The Michigan Wolverines are being considered a legitimate national title contender in their second season under head coach Jim Harbaugh, after his debut 10-3 campaign in 2015. They will need to succeed on both sides of the ball to get into the playoff race, but one thing is clear entering this season: The Michigan defense could be dominant.
In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that Michigan has the best defense in all of college football.
That’s not to say that Alabama and others won’t put a stop unit on the field that is plenty dominant in its own right, but as things stand right now, there is reason to believe that Michigan is the No. 1 defense in the country.
Here are three big reasons why:
1. They don’t have to replace nearly as much talent as some of the nation’s other top defenses.
Here are the top five defenses from last season in overall PFF grade, in order: Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State, Ole Miss. Of those teams, only the Wolverines didn’t have a defensive player taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
Bama has to replace four in D-linemen Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson, LB Reggie Ragland and CB Cyrus Jones. Ohio State has to replace four as well, including No. 3 overall pick and PFF’s top-graded edge defender two years in a row in Joey Bosa. Florida State is replacing No. 5 overall pick Jalen Ramsey, and Ole Miss is replacing Cardinals first-rounder Robert Nkemdiche, one of the better interior defensive linemen in college football last season.
The Wolverines only had one player drafted at all – defensive lineman Willie Henry, who went to the Ravens in the fourth round. That’s not to say they don’t have to replace some very productive players. Henry was PFF’s No. 34 interior lineman, LBs Desmond Morgan and Royce Jenkins-Stone both produced at a high level (linebacker in general is a bit of a question-mark position for Michigan), and SS Jarrod Wilson ranked No. 29 at his position after grading well in both run and pass defense.
But those holes aren’t quite as gaping as the ones mentioned above, which is why the returning group of Michigan defenders appears loaded.
2. Their pass rush should be excellent…
As good as Henry was for Michigan last season, he was only the fourth-most efficient rusher on the Wolverines’ defense. Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst formed the most efficient interior pass-rushing duo in the nation, with Wormley ranking first among defensive tackles in pass-rush productivity (45 total QB pressures, including seven sacks) and Hurst ranking third (30, including three). Hurst only saw 418 snaps last season, so the ability of both he and Wormley to stay productive and on the field will be critical to the Wolverines’ defensive success.
On the edge, Taco Charlton ranked sixth among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity, generating 41 total pressures including six sacks.
Those three up front give the Wolverines one of the best returning defensive lines in the entire country, as they are stout against the run in addition to their ability to get after the quarterback.
3. …and they are as good if not better in the secondary
No cornerback – not even Ramsey, the fifth overall pick of the Jaguars – earned a higher PFF grade in 2015 than Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis. He allowed just 37 percent of targets into his coverage to be caught – a top-5 mark – and had a position-leading 15 passes defensed to go with his two interceptions. The likely starter opposite Lewis, Channing Stribling, graded well in limited snaps a year ago.
The Wolverines are strong at safety as well, led by Jabrill Peppers, who earned the 17th-best grade at the position a year ago and excelled versus both the run and the pass. The other two likely major contributors at the position, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, also graded well last season, with Hill in a far more prominent role.
Peppers is reportedly going to play in something of a hybrid linebacker-safety role, taking advantage of his combination of strength and speed to allow him to come down into the box more frequently and also serve as a coverage linebacker in obvious passing situations.
No team is returning more production on defense than the Wolverines, and with their ability to both shut down the run and regularly get after the passer, teamed with a true shutdown corner in Lewis and a potential star in Peppers, they could be the best defense in college football in 2016.
They have a very favorable early schedule, not having to leave Ann Arbor until Week 6 (Oct. 8 at Rutgers), giving whichever quarterback earns the starting job (the buzz out of spring practice indicates 6-foot-6 sophomore Wilton Speight has the inside track) time to get himself and the offense up to speed. The closing stretch looms large – three of their last five games are on the road, at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State – but there’s no reason to think the Wolverines shouldn’t enter November in the thick of the playoff race. And their defense will likely be the biggest reason why.