Michigan football absolutely fell apart last season, though the writing was definitely on the walls for Brady Hoke and the team well before the 2014 season even began. The end result was the dismissal of Hoke and Michigan AD Dave Brandon, followed up by the hiring of fan favorite Jim Harbaugh and a ton of hype from the Michigan fan base as they saw the school make the necessary changes to the football program.
While the football season was a disaster, the hope was that the fans could look forward to another impressive basketball season under John Beilein. That didn't happen, though, as Michigan stumbled to a 16-16 record, losing embarrassing games in the fall to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan, while struggling to remain competitive at times throughout the season. That, mixed with injuries, inexperience and significant depth issues, and the Wolverines season was easily the worst for the team since Rich Rodriguez was still the coach of the football team.
The good news for Michigan athletics is that the football and basketball team are both supposed to both be improved this season. Today, since Michigan football kicks off tonight out in Utah, we ask the question of which team will have the better season this year.
The Case for Michigan Football
It can't get any worse than last season, can it? Well it probably could, especially since you could make the case that the 2013 Michigan Football team was just as bad, if not worse, than last season's team. They of course found ways to scrape out wins in games they should have lost against the likes of Akron, Connecticut and Northwestern...hell, they gave up almost 50 points to Indiana.
Harbaugh's arrival to Ann Arbor, mixed with the removal of Dave Brandon as Michigan's AD, has led to a rejuvenated and fired up fan base ready to fully support the program, while most fans are being realistic enough to acknowledge that it may take a season or so to get the ball fully rolling here. Either way, as bad as Michigan has been recently, at least Hoke fielded a team with a very strong defense, meaning if Harbaugh can find an offense here then Michigan will be competitive in 2015. The schedule isn't the easiest this year, but games against Oregon State and Brigham Young are at home, as are their two toughest conference games against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. Mix that with the fact that Hoke still brought in a ton of top level recruits and if you believe that Hoke's staff simply couldn't develop that talent, there could still be plenty of unheralded talent for Harbaugh to take advantage of.
Michigan also returns their running backs from last season, potentially easing the pressure on their passing attack. The running numbers weren't the best last year, especially when you factor out the games that they padded rushing stats against suspect defenses (350 yards versus Appalachian State, 276 versus Miami, 184 versus Indiana, etc.), but the offensive line does bring forth plenty of experience and had actually improved quite a bit from 2013.
If the Wolverines can upset the Utes on the road, getting payback for the absolute beatdown at the Big House last season, then they could potentially be favored in every game heading up to a mid-October showdown against Michigan State. Brady Hoke, who flamed out miserably at the end, proved that a new coach can hit the ground running here as well, going 6-0 to kick off his time in Ann Arbor before finishing out his career with a 25-20 record afterwards.
The Case Against Michigan Football
Rome wasn't built in a day. Harbaugh's coaching career has basically seen him be successful everywhere he's coached at, but let's not forget that it took him three seasons before getting Stanford to a bowl game, with Harbaugh only winning nine games the first two seasons. His successful track record is obvious, but if the team he's stuck with isn't very good it will likely take some time to build from the ground up. The cold truth is that the Michigan football team under Brady Hoke could recruit, but either their touted recruits were all straight up busts or the coaching staff was just incapable of developing the talent brought in (likely a combination of both).
So Harbaugh is now left with a team that, while fielding one of the top defenses in the Big Ten, has an absolute tire fire of an offense that isn't set to make a quick recovery. While writing this piece, Michigan still hasn't announced who will start at quarterback, though that seems to be mainly schematics as the staff admits they know who there guy is already. Whoever wins that position battle, though, isn't exactly a great option...as Shane Morris hasn't shown much of anything in his time under center, while Jake Rudock was an average at best Iowa quarterback that struggled to keep the starting job last season. Whoever gets the nod will then be missing out on tight end Devin Funchess, who left early for the NFL, and instead gets a decisively underwhelming set of targets including leading returning receiver Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt.
While Harbaugh is a good coach and the defense should be a force, the team likely doesn't have the firepower to win at Utah tonight and while they'll get them at home, Oregon State and Brigham Young will both be challenging opponents as well. The Big Ten schedule isn't exactly murder's row, especially considering they'll face a ton of poor offenses (Northwestern, Minnesota minus David Cobb, Rutgers, Penn State and possibly Indiana (they should be better with Sudfeld though)), but a poor non-conference start and drawing Michigan State and a road trip to Maryland in two of their first three Big Ten games could get things off to a poor start in Ann Arbor. As good as Michigan may end up being in a year or two, there's no guarantee that this season will be anything more than Harbaugh trying to dig out of the mammoth sized hole left by Brady Hoke on his way out.
The Case for Michigan Basketball
The case for Michigan basketball basically stems around how great of a coach John Beilein is, mixed with the skill of star Caris LeVert. Mix that with guys like Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr., youngsters Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins, and a decisively healthier roster...and why shouldn't Michigan be ready to jump right back into the thick of things?
If you believe that the teams struggles last year were solely due to inexperience and injuries, it's easy to see them bouncing back with authority this season. Even more so if you think the younger guys are going to make the next step while LeVert and Irvin are ready to finally take the Big Ten by storm. There is the talent to make considerable progress, the biggest question is if the assumed jump is speculation/assuming players will make the leap or if the team is ready to actually take the next step. The Big Ten will be competitive in 2015-16, but even with a loaded Maryland team, no one is at the same level Wisconsin was at last year. That means things could open nicely for a potential surprise team to emerge, with many Michigan fans thinking the Wolverines could be that team.
The Case Against Michigan Basketball
There's some debate on how Michigan will fare this season, with some seeing them returning to form and others a bit more hesitant. A lot of the hype on the basketball program stems from people seeing what the roster returns and believing that the younger guys (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Aubrey Dawkins, etc.) will continue to show considerable improvement while injured players (Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht, etc.) will have considerably better seasons while healthy. And sure, that might happen. However, if you're a pessimist, you would point to the fact that the team was largely healthy in a December streak that saw the team lose at home to NJIT and Eastern Michigan, followed by getting blown out against Arizona and Southern Methodist. You'd also ponder if players like MAAR and Dawkins were improving on their own, or if the injuries forced them into larger roles and that an increase in production stemmed predominantly from an increase in their roles with the team (or in other words, if guys like LeVert were still healthy and playing, would we have seen much of an improvement / increase in numbers from them?).
The reality is it's John Beilein, a roster full of more experienced players and a potential Big Ten star in Caris LeVert. It might not be enough to launch this team to the top of the conference, but it is enough to contend with the teams in the conference, return to the postseason and make some noise once again come this March.
I think Michigan football will be a lot better than they were the last two seasons, but the record might now show it. Until Harbaugh can find a legitimate option at quarterback the team's ability to win will come down to the defense and that leaves little room for error. While the football team might make a bigger improvement, the Wolverines basketball team has the talent to not only make it to the postseason, but finish towards the top of the Big Ten and potentially make another run in March. With the ceiling for Michigan football likely being 8 wins and a modest bowl game somewhere down south, the basketball program has the chance to return to national prominence. Harbaugh could get the Wolverines there shortly, but it'd be foolish to argue that the football team is going to have the better season between the two programs.