Twelve days removed from Michigan’s embarrassment at the hands of Ohio State, it is finally time to move on and shift focus to the upcoming Peach Bowl.
The Wolverines will be looking for their first win in a bowl game since the 2015 Citrus Bowl. But their trip to Atlanta, as well as the preceding weeks, will be shrouded with questions about the future.
With that in mind, here are the five most important questions for Michigan to answer over the next month.
Who is coming back?
Unless you are embroiled in a head coaching search, this is always the biggest question surrounding bowl season, and Michigan is no different.
Defensive end Chase Winovich and running back Karan Higdon are gone as seniors. Junior defensive end Rashan Gary announced his departure last week and will skip the bowl game.
After that, the Wolverines face a slew of question marks in their star-studded junior class. Quarterback Shea Patterson is the biggest variable, though sources within the program indicate that he will likely return. Tight end Zach Gentry — Patterson’s favorite target for much of the season — would likely be a mid-round draft pick if he leaves but his stock could be hurt by a disappointing game against Ohio State. As of right now, it seems probable that he will return for his final season and try to move into the second or third round in 2020.
The rest of Michigan’s question marks are on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Devin Bush was arguably the Wolverines’ most important defensive player this season. He will play in the Peach Bowl but hasn’t declared his draft intentions.
Cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill are key question marks for a thin secondary, and would leave defensive coordinator Don Brown in a bind should one or both choose to go to the NFL.
Linebacker Khaleke Hudson and safety Josh Metellus are also among the defense’s potential departures, though Hudson struggled down the stretch and Metellus would likely be a mid-to-late round pick.
Who steps up on D?
The importance of this question won’t be revealed until all of Michigan’s draft departures are known but it’s a significant one regardless.
Even if no one else declares for the draft — and that’s not happening — the Wolverines will have significant production to replace on the defensive side of the ball. Their front four will be hit hardest, which makes the recruitment of five-star defensive end Zach Harrison critical — if not for next season, for 2020 and beyond.
Outside of Harrison, Michigan will likely turn to replacements already on the roster. Defensive linemen Quity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson will have to step into bigger roles. Linebacker Josh Uche has been a major problem for opposing offense’s in his limited snaps and will have to continue that production on a larger scale next year.
If Bush and Hudson leave, linebackers Devin Gil and Josh Ross will have to make strides as they transition from role players to key starters.
In the secondary, cornerback Ambry Thomas and safety Brad Hawkins will be the two most important players to watch should guys like Long, Hill and Metellus declare for the draft.
What will the offense look like next year?
After a slew of seasons in which Michigan’s defense has been its defining strength, next season will likely hand that title over to the offense. The Wolverines will likely return Patterson, a star-studded receiving corps, and much of its offensive line.
But with its offense asked to carry more of the burden, the question becomes whether Michigan will change its offensive look.
At the moment, the answer appears to be no. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s teams have always featured pro-style offenses, from Stanford to the NFL to Michigan.
But it’s a style predicated on running the ball well and grinding out long, clock-winding possessions that allow your defense to win games. As the Ohio State loss showed, it’s not a style suited for high-paced shootouts.
And with an offense that possesses as much weaponry in the passing game as Michigan’s does, it seems fair to wonder whether Harbaugh will shift his offensive philosophy — even if that shift is a small one — to try and create a more high-powered aerial attack.
What does the running back situation look like?
Whether or not Michigan increases its reliance on its passing game, the Wolverines’ conundrum at running back is one that will need solving.
Senior Karan Higdon manned the position with aplomb this year, rushing for 107 yards per game, including eight games of over 100 yards on the ground. When he reached that marker, Michigan was undefeated. In the three games that he fell short, the Wolverines went 1-2.
Unfortunately for Michigan, Higdon will be playing on Sundays next year. And behind him, the Wolverines’ running back stable does not inspire confidence.
Sophomore fullback Ben Mason had a breakout season but he’s just that — a fullback. Junior Chris Evans has been mostly underwhelming. Junior Tru Wilson doesn’t profile as a workhorse.
Four-star recruit Zach Charbonnet comes in as a highly touted prospect and is likely the future of the position for Michigan. Unsurprisingly, he is the option who has drawn the most excitement from within the Wolverines’ fanbase. But like most freshmen, his acclimation to college ball is no certainty.
The most likely solution will be some sort of committee, but it will be interesting to follow how that committee breaks down.
Will they win?
It seems like a question whose importance doesn’t need re-stating. Save for the occasional week 17 NFL game, winning is every team’s primary concern before any game.
But amid the distractions of bowl season, that can be difficult to remember. When Florida was revealed as Michigan’s Peach Bowl opponent, the announcement was met with dismay among the Wolverines’ fan base. For a season that long looked destined for the College Football Playoff — or at the very least, Michigan’s first Rose Bowl in over a decade — Atlanta was a disappointing destination.
Even worse, the Wolverines would be matched up with the Gators for the third time in four years. There was a time when Florida was a marquee opposition but the Gators haven’t finished a season ranked higher than tenth in nearly a decade and offer an uninspiring brand of football.
So yes, this bowl matchup is slightly disappointing. But make no mistake, winning still matters. It would be Harbaugh’s first win in a New Years’ Six Bowl, and just the program’s second since 1999. Bowl games might not mean what they used to, but 11-2 with a Peach Bowl win would inarguably be a step in the right direction.