Number Five: Michigan
At number five, we have the Michigan Wolverines. I've spoken before about how pre-season rankings are risky at best, and that they are very fluid. Bottom line is that pre-season rankings frequently have almost no correlation with the final polls. With that in mind... Michigan is number five. They are the first team that I would say would not win the national championship, and honestly by this point, ranking teams becomes almost a crapshoot. I had a short list of teams that I could have put here, but nonetheless I chose Michigan.
Offensively, Michigan returns six starters, and has couple of key replacements to make, most notably Steve Breaston, the team leader in terms of receptions. Nevertheless, Michigan should have a very productive offense, as they return Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Mario Manningham, Jake Long, and others.
This will be your typical Michigan offense: boring as hell, but effective. They'll pound it out with Mike Hart, and Chad Henne and Mario Manningham will take advantage of an established running game with the playaction pass.
The major concern is likely the health of Mike Hart. He went down with injuries in 2005, and the Michigan offense was struggled. At bottom, everything else is built upon the foundation of production from Hart, and if he goes out, so does everything supported by it.
Defense is where the major concerns are for the Wolverines.
All told, Michigan only returns four starters from their unit in 2006. Gone are Leon Hall, David Harris, LaMarr Woodley, Alan Branch, and others. It's a unit that has a lot of rebuilding to do, and they have a lot of question marks. Moreover, it's a bit of a question as to just how this unit was to begin with in 2006. Oh sure, they looked impressive early on, but in the final four games they largely struggled. They gave up 26 points to Ball State, then shut down the hapless Hoosiers, before giving up a combined 71 points to Ohio State and USC. The truth is, this is a unit that didn't do too well down the stretch in 2006, and they have a lot of rebuilding to do in 2007. That's likely going to be a major problem for the Wolverines.
Beyond that, the schedule for Michigan is a pretty tough one. It's not likely as tough as what LSU must go through, but it's probably tougher than what USC, West Virginia, and Texas will have to face. The first test of the season will come in the second week when Oregon comes to town, and the Ducks high powered offensive attack has to be a concern for a rebuilding Michigan defense. After that, it doesn't get any easier, as the following two weeks bring Notre Dame and Penn State. Finally, the season will come to a close with a road game at Wisconsin and the regular season finale against Ohio State in the Big House. That's a pretty tough road, to say the least.
In all reality, Michigan is a good bit like LSU. There is a palpable sense of urgency in Ann Arbor, and they have to get it done this year. Next year is going to bring the loss of several key players, and it looks like a rebuilding effort could very well in the works. Moreover, Lloyd Carr is uncertain at best at the moment. Though he won a national championship in 1997, and though his Michigan teams are always good, many feel that his current situation is tenuous at best. He's only 1-5 against Jim Tressel -- the current stretch ties for the most success Ohio State has ever had against Michigan in a six year stretch -- and the Wolverines have lost their past four bowl games. If Carr can't contend for the BCS championship game this year, and drops yet another game to Ohio State-- in front of all of the maize and blue faithful in the Big House no less -- major changes could be coming shortly in Ann Arbor.
I highly doubt Carr would be fired, but he could gracefully "retire." He's been at Michigan for almost 30 years now, and though not all of those years were as head coach, a consecutive run like that is simply unheard of in big-time college football these days. Moreover, Carr will turn 63 by the start of the 2008 season, and the rumors of his limited time left seemingly just won't go away. A championship-less season and another loss to Ohio State -- this time at home to very much a rebuilding Buckeye squad -- could be the final nail.
Bottom line: win now and win big, or perhaps get ready for a major restructuring.
Michigan has some talent, and could do well. After all, that's why I picked them fifth. However, pre-season polls are very fluid and Michigan could be the textbook example of how easy it is for top teams to fall by the wayside.