What to make of the Wolverines... well they seem to have come about their 5-6 record honestly. Michigan is not a good football team.
I think Michigan is less set in its ways offensively, willing to be more flexible, but still bad. In fact, if you go by the numbers, the Wolverines are a lot worse than 2013. Perhaps that's a good example of just how far they came from reaching their potential last season when they ran a bunch of plays that had no chance of working but refused to call others that could have. Offensive personnel is worse this year with no one having replaced Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess no more productive than he was before. The offensive line has improved from completely terrible to a little less than decent but they don't have skill people who can exploit a crease or space.
Last week while losing to Maryland, Michigan probably did Ohio State a favor by busting a huge play on special teams with a first-quarter fake punt. Maryland was begging for this as they has nine guys rushing and no one covering either gunner split out. The usual fullback, Joe Kerridge, took a direct snap and went up the middle untouched. You can bet OSU will be on the lookout for this.
Their most functional player on offense is probably Kerridge, which should tell you a lot. That's not to take anything away from him because he is a really good blocker and athletic enough to get something after the catch if he is used in the passing game, it's just an example of where everyone else is.
Devin Gardner remains a very intriguing talent. He is a good athlete and a tough guy who had demonstrated a lot of guts in games such as Ohio State last year and Penn State this year. He still makes way too many bad decisions, though, and he is inconsistent as a passer. You can't help but see why he was a highly regarded recruit and feel bad for the way he has been mismanaged since he has been at Michigan. If I were an NFL coach with a good track record of developing quarterbacks, I would absolutely take a chance on him at some point later in the draft.
Jake Butt is a good athlete and a big target at tight end. He certainly brings enough to the position to justify moving Funchess to receiver full time, and the performance of the rest of the receivers makes it clear why that move was necessary. There's not really anyone who can take the top off the defense.
In the backfield, Drake Johnson has brought a spark to the running game in November and Justice Hayes has a little bit of wiggle. The Wolverines ran for a very deceiving 292 yards last week against Maryland thanks to Kerridge's 52-yard run on the fake punt and a couple of long scrambles by Gardner when the pass rush lost contain. Late in the second quarter, they also made some hay with Johnson on a couple of draw/counter plays that took advantage of Maryland playing soft to prevent a big play. De'Veon Smith is a powerful guy, but he runs kind of stiff.
Overall, Michigan's offense can counterpunch but has no way of dictating to a defense how things are going to be. Last season some of those counterpunches could turn into big plays, as we saw against Ohio State when the Buckeyes overpursued or missed tackles. Not as much ability there this time around.
When I watch Michigan's defense, it is not immediately obvious why they don't allow more yards and points. There aren't a lot of standouts on the unit, and that was even before the Wolverines lost their best defensive player to a legal situation.
Linebacker Jake Ryan is a big playmaker, of course, but outside of him the unit is just basically solid. They'll dial up pressure at times, but in general they seem to want to keep things in front of them. Ryan is joined by Joe Bolden to form a very nice tandem of linebackers in the box, and they play the other linebacker as a walkout against spread teams, same as Ohio State this season. That was James Ross III, the former WLB, last week, but I believe that role has been passed around through the year.
Michigan and Ohio State have both recruited the defensive line like crazy and ended up with almost completely different results. While Ohio State has produced three prime-time players (four if you count Spence) and a solid fourth (who predates Meyer, for what it's worth) but no depth, Michigan can go pretty deep without finding anyone who is a liability or anyone who is much of a game changer now that Frank Clark is gone.
Willie Henry is an exception at nose tackle -- he can be a game-changer, both a space-eater and a playmaker. Chris Wormley has become a pretty effective three-technique. He's just kind of a grinder and manages to work his way into the action pretty regularly. Ryan Glasgow is disruptive inside, and Bryan Mone has flashed a few times recently. Mario Ojemudia looked pretty solid in Clark's place last week. He's a good athlete who can drop into coverage and hold his own. Can he or Taco Charlton bend the corner like Clark? Not sure.
There seems to be a revolving door at safety. Dymonte Thomas and Jarrod Wilson started there last week with Wilson being the guy in the box. I think they wanted to play a more aggressive style of coverage but realized they don't have the guys. After getting Charles Woodson's No. 2, Blake Countess eventually was demoted to field corner before ending up at nickel. If you saw a touchdown pass early in the season, there was a good chance No. 2 was in the neighborhood. He started in place of Jourdan Lewis the last two weeks, but I'm not sure why. Lewis was back at the boundary spot in the second half. He was very impressive early in the season as a cover guy. The other corner, Ramon Taylor, bit on a fake screen and gave up a big pass in the second quarter against Maryland. He's a senior who has never really shown much.
The Wolverines looked pretty good being able to play downhill against Indiana when the Hoosiers had proven they have no passing game, but they had some problems with C.J. Brown of Maryland, who scored a touchdown on a keeper after a fake jet sweep. They did manage to blow up an inverted veer with a stunt, and they aren't afraid to bring the safety in to support against the run and let the end crash with the linebacker taking the quarterback.
Again, it's an overall sound unit. They tackle pretty well and play their assignments. There are plays to be made down the field, but I don't think you'll see Ohio State able to steamroll the front the way it did last year.
Dennis Norfleet is a weapon in the return game. He might be Michigan's best player overall pound for pound.
Overall, I'd say Urban Meyer is not blowing smoke when he says there is talent on this team, but I think these Wolverines are farther from figuring it out than last year's were. They're tougher in the trenches, but they could be at a big deficit on the outside against the Buckeyes.
Follow on Twitter @marcushartman