With the 2023 college football season fast approaching, Yahoo Sports is rolling out our annual Top 25. We revealed Nos. 11 through 25 in three parts and are now counting down from No. 10 to No. 1 in the days leading up to the official start of the season on Aug. 26.
No. 2 Michigan
2022 record: 13-1 (9-0 Big Ten)
National title odds: +800
Over/under: 10.5 wins
Michigan has taken incredible strides in the last two seasons, but can the Wolverines take the next — and biggest — step to the top of college football?
On the heels of a miserable 2020 season where many questioned if Jim Harbaugh should keep his job, Michigan at long last experienced the triumph of winning an outright Big Ten championship in 2021 while snapping its losing streak to bitter rival Ohio State in the process.
And then the Wolverines did it again in 2022. They cruised through the regular season undefeated and capped it off with another emphatic victory over the Buckeyes — this time in Columbus.
However, for a second consecutive year, Michigan’s season ended with a loss in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The first time around, the Wolverines were overwhelmed by a dominant Georgia team. But last fall, the Wolverines were upset, 51-45, by TCU in a game where they turned it over on downs from the 2-yard line, threw two pick-sixes and fumbled at the goal line.
It was a disappointing outcome after such a dominant season. Will the Wolverines be able to get over the hump in 2023 and win a national championship for the first time since 1997?
To do so, Michigan will begin its season with Harbaugh serving a self-imposed three-game suspension due to an ongoing NCAA investigation. The early season schedule shouldn’t pose much of a challenge, but there are two other top 10-level teams in the Big Ten East — Ohio State and Penn State — to contend with down the stretch.
Michigan's run game is dominant, but how good can J.J. McCarthy be?
Entering the 2022 season, Michigan had a quarterback competition between Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy. McNamara started in 2021 while McCarthy was a true freshman. Even though McNamara led Michigan to a Big Ten title, McCarthy’s emergence seemed imminent.
Harbaugh extended the competition into the early stages of the season, but McCarthy clearly played better and took hold of the job for good when McNamara was injured in Week 3. McCarthy had a strong season, throwing for 2,719 yards and 22 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
But with Michigan’s dominant running game, McCarthy really wasn’t asked to do too much. Michigan’s running game should be fantastic again with a loaded offensive line and Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards returning at running back. But McCarthy improving in the downfield passing game could make this offense even better.
McCarthy was excellent as a play-action passer, but Michigan needs him to excel even in obvious passing situations, including in the red zone and on third down. For that to happen, the Wolverines need a few receivers to step up.
Ronnie Bell was McCarthy’s top target by a significant margin, but now he’s in the NFL. Entering 2023, there’s no obvious candidate to be Michigan’s No. 1 receiver. The targets will likely be spread more evenly among wideouts like Cornelius Johnson, Roman Wilson, Tyler Morris and tight ends Colston Loveland and AJ Barner.
Will that group be good enough for Michigan to achieve its biggest goals?
One of the best defenses in the country
Michigan had one of the best defenses in the country in 2022 and there’s no reason to believe that will change in 2023.
Two of the starters up front, Mazi Smith and Mike Morris, were NFL draft picks, but the Wolverines should still be stellar in the trenches. Kris Jenkins looks like the next dominant Michigan defensive tackle and the two-deep at defensive end is excellent.
Braiden McGregor and Jaylen Harrell are the expected starters, while Derrick Moore is a breakout candidate. Additionally, UM brought in Coastal Carolina transfer Josaiah Stewart. He combined for 26 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
With Junior Colson and Michael Barrett back, plus the addition of Ernest Hausmann from Nebraska, Michigan could have one of the best linebacker rooms in the country.
The secondary looks really strong, too, with the exception of one key spot. Will Johnson emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the country as a freshman and Mike Sainristil is a mainstay at the nickel spot. But the second outside corner opposite Johnson is the defense’s main question mark.
Sainristil could move outside, but the Michigan staff is hoping somebody like Amorion Walker or UMass transfer Josh Wallace can step up. Walker, a converted receiver, has reportedly been banged up during preseason camp, so Wallace seems like the best bet to be CB2.
Biggest game: Nov. 25 vs. Ohio State
Michigan has a pretty simple schedule until the final three-week stretch. Michigan goes to Penn State on Nov. 11, but it’ll be a “Big Noon Saturday” game and not a prime-time “whiteout” environment. The following week is a potentially tricky trip to Maryland before hosting Ohio State.
The OSU game is obviously the most important on the schedule. It’s one of the sport’s top rivalries and it could decide the Big Ten East for the third consecutive season. Before Michigan won the last two meetings, Ohio State had won 15 of the previous 16.
Impact player: RB Blake Corum
Corum had an incredible 2022 season for the Wolverines, but it was cut short by a torn ACL suffered in the close 19-17 home win over Illinois on Nov. 19. Corum tried to give it a go in the Ohio State game, but was pulled after just two carries. He then opted to have knee surgery before the Big Ten title game.
Before the injury, Corum was on an incredible run. Including the Illinois game, Corum topped the 100-yard mark in eight consecutive games. In his best performance of the year, Corum rushed for 243 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Maryland.
In all, Corum rushed for 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns. He and Donovan Edwards (991 yards, 7 TDs) make up arguably the top running back duo in the country.
Pick: Over 10.5 wins (-135)
Michigan will likely be at least a two-touchdown favorite in its first 10 games. That includes the three games while Harbaugh serves his suspension — East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. There is a stretch where Michigan plays three of four games on the road, but those road games are versus Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan State with a home game against Indiana in between.
After a bye week, Michigan hosts Purdue before that challenging three-game stretch to close the season. The only games I could realistically see Michigan losing are at Penn State and the Ohio State game. The trip to Maryland in between those two is a classic trap spot, but it’s hard to envision anything worse than a 2-1 record in that stretch.
I think 11-1 is the most likely outcome, so my lean is to the over here.