Is Michigan a good bet to win the national title?
ESPN’s David Purdum reported at the end of last week that no college football team has had more bets placed on it to win the national title, at multiple Las Vegas sportsbooks, than the Michigan Wolverines. Their title odds are now the second-lowest to only Alabama, having moved from 15-1 to 7-1.
Are the Wolverines a smart bet to win it all? That’s the question a lot of people are asking as Big Ten Media Days kick off this week. They certainly have some really good things going for their returning roster. As we wrote earlier this offseason, they might have the best returning defense in the country. They aren’t losing the same level of firepower that many of the nation’s other top defenses are, and are returning a remarkably efficient group of pass-rushers.
Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst ranked first and second, respectively, among returning defensive tackles last season in pass-rush productivity (they combined for 75 total pressures, including 10 sacks), and Ryan Glasgow ranked 18th. All three are projected starters in new defensive coordinator Don Brown’s four-man front, with Glasgow occupying the nose tackle spot, Hurst playing the penetrating, 3-technique defensive tackle role and Wormley kicking outside to defensive end, where he’ll pair with Taco Charlton – who ranks No. 1 among returning 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity.
PFF’s No. 7 safety from last season, Jabrill Peppers, is expected to move to linebacker in Brown’s scheme, but they’ll utilize his versatility in a hybrid role that still allows him to see time at safety on passing downs. That’s when he’ll join Jourdan Lewis, PFF’s No. 1 cornerback from 2015, who had two interceptions and a position-leading 15 passes defensed. All three of the other secondary starters – cornerback Channing Stribling and safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas – graded positively a year ago as well.
All of that is to say that Michigan opponents shouldn’t expect an easy path to the end zone this season – but the question is whether the Wolverines will be able to score much on their own. They are bringing back a solid receiving corps led by WR Jehu Chesson (who earned the third-highest WR rating among returning wideouts at 127.9) and TE Jake Butt (who is the top returning tight end in receiving grade, after catching 51 of 70 targets for 653 yards and three touchdowns). They have a productive running back in De’Veon Smith, who broke 52 tackles combined last season. And they return four offensive line starters, led by an excellent run-blocking center in Mason Cole.
But the quarterback position is a major question mark, with a three-person battle underway between Houston transfer John O’Korn, Wilton Speight and Shane Morris. We don’t have much to go on with any of those three guys, as their limited snaps the last two seasons have produced negative grades, but the silver lining there is Michigan shouldn’t need excellent QB play to stay in the national title picture. Jake Rudock came on strong at the end of 2015, but for the first nine weeks of the season, he ranked 98th among 101 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF grades – and the Wolverines were still a top-10 team entering the final week of the regular season.
Without a true road game until Week 6 at Rutgers, they’ll have time to get whoever their starting QB is up to speed before a closing five-game stretch that includes road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. If they can have him playing at an above-average level by then, those Michigan title bets will start looking pretty good.