s just also going to need a lot more good fortune than most to have a title-contending season.

Michigan hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2011. (AP Photo/Tony Ding, File)
Michigan hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2011. (AP Photo/Tony Ding, File)

Impact player

Zach Gentry, TE: Jake Butt’s replacement — we just wanted to say his name — had a nice first season. He led the team in yards per catch at 17.8 and was the team’s second-leading receiver in terms of yards. OK, Gentry’s yardage total was just 303 because of Michigan’s porous pass game, but it’s not often that you see a team’s tight end be one of its biggest downfield threats.

But that was Gentry in 2017. He should continue to be an integral part of the passing game in 2018 and could get 500 yards and five or six touchdowns.

Game to watch: Sept. 1 at Notre Dame

This is the game of the week to open the season. ESPN’s “College GameDay: is heading to South Bend as Michigan and Notre Dame play for the first time since 2014.

To say that Week 1 is a must-win for Michigan’s College Football Playoff hopes is not an overstatement. A loss to Notre Dame cuts Michigan’s conference margin of error to almost zero for CFP consideration. Remember, no two-loss team has ever made the College Football Playoff field. If Michigan wins in Week 1, Wolverine fans can dream big. If the Wolverines lose, then fear of finishing fourth in the Big Ten East will get very real.

Best-case scenario

Michigan wins that Week 1 game, wins three of four against Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin and heads to the Big Ten Championship Game, likely against Wisconsin again. That would probably mean Michigan is playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Worst-case scenario

Michigan goes 1-3 or 0-4 in those four Big Ten games. Add in a loss to Notre Dame and you’re looking at a four or five-loss season. Remember, Michigan hasn’t had a season with fewer than three losses since 2011. The pressure on Harbaugh would amplify.

Prediction

This is tough. Just what is a successful season in Ann Arbor given this schedule? We’ll go with an 8-4 finish that keeps Michigan in the top 15 because of the level of competition. It’s hard to be ranked too low when all of your losses come to teams above you in the rankings.

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