Arguably the most important statistic for a college football team entering a new season is how many starters are returning. That could spell trouble for Michigan in 2017 as the Wolverines return a national-low five of them.
I will preface this by saying that it’s obviously helpful to have as many returning starters back as possible, but it’s not necessarily the be-all, end-all statistic. Last season, for example, Ohio State brought back just six starters, the fewest in the nation. The Buckeyes turned out to be just fine in reaching the College Football Playoff, albeit getting stomped by Clemson.
So even though Coach Jim Harbaugh returns just five starters in 2017 doesn’t mean Michigan is going to become a four-win team or something. Harbaugh has recruited much too well for that. The Wolverines are +1550 on 5Dimes college football odds to win the national title, behind only Alabama (+215), Ohio State (+600), Florida State (+675), USC (+850) and Oklahoma (+900).
Clearly the most important returning starter on any team would be the quarterback, and Michigan does bring back Wilton Speight. He threw for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns with just seven interceptions in 2016. He did struggle in the 33-32 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State but was playing through a shoulder injury. Speight is 40/1 on Heisman Trophy futures. Should Speight get injured, Harbaugh welcomes one of the top freshman QB recruits in the nation in Dylan McCaffrey, the younger brother of the former superstar Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. Speight’s backup from last season, John O’Korn, also returns.
Speight is one of four offensive starters back. Leading rusher De’Veon Smith has moved on. So have starting receivers Amara Darboh (57 catches, 862 yards, seven TDs) and Jehu Chesson (35 catches, 500 yards, two TDs). Ditto for All-American tight end Jake Butt (46 catches, 546 yards, four TDs). Keep an eye on five-star freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones to emerge at wideout. Up front, both tackles and a guard are gone.
The defense brings one starter back: fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray. All-American cornerback Jourdain Lewis and Heisman Trophy finalist and do-everything cornerback/safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers will be playing on Sundays in 2017. End Taco Charlton’s stock is on the rise for the NFL Draft and he’ll be a first-rounder like Peppers. Charlton made 11 starts with 9.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and 43 tackles in 2016. U-M also lost All-Big Ten kicker/punter Kenny Allen.
Michigan has a very tough schedule this season. It opens against Florida in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 2. U-M is a 6.5-point early betting favorite. Then Cincinnati and Air Force visit the Big House before Big Ten play begins. Both Michigan State and Ohio State visit Ann Arbor this season, but the Wolverines travel to Penn State and Wisconsin.
It’s going to be tough for this team to win 10 regular-season games and reach a New Year’s Six bowl game as it did last season. There should be win totals out at the sportsbook soon. I’d call Michigan a 9-3 team in the regular season. Harbaugh will have his team back in the national title picture in 2018, however.