What will it take

The past two years, Michigan's recruiting class has followed a similar storyline:
Race out to an early lead (including a couple bigtime commits). People talk about the possibility of reeling in the nation's top group.
Add a couple sleepers before the season starts. In 2012, it was Jeremy Clark and Sione Houma. 2013's offerings were Scott Sypniewski and Channing Stribling.
Slow down during the season. Michigan has picked up just one commit during the regular season in each class (Drake Johnson in '12, Da'Mario Jones in '13).
Finish with a bang, but not one strong enough to contend for top honors. Michigan added Derrick Green a week before Signing Day last year, and added two wide receivers in December and two late offerees in the week before signing Day 2012.
If you ask a fan, Michigan's coaching staff is the best-recruiting group out there over the summer. Ask again in January, however, and there's a persistent wistfulness for "what could have been."
U-M can flip the script in 2014. The Wolverines have followed the first two steps of the process thus far, landing a half-dozen four-stars and a five star (Paramus, N.J. corner Jabrill Peppers) early in the process, and recently adding underappreciated talents like three-stars Brandon Watson and Noah Furbush. The key to remaining in contention for the country's top class, then, will be to either step up the preseason recruiting surge, or land a bigtime commit (not a local three-star) during the year.
Give them a HandThe key to the whole picture might just be the top recruit in all the land:'s No. 1 overall prospect, Da'Shawn Hand. If Michigan can lure Hand to not only commit, but do so as early as possible, the ripple effects can be huge.
Hand has set up his official visit to Ann Arbor for the Sept. 7 night game against Notre Dame. The 2011 edition of Under The Lights - which was the first night game in Michigan history - brought in a number of top visitors. Not only did a five-star (Washington offensive lineman Zach Banner) and two four-stars (Cleveland tight end Pharaoh Brown and Los Angeles wide receiver Jordan Payton) take official visits, but dozens of unofficial visitors.
While much of the impact of the 2011 game was felt in future classes (Kyle Bosch, Jake Butt, Mike McCray, and Dymonte Thomas were among the eventual 2013 commits in attendance), this year's edition needs to capitalize on the here and now. If Michigan can secure an early commitment from Hand at that event or shortly thereafter, the ripple effects will be felt for the rest of the group.
With 14 commits to date, Michigan only has openings for 4-6 more prospects. If Hand is one of them, that's a huge boost for his own ranking (in the Rivals team rankings formula, he's worth 250 points on his own), but also for Michigan's chances to lure other top prospects. The Wolverines have done well getting their foot in the door with some intriguing players - running back Leonard Fournette, No. 3 overall, cornerback/athlete Adoree' Jackson, No. 9 overall, and defensive lineman Malik McDowell, No. 23 overall - but adding Hand gives Michigan the opportunity to sell something very exciting: playing alongside the country's two best players. No school has ever landed the top two, and doing so early in the process would be a major selling point.
Fournette is a pipe dream at this point for Michigan. Jackson (who places lots of emphasis on running track in college) and fellow Californian Joe Mixon are, too. If U-M suddenly has the nation's hottest class by adding Hand, their interest goes from token to, at the very least, perked up.
Hand wouldn't be the pied piper, immediately luring every five-star in the country to join him, but he's a boost. Reeling in three (or more) five-stars in a class would give Michigan the best top-end they've had in years, with solid players filling out the rest of the group.
Other piecesHand - and the other five-stars he could sway - won't be the deciding factor alone. Michigan needs other current commits to show off their capabilities during the season to improve their individual rankings to move up the charts, as well.
Grand Rapids (Mich.) Christian wideout Drake Harris could see another 2,000-plus-yard season result in a bump to five stars. Salt Lake City (Utah) Highland defensive tackle Bryan Mone can dominate and, at the very least, show he's a high four-star, not a low one. Beverly Hills (Mich.) Detroit Country Day wide receiver Maurice Ways can use his second season of varsity football to add polish to his game. Hinsdale (Ill.) Central tight end Ian Bunting can stay healthy and add bigtime blocking to his already impressive highlight reel. Kenton (Ohio) linebacker Noah Furbush can prove he's not just the biggest fish in a small pond in Ohio's lesser Divisions.
While it's unlikely that every Michigan commit listed moves up (and some might even move down, including among those not listed), this class seems to have more potentially undervalued players during the summer period than any other in recent memory. Just about everything needs to go right, but it's possible - even likely - that the class as-is looks even better come Signing Day 2014.
Fortunately, while Notre Dame, Clemson, and Texas A&M have the same number of commitments (14) as the Wolverines, everyone else ahead of U-M is already closer to maxing out there class. While Michigan's small expected signing group - 18-20 players - hurts them from a sheer numbers perspective, the Wolverines figure to bring in enough top-end talent to compete.
Since only the top 20 commitments in a given class count toward the team rankings, the closer Michigan gets to that number, the better chance of being ranked No. 1. Even teams that sign 25-30 players won't have a significant advantage (although unlike Michigan, their bottom few commits won't have opportunity cost).
Any (maybe all) of these improvements can give Michigan a chance to contend for top honors. U-M's highest-ranked class in the era is the incoming signees, who earned the No. 5 spot nationally according to the Rivals Team Rankings.
Last year's No. 5 class totaled 2,661 points on Signing Day. Alabama's top-ranked unit racked up an astounding 3,166. Can Michigan reach that mark? It's a tall task, and with 1,621 current points, Michigan has a long way to go. In fact, even if U-M were to reach 20 commitments come Signing Day, their average rank would have to be... even better than Hand, the top player in the country. With some adjustments upward among current commits, it can become possible, but still not likely.
Of course, Michigan isn't competing against Alabama's 2013 class for top honors, it's competing with the 2014 signing classes. Texas' 21-man class has just 1,841 points, and Tennessee is at the top with 18 commits for 1,866 points. Alabama's class looms large once more: the Tide have 15 commits and room for plenty more, and are the only program in the top seven with more points per pledge (116.0) than Michigan (115.8). Nick Saban and his assistants intend to bring in a few more highly ranked players, and passing Alabama will be nearly impossible.
For the latest on where Michigan stands with Hand, Fournette, Jackson, and more, visit our premium message board, The Fort.
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