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Ranking Michigan in Big Ten football, and how do Michigan’s basketball pieces fit?

Ranking Michigan in Big Ten football, and how do Michigan’s basketball pieces fit?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The spring transfer window was busy for Dusty May and less so for Sherrone Moore.

In other words, both coaches got what they wanted. The Michigan football team retained its biggest stars and May rebuilt the men’s basketball roster with six transfers who should contribute immediately. Now that both schedules have largely been determined, we will answer some mailbag questions.

Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I feel like if you divide the Big Ten into tiers, Michigan, Ohio State and Oregon are the top three. How would you break down the new Big Ten, and do you think Michigan will remain in the top bracket? – Tylor S.

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When talking about the teams that have the best chance to win the Big Ten in 2024, I would put Ohio State and Oregon in a tier of their own, followed by Michigan, Penn State and maybe one or two more teams. I view this as a broader question about where each football program falls in the hierarchy of the new Big Ten, in which case it would go something like this:

Power Brokers: Michigan, Ohio State

The Big Ten has become more balanced with the addition of the West Coast programs, but Michigan and Ohio State are still the heavyweights. They are the biggest brands, draw the biggest TV audiences and have the most recent postseason success. Fortunes can fluctuate, and there are plenty of teams that can win the Big Ten in any given year. In the long run, I would still rank these two programs a step above all the others.

CFP Candidates: Oregon, USC, Penn State

These are the programs that must compete annually for a spot in the expanded College Football Playoff. They have the ingredients for success, but for some reason they haven’t quite gotten over it yet. They’re not Michigan or Ohio State in terms of national reach, but they’re not far behind.

Upwardly mobile: Washington, Iowa, Wisconsin

All three of these programs have enjoyed periods of sustained success in the not-too-distant past, culminating in Washington’s appearance in the CFP championship game in January. Yet all three have questions. Can Jedd Fisch match the success of Kalen DeBoer and Chris Petersen? Can Kirk Ferentz find a foul? Is Wisconsin on the decline under Luke Fickell? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of these teams contend for a Big Ten championship.

Upper middle class: Minnesota, UCLA, Maryland, Nebraska

These aren’t teams you often expect to see in the CFP, but nine- or 10-win seasons aren’t out of the question. It’s safe to put Minnesota and Maryland in bowl games most seasons, and Nebraska moves up thanks to Matt Rhule and Dylan Raiola. It’s hard to know what to make of UCLA, but the program has a higher ceiling than it did under Chip Kelly.

Lower middle class: Illinois, Northwestern, Rutgers

Northwestern was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten last year. Illinois won eight games in 2022 and looks to get more NFL talent under Bret Bielema. Rutgers had a winning season last year, its first since 2014, and has gradually returned to respectability under Greg Schiano. These are small victories, but at least there is something to build on.

Rebuild Mode: Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana

The Spartans and Hoosiers are starting over with new coaches, like Purdue did last year with Ryan Walters. The Boilermakers are a year ahead in the process, but all three are still a long way from competing.

Dusty May went 126-69 in six seasons at Florida Atlantic. (Junfu Han/USA Today)

Basketball Question: What is your best guess at how these new pieces will fit together in a rotation? Who do you expect to start? —Andreas R.

I feel better equipped to answer this question after listening to May describe his plan for the selection earlier this week. I would expect Tre Donaldson to play 25 to 30 minutes per game at point guard and Vlad Goldin to do about the same at center. Roddy Gayle, Rubin Jones and Nimari Burnett should rotate at the two and three. Sam Walters and Will Tschetter can play the four, with Danny Wolf as backup at the four and five.

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That’s a seven-man rotation. The return of Jace Howard should add depth to the wing, and Michigan will want to take a look at Durral Brooks, Lorenzo Cason and Justin Pippen, the three freshmen. Jones played point guard at North Texas and should give Michigan a secondary ballhandler, but there is room for one of the freshmen to claim some of those minutes.

Which Michigan player will be the top pick in next year’s NFL draft? –Jonathan B.

Many of the early mock drafts have Will Johnson and Mason Graham in the top 10. So it’s probably one of those two, and the answer depends on team needs and schedule fit. Either way, it’s hard to go wrong: Graham is a force on the interior defensive line, and Johnson has everything NFL teams need in a cornerback. I might slightly favor Johnson, purely because he is such a smooth athlete and can do so many different things. I’m not convinced we’ve seen the best Johnson has to offer as he struggled with injuries at times this past season.

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Is there any chance Michigan would adopt a two-quarterback system? And are there any programs that have had success with this? In the same sense, is Tim Tebow a good comparison to (Alex) Orji? –Kevin A.

Offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell didn’t rule out playing more than one quarterback, so I won’t either. It could be a way to get Orji’s athleticism on the field while having a quarterback like Jack Tuttle or Davis Warren who can expand the options in the passing game. Is it ideal? Probably not. Could it work? Maybe.

A good example is what Michigan did with Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy in 2021. McNamara was the starter, but Michigan had a package of plays that took advantage of McCarthy’s athleticism and his playmaking ability. Orji should be on the field for more snaps than McCarthy played as a freshman, but the concept could be adapted to Michigan’s quarterback situation.

I could buy freshman Tebow as a comparison for Orji, but Tebow won the Heisman Trophy and accounted for 55 touchdowns as a sophomore. Tebow threw for more yards and touchdowns that year than McCarthy threw last season. Orji is a long way from that, but he has some similar skills.

I would look at what Alabama did with Jalen Milroe last year as a realistic comparison for Orji. It was bumpy at times, but Milroe grew into the job and Alabama found what worked for him. If Michigan can do that with Orji, it would be preferable to switching quarterbacks.

I would think Michigan would land the best RB, OL, and DL recruits based on Michigan’s track record of development and game plan. What’s stopping you from recruiting better? – Nick K.

I’m not sure how many five-star recruits choose a school based on style of play or history of sending players to the NFL, but I suspect the number is quite small. That’s not to say those things don’t matter, just that they’re probably not the deciding factor. Michigan gets a lot of players drafted, but so do Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Oregon and LSU. Those programs also develop running backs and linemen. Even if Michigan has an edge in some areas, having five-star recruits flocking to Michigan isn’t a huge advantage over those other programs.

Michigan’s formula is to sign a lot of good players in the high four-star bracket and combine the occasional five-star recruit and a few under-the-radar prospects with upside. The Wolverines just won a national championship that way, so it’s hard to get around the strategy. Michigan isn’t going to flip a switch and become a recruiting juggernaut like Georgia or Ohio State, but the Wolverines now have proof that there is another way to build a championship roster.

It’s legitimate to ask whether Michigan is still in a position to sign the Will Johnsons and the JJ McCarthys in the age of unregulated name, image and likeness, and the answer will go a long way in determining whether the Wolverines can remain at the top of the Big. Ten. The class of 2024 featured a blue-chip running back, Jordan Marshall, and a strong group of offensive recruits, and Michigan has a top-50 edge rusher for 2025, Nate Marshall. It’s not that the program is devoid of talent. But if Michigan wants to continue the success of the past three years, evaluation and development will be the keys.

Has anything changed in the admission policy? May doesn’t seem to have any problems with the portal. – Ritesh K.

I asked May this week about the perception that Michigan has a hard time recruiting, and here’s what he said:

“We have to do our work early. (Otherwise) there is no reason for us to invest a lot of time, energy and effort, especially not the emotional energy that goes into recruitment. It’s one thing to make a call, and it’s another to really invest in that call, and be present and relational in it. … There were some guys we had to stay away from. Maybe we could have gotten them in. We didn’t go that route because we had to be so efficient with our time.”

The biggest problem lies with transferring credits, not with getting players admitted. That’s why Michigan has been attracted to graduate transfers or younger players with fewer credits from their previous schools. Even Myles Hinton, a transfer from Stanford, had credits that didn’t transfer, and not every player is going to want to retake some classes when they have other options. May and his staff were on top of that and weren’t caught waiting for players who wouldn’t end up at Michigan. With so many players in the portal, Michigan can afford to be strategic in targeting those who fit. May did that and put together a roster that should be competitive in the Big Ten.

(Top photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)