Expectations around Michigan football varied last year, but the college football world has a clear idea of what Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines are capable of accomplishing in 2016.
The Maize and Blue will rely on an elite defense to guide a championship chase—one that has College Football Playoff potential.
However, Michigan needs to overcome a few weaknesses along the way. Although the starting lineup remains mostly intact, a couple of vacancies are at critical spots. But as long as the Wolverines address those needs, they'll compete for a title.
Experienced Players Under NFL and Veteran Coaches
An imperfect yet significant statistic is the number of returning starters.
On offense, Michigan brings back four linemen, two wide receivers, a tight end and its leading rusher, as well as other notable reserves. Defensively, the Wolverines return most of the contributors up front and in the secondary.
Tight end Jake Butt and cornerback Jourdan Lewis earned second-team AP All-America honors. They, along with wide receiver Jehu Chesson and then-defensive back Jabrill Peppers, received first-team All-Big Ten nods.
|Michigan's Returning Production|
|Category||RB Rush YDS||Rec YDS||OL Starts||TFL||Sacks||DB Starts|
|Back in 2016||1,257||2,848||52||51||17.5||49*|
*That number includes Peppers, who has since moved to outside linebacker but will contribute as a nickelback in 2016.
But utilizing the right players is only half the battle. Led by Harbaugh, Michigan's staff is loaded with NFL experience and longtime college coaches.
Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch create the game plans. In 12 of 13 games last season, it was good enough to win. Defensive coordinator Don Brown led Boston College to a No. 1 defensive ranking in 2015.
Six of the seven remaining assistants—Greg Mattison, Brian Smith, Tyrone Wheatley, Michael Zordich, Kevin Tolbert and Jay Harbaugh—were in the NFL either immediately or shortly before going to Ann Arbor.
When you combine veterans with veterans at a power-conference program, the result could be a championship.
An Elite Defense
Michigan boasted the nation's No. 4 defense in 2015. The unit could be even better this season.
Potential first-round NFL draft pick Chris Wormley registered 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year. Along with him, Taco Charlton starts at defensive end. Bryan Mone and either Ryan Glasgow or Maurice Hurst Jr. will man the middle.
Rashan Gary, the No. 1 prospect in the 2016 class, headlines the reserve unit. Chase Winovich and Matt Godin round out the rotation.
The defensive line can help atone for some struggles at linebacker, which needs to replace three starters. Plus, Peppers' move to "Sam" linebacker lessened the burden on career reserves. Ben Gedeon is the undisputed "Mike," and Mike McCray is the favorite to start at "Will."
Plus, they can be confident in the last line of defense. Lewis headlines a strong secondary that returns four rotational players in Channing Stribling, Jeremy Clark, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill.
Uncertainty at Quarterback
What we know: Jake Rudock graduated, opening a five-man quarterback battle. Brandon Peters and Alex Malzone trailed off during spring practice, essentially as expected.
That leaves Wilton Speight, John O'Korn and Shane Morris vying for the job. However, the prevailing thought is Morris—despite his physical tools—just isn't quite on the same level as his competition.
"He has a tendency to let one mistake turn into two or three, which really makes it tough to completely trust him," MLive's Nick Baumgardner said of Morris. "He wanted to redshirt last season, which pushed him down the depth chart. But he also slid down the chart because Speight passed him after Jake Rudock won the starting battle."
So, will it be Speight or O'Korn?
The former initially spent 2015 as the garbage-time quarterback to preserve a redshirt season for Morris. But midway through the year, Speight ascended to No. 2 on the depth chart and led a game-winning drive on the road against Minnesota.
Since he doesn't have a strong arm and isn't particularly mobile, the "game manager" label will follow Speight. Granted, that might be all the Wolverines need to succeed in 2016.
When considering raw talent, O'Korn—who sat out last year after transferring from Houston—is the more appealing option. He has a stronger arm and is a legitimate scrambling threat, but O'Korn needs to protect the ball.
Though a soft nonconference schedule to begin the campaign will aid Michigan's new starter, a late-season gauntlet awaits Speight or O'Korn. Fall camp will determine the winner of this battle.
Without question, the Wolverines offensive line made enormous strides last year compared to 2014, especially in pass protection. However, the unit seldom controlled the trenches in the running game.
Experience and continuity under Drevno should result in further improvement. The only new projected starter is Grant Newsome.
"They're a year older, so once they're comfortable with me, they understand what I'm teaching and what I expect from them," Drevno said, per Orion Sang of the Michigan Daily.
Simple rushing averages often don't tell the whole story. Advanced stats from Football Outsiders are better metrics.
Standard downs are defined as first down, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd-and-4 or fewer, and 4th-and-4 or fewer. Michigan trudged to a 2.75-yard average, which ranked 88th nationally. Only 34.8 percent of the Wolverines' rushing attempts gained at least five yards when five yards were available. Of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, that ranked 107th.
The reason for optimism? Only 17.3 percent (No. 33) of the carries were stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. With four returning starters, that percentage should drop—a good thing.
But saying it on paper is easier than consistently winning in the trenches.
Bryan Mone, Defensive Tackle
Peppers is the ultimate weapon. He'll start at outside linebacker, can play any spot in the secondary, will contribute on offense and could return kicks. But everybody knows about Peppers.
Mone, however, might sneak onto the national radar. The defensive tackle is already squarely on the coaches' minds.
As a freshman in 2014, Mone appeared in all 12 games and managed nine total tackles. Last season, though, a broken ankle ended his campaign before it began.
Mone probably won't be the featured player. Wormley and Charlton should put up shiny numbers and grab most of the attention. In all likelihood, though, those stats will be a direct result of the 6'4", 320-pound Mone clogging the middle.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from CFBStats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.