ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Jim Harbaugh greeted the start of fall camp with his usual zest.
“You’re so excited,” he said. “It’s like the start of the new year. It’s like your birthday. It’s like the first day of school. It’s all those things rolled up into one. It’s like being reborn into football.”
If that’s how Harbaugh felt, one can only imagine what this season means to Michigan fans. Their program has been in need of a boost for a while now, and after hiring Harbaugh in December, the Wolverines feel it’s a question of when, not if, they return to their place among college football’s elite.
Whether it will happen right away is a different story. Nick Saban went only 7-6 in his first season at Alabama, but Harbaugh’s honeymoon phase in Ann Arbor will likely continue even if the initial results are pedestrian.
It shouldn’t be too hard to improve on last season’s 5-7 record that cost coach Brady Hoke his job. But after all the hype surrounding his hiring, Harbaugh seems keenly aware that his presence alone won’t be enough to turn this program around. The players — many of whom had significant roles during last year’s disappointment — will need to take a big step forward.
“We want nothing to be given to us, and we embrace healthy, honest, fair competition,” Harbaugh said.
The buzz is certainly back in Ann Arbor. After pockets of empty seats at home games last season, ticket sales are up again, and it will certainly be a special moment when the Wolverines take the field at Michigan Stadium for the first time under Harbaugh.
That home opener is Sept. 12 against Oregon State, but before that, Michigan starts the season with a tough road game Sept. 3 against Utah. The Utes won in Ann Arbor last September in one of the first clear signs of bad things to come.
Here are a few more things to watch at Michigan this season:
QUARTERBACK COMPETITION: Harbaugh’s first season may hinge on how well he can bring Michigan’s quarterbacks along. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock has plenty of Big Ten experience, and Shane Morris is also a candidate to start after throwing 40 passes last season.
TIME TO SHINE?: Defensive back Jabrill Peppers redshirted as a freshman last year because of a leg injury, but if he can begin to reach his considerable potential, that would be a big help in 2015. Harbaugh said Peppers might play some on offense as well.
TURNOVER MARGIN: A lot of Michigan’s problems last season could be blamed on an abysmal minus-16 showing in the turnover department. The Wolverines had 10 takeaways — only two FBS teams had fewer — and that was a big reason why Michigan finished with a losing record despite ranking seventh in the nation in total defense.
BLOCKING PROBLEMS: Hoke’s hiring after the 2010 season was supposed to signal a restoration of Michigan’s toughness and a return to the type of smash-mouth offense that had served the program well over the years. Instead, it’s been the opponents doing the smashing for the past couple seasons. Although center Jack Miller’s departure will hurt, returning starters Mason Cole, Graham Glasgow and Ben Braden will have a chance to lead what is now a fairly experienced offensive line.
RIVALRY GAMES: Michigan’s struggles in recent seasons have seemed even worse when compared to what the school’s rivals are doing. Ohio State won the national title last season and has taken 10 of the last 11 games against the Wolverines. Michigan State is now a regular contender for the Big Ten title and has won six of its last seven against Michigan. The Wolverines host Michigan State on Oct. 17 and Ohio State on Nov. 28.