2020 Would Be A Great Season For Michigan Football If ...
1) The Wolverines navigate a COVID-19 world with minimum issues
Above all, the No. 1 priority for this college football season for Michigan and every sports team competing is to stay safe and healthy. There will be players and coaches that contract COVID. It spreads too easily for programs to avoid the coronavirus altogether and we've seen how football teams have already reacted to players testing positive - some shutting down all team activities, others enforcing extra precautions, still others just proceeding like normal.
By every indication, we will have a college football season this fall, players and coaches will test positive and be quarantined for 14 days (this is certainly a subplot, to see how it impacts matchups) but we should all pray that when COVID strikes college teams and staffs it does so with little consequence.
2) One of Michigan's QBs emerges as an elite signal-caller
Michigan hasn't featured one of college football's 10 best quarterbacks since Denard Robinson commanded the huddle in 2010-11. Devin Gardner, Jake Rudock, Wilton Speight and Shea Patterson all had moments, a handful of games in a row where they played outstanding football, but U-M has not had consistency across an entire season at the quarterback position in a decade.
Whether it's redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey, redshirt sophomore Joe Milton or redshirt freshman Cade McNamara, Michigan is desperate for one of its QBs to step into that conversation among college football's top-tiered signal-callers. If it happens, every team goal U-M has can be realized in 2020. If it doesn't happen, the Maize and Blue are destined for another 9-3 type season.
3. Nico Collins goes out on a high note with career high numbers in catches, yards and touchdowns
It's been seven years since Michigan last had a 1,000-yard receiver (Jeremy Gallon in 2013), this for a program that produced a 1,000-yard WR every year from 1999-2005 (and then again in 2007). Collins seems like the best bet among U-M's returning targets to end the drought.
No Michigan receiver has ever reached 1,000 yards without catching 54 balls so Collins would need to go 16 better than the career-high 38 receptions he had in 2018. He needs 271 yards more than the 729 he had in 2019, meanwhile Collins should become just the 11th WR in school history with 10 or more TDs.
4) The offensive line asserts itself as one of the Big Ten's best
In its proud history, Michigan has never had four offensive linemen drafted in the same year, but that's what occurred this past April as center Cesar Ruiz led a contingent that also included guards Ben Bredeson and Mike Onwenu, and offensive tackle Jon Runyan Jr. Their departures leave U-M filling four holes, and while redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes started two games at left tackle in 2019 and redshirt junior Andrew Steuber also has starting experience, the Wolverines have a significant challenge ahead along the OL.
The good news is Michigan has, arguably, one of the Top 5 offensive line coaches on its staff in Ed Warinner. U-M also has more depth and talent (albeit young and inexperienced) than it has had in a decade, and if this year's line evolves into one of the conference's best then it is certainly reasonable to believe the program has returned to the glory days when year after year the offensive line reloaded without a dropoff in performance.
5) Chris Hinton harkens back to the days of Alan Branch circa 2005-06
The first three years of the Jim Harbaugh era featured some of the best interior defensive line play we've seen in Ann Arbor in some time, with Willie Henry, Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst among others. The past two seasons, however, have been anything but as a lack of depth and size has handicapped U-M.
Enter Hinton. The former five-star saw an increased workload last year as a true freshman in November and the bowl game. He is reportedly in great shape and as a 300-plus pounder with power, strength and quick feet, he has the potential to be a disruptive force for the Maize and Blue.
Branch didn't have big numbers - nine tackles for loss in two seasons a starter - but the pass rushers flanking him generated 12 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in 2005 and then 25 sacks and 39 TFL in 2006.
6) The kicking game remains a plus
Few schools probably have the luxury at kicker and punter that Michigan does. In Will Hart, U-M returns a fifth-year senior with two years starting experience at punter, but the Wolverines also have redshirt junior Brad Robbins punting (at year's end) the best he ever has.
At placekicker, both junior Jake Moody and fifth-year senior Quinn Nordin are accomplished, Moody making 16 of 20 career field-goal attempts and Nordin making 75.5% of his 53 attempts, including four of 50 yards or more.
Both kickers have experienced some struggles, Nordin losing his job to Moody in 2018 and Moody losing it to Nordin in 2019, but, overall, Michigan has had every reason to be content with its kicking game, the two making 75.5% of their 49 field-goal tries the past two seasons.
7) Cam McGrone, Michael Barrett and Josh Ross are the best linebacker corps in the Big Ten
That won't be easy. Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State all feature immensely talented linebacker corps, but in McGrone and Barrett - a pair of redshirt sophomores - U-M has two of the most gifted physical specimens they've ever had at MIKE linebacker and the Viper. In Ross, Michigan has an extremely high IQ player with above-average athleticism that is probably better suited for the WILL (where he played in 2018) than the MIKE (where he began 2019 before a season-ending injury).
Individually, no one will probably be as good as Devin Bush was in 2017-18, but as a group, it might be the most capable linebacker trio since David Harris, Shawn Crable and Prescott Burgess manned the defense for Michigan in 2006.
8) Michigan sweeps its home schedule
Despite the fact that Michigan is 4-0 at home the past five years against Wisconsin and Penn State, winning by an average of 26.5 points per victory, many critics believe the Badgers and Nittany Lions pose a great threat to U-M this season at The Big House.
If Michigan can hold serve in Ann Arbor in 2020, with matchups also against Purdue, Maryland and Indiana in conference play, it reasons that the worst the Wolverines' record will be is 9-3 as tough road games at Washington, Minnesota and Ohio State loom. However, both the Washington game (if it gets played) and the trip to Minneapolis are winnable, meaning regardless of what happens in Columbus, Michigan could have a great season if it goes undefeated at home.
9) Michigan pulls off the upset in Columbus
No one will expect it. Not after the Wolverines have lost the last two to Ohio State by scores of 62-39 and 56-27, and not with Michigan having lost its last nine in Columbus, but something has to give in this rivalry eventually, right?
10) An 11-win season and a Big Ten title re-establish Jim Harbaugh as one of the game's preeminent coaches
The dissent within the fan base is growing, to the point that a number of fans are ready to move on from Harbaugh, but all it takes is one victory over Ohio State and one Big Ten title and the entire Michigan fandom will rally behind Harbaugh again, pulling in a single direction like Maize and Blue nation did when he was named the head coach in Dec. 2014.
The longer Harbaugh goes without those two milestones, the greater the din will grow to move on from him in the next two years. But achieve the ultimate success and every Michigan fan should be on board with Harbaugh signing a five-year contract extension and staying in Ann Arbor as long as he wants.