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Michigan Wolverines Football Preview: Lessons from the 2016 season

What did Michigan’s oh-so-close 2016 season teach us going forward? We look at the lessons learned from last season.

All throughout the summer here at talking10 we’ll be previewing every team with a week-long look at every team. Up this week are the Michigan Wolverines, one of the Big Ten’s most talked about programs.

However, before we look forward we have to take a step back and figure out a starting point. That means understanding what took place last season and the lessons learned.

For Michigan, it was another season of double-digit wins and crushing defeats as well. But, the lessons learned may be important to what is ahead…or not. We’ll take a look at those lessons here.


We Know the Wolverines Are Going to be Different

The simple truth is we really don’t know what to expect from this team going forward in to 2017. Anyone telling you otherwise is just giving you a best guess. It isn’t just that there are big names gone, it’s that nearly every single starter is gone. As in just five of 22 starters from last season are returning.

No team in the country will return fewer starters than Michigan and that makes predicting this season a tough task for even the coaches who are there every day. The good news is that recruiting has been going well under Jim Harbaugh and we may see a lot of the plug-and-play that has been on display at Ohio State (oh oh, I said the naughty word) the past few years.

If that is the case, there are some people who got valuable snaps like Chase Winovich, Maurice Hurst and Brian Mone along the defensive line. Even Ian Bunting and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. got good looks at tight end as well. Oh and Wilton Speight is a year wiser and hopefully a year better with his passing ability.

However, the biggest difference in this team is going to be at the skill positions. Cornerback, wide receiver and running back are certainly going to look different. Can young players step up to the challenge left behind to them. After all, the bar has been set pretty high the first two years of the Harbaugh era.

Michigan Still Has an Ohio State Problem

Ohio State has won 13 of the last 15 matchups between these two historic rivals. That includes five-straight as it stands right now. These games have been close, with only the 2015 game being a blowout in the current streak.

But, this is year three and if Jim Harbaugh can’t get past Ohio State, how is he ever going to win a Big Ten championship game? That was never more on display than last season. A Michigan win and they were in the title game, an Ohio State victory meant nothing due to its loss to Penn State earlier in the season.

Instead of rising to the occasion and beating the streak, Michigan lost a two-overtime thriller and was left sitting on the outside looking in at the Big Ten title game and the College Football Playoff as well.

Last season was supposed to be the year the streak stopped and Maize ‘n Blue took over the series. After all, Ohio State was the one coming in with a ton of holes to fill and Michigan was the senior-laden team with all the experience ready to win it all.

If ever there is a lesson to learn from “The Game” last season, it was that you never want to feel that feeling again. Personally, I lost count of how many chances the Wolverines had to win that instant classic, but you can bet the younger players around saw the disappointment on the faces of the seniors. No doubt that will be a nice little motivating factor, but until Michigan can prove it can beat Ohio State, it just simply isn’t ready for the big time national stage.


You Must Play For 60 Minutes

No lesson is likely bigger than the one that was learned the hard way in losses to both Ohio State and Florida State to end the season. That lesson? YOU MUST PLAY FOUR QUARTERS.

In the Ohio State game, the Wolverines controlled the clock and grounded and pounded the Buckeyes in to submission. However, they led by only three points and that’s when things went haywire.

OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett was bottled up and as SBNation’s Bill Connelly pointed out:

Over the first 50 minutes, he (Barrett) had managed just 71 rushing yards and 57 passing yards. In these two possessions, he rushed eight times for 65 yards and completed five of eight passes for 59.

Even the veteran defense couldn’t overcome the magic of a three-year starting quarterback. It cost the Wolverines dearly as they couldn’t hang on to a lead they had worked so hard for and eventually lost in overtime.

Fast forward a month or so and Michigan found itself ahead in the Orange Bowl after a furious comeback. What was a 20-9 deficit became a 30-27 lead with 1:52 to play. Michigan’s defense got its crap together for most of the second half and the offense finally came alive.

However, just as the offense decided it wanted to win, the defensive effort gave out after being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting.

In the end, the lesson that the young players should be able to take away from last season is that the big games take a full 60 minutes of everything you have got to win. You can’t come out flat on one side of the ball while the other goes nuts and expect to win. It has to be a full team effort for a full 60 minutes.

This probably isn’t lost on any Harbaugh-coached team ever, but there’s a difference between having it preached at you and getting past that hurdle for yourself. Ultimately, Michigan may be defined by its abilities in close games under Harbaugh. So far…not so good.

What it Means for 2017?

All the hype of the Harbaugh era has kind of worn off. His shtick isn’t exactly new or shiny anymore. So, as the team buckles up for a lot of change heading in to the 2017 season, perhaps a little less attention and a little more of the fundamentals is going to do the trick.

What 2016 taught us about Michigan is that despite all the brand-name recruiting success it is having, championships are still elusive for the Maize ‘N Blue. The hunger created by being so close to both a Big Ten and Orange Bowl victory have to weigh heavily in to building towards a successful season ahead.

Don’t let coaches fool you — past seasons hardships can lead to new seasons of success. That’s the same for successful seasons breeding complacency. The hope has to be that the hunger and work ethic is around this program now that Harbaugh is basically only dealing with people he brought in to the program moving forward.

It feels much like this season and next are put up or shut up time in Ann Arbor.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball


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