CHICAGO — Phil Steele took an unusual step this summer.
Steele picked Michigan to win the Big Ten in his college football preview magazine. It was the first time since 2007 that he had pegged the Wolverines to finish ahead of Ohio State.
“I think this is finally the year they put it together,” Steele said this week.
Over much of the past decade, they have not. The Wolverines last won the conference in 2004, and some of their biggest stumbles have come against the Buckeyes, including seven consecutive losses.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
Despite all that, Michigan has emerged as a popular preseason pick in the Big Ten. Along with Steele, Athlon Sports and Lindy’s sided with the Wolverines. A poll of 34 media members run by Cleveland.com also had the Buckeyes surpassed by them.
At Big Ten media days Friday, coach Jim Harbaugh had little trouble warming up to Michigan’s new status.
“I think that's where I would pick us,” he said.
Much of the optimism surrounding Michigan is tied to big changes at Ohio State.
The Wolverines’ seven-game losing streak came with coach Urban Meyer on the Buckeyes sideline, and Meyer retired after last season. He was replaced by Ryan Day, a bright offensive mind but also a first-time head coach.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who threw for five touchdowns in a 62-39 win over the Wolverines last season, departed for the NFL, along with his rocket-powered arm.
“When I look at these two teams,” Steele said, “I have less question marks with Michigan.”
The Wolverines do have continuity. Harbaugh returns for a fifth season at his alma mater, and starting quarterback Shea Patterson is back for his senior season.
On the other hand, in addition to his losing streak against the Buckeyes, Harbaugh has been unable to solve problems on his offense. In Harbaugh's four seasons, the Wolverines have not finished higher than 50th in the nation in total offense.
So Harbaugh hired Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator and tasked him with installing a spread offense. Gattis previously had been the co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach at Alabama. Michigan was using one of the slowest tempos in the nation — only five FBS teams averaged fewer plays per minute than the Wolverines, according to College Football Analytics.
The move toward a spread offense began when Harbaugh noticed that Patterson was more effective from the shotgun late last season and thought a new scheme might fit the quarterback better.
“Shea's really comfortable in that up-tempo, no-huddle offense,” Harbaugh said.
Last season’s blowout loss to Ohio State, though, looms large over the program.
When a reporter apologized for bringing up the stinging defeat, Harbaugh interrupted him to say, “It’s OK. We bring it up a lot.”
If Michigan can win the Big Ten and topple Ohio State, it might end up crediting the loss for motivation.
“A lot of people talk positively,” Harbaugh said. “Everything is positive. Everything you're doing is positive, especially this time of year. All the positive accentuation — we embrace the negative. We embrace the suck. Let's improve. Let's take into account the things we've done, the times we've lost, and what we can do to make that not happen again. Ever.”
Michigan’s players sounded like a group that recognized the fate of their season would ultimately be determined Thanksgiving weekend. They were one win away, against Ohio State, last season from making their first trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship game.
Preseason favorite wasn’t much to rest on.
“It's an honor, it’s a nice thing that happens to you,” senior guard Ben Bredeson said, “but it's July. The Big Ten championship is not until December. There a lot of things that can go well, a lot of things that can go wrong, between then.”