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A look at the Wolverines’ 2018 regular-season schedule, which opens at Notre Dame on Sept. 1, and finishes at Ohio State on Nov. 24. Video by Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press
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Mail’s always fun. When it’s about football, it’s even better. 

And, hey, we’ve even got a basketball question this week. 

Welcome back to another edition of the Michigan mailbag, Ask Nick. Thanks again to all those who participated via Twitter and email

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Q: What’s it going to take for Michigan to play the way Georgia and Alabama did on Monday night? — a lot of people

A: There were varying forms of this question. One guy simply asked why “Michigan can’t have nice things?” But the general consensus was there. Georgia and Alabama put on a football show Monday in the national championship game, and looked like the two best teams in America. 

So, how far is Michigan from that level? The easy answer: A long way.

Not that it’s impossible, of course. This is college football. Crazy stuff happens.

Looking at the path to the College Football Playoff, anyone in the Big Ten East Division appears to be at a disadvantage because the division is loaded with talent. Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State had double digit wins. Michigan does, despite its 8-5 record, have a lot of talent coming back. 

Personnel-wise, the answer is three-fold. 

When you watch Georgia and Alabama up front offensively, you see athletes. Both teams pound the football with inside zone, and they do it with linemen who can move. Athleticism along the line of scrimmage is what people used to mean when they used the phrase “SEC speed.” It’s the ability to be super athletic up front, which allows you to overcome mental errors easier. 

Michigan is not there across the board. Cesar Ruiz is that type of player. But he’s just one guy. Michael Onwenu isn’t slow, neither is Ben Bredeson. They’re solid Big Ten linemen. But Michigan needs to find more. Coaching is important, of course. But you don’t get to Alabama’s level up front without raw athletic ability. 

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Second, the wide receivers. Everyone loves to point toward to an explosive running back as the answer to all problems. If you have a line that can move and receivers who can both make plays in the air and block downfield, you can punish people all day long. Michigan’s receivers aren’t at this level physically or fundamentally right now

The number of times you saw a Michigan wideout go up and grab a 50-50 ball from a defensive back this season could be counted on one hand. You have to be able to help your quarterback out. This group has the potential to elevate to that level, but it hasn’t arrived yet. 

Then, of course, quarterback. Words cannot describe how easy Alabama freshman Tua Tagovailoa made that second half look Monday. That was one of the greatest performances by a true freshman on a big stage ever. It’s not something that should be used as a measuring stick everywhere, because it’s so incredibly difficult. 

But teams like Alabama and Georgia (Ohio State, Clemson) have systems filled with top level athletes that allow younger players to come in and fill certain roles easier. The talent around them allows them to play with more confidence. Michigan’s quarterbacks have had their problems and this team needs to find an answer. But it’s not all on the quarterback’s shoulders. 

He needs a lot of help.

Michigan’s defense is good enough. I believe that. The offense? Solve those three sizable issues, and you have a chance. 

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Q: Does Michigan’s inability to field a legit O-line more to do with coaching or missing on recruits? This staff had a perceived proven record developing linemen before it got here. So was the perception overrated? — @knjkime 

A: It certainly could be both. But based on track records, I’d lean toward the recruiting department more than anything else. And make no mistake, Michigan has had offensive line misses over the past few years. 

Michigan had a commitment from right tackle Devery Hamilton, who flipped and now starts at Stanford. Plymouth’s Michael Jordan went to Ohio State and has been a two-year starter. Grant Newsome suffering a severe knee injury hurt Michigan this season, as it was forced to once again play Mason Cole out of position at left tackle. 

There are several reasons, of course. But talent identification along the offensive line during the recruiting process is as difficult as it is important. Everything is so sped up now, as teams have to start whittling down who they want to focus on when players are sophomores in high school. It’s nearly impossible to identify a top flight offensive lineman as a sophomore in high school. Kids go through physical changes, that’s how life works. Offensive line is the toughest spot to recruit

But you sign players and it’s then your job to make it work. Plenty of other schools make it work up front with a lot less. The bulk of the linemen Michigan has taken over the past three years have had impressive offer sheets. Having one zone run scheme coach (Greg Frey) and one gap scheme coach (Tim Drevno) try to coach the same, young line in 2017 was a mistake, and Michigan paid for it

Michigan has struggled up front for the better part of 10 years. Why? This program went from zone-read with Rich Rodriguez to an odd gap-zone hybrid with Al Borges, back to zone with Doug Nussmeier, back to gap with Harbaugh and Drevno and back to a hybrid this past season. 

Too much change. Michigan must pick a run scheme and stick with it.

Q: For someone who doesn’t really watch or follow (hoops) like I do football, what was the expectation vs reality of this Michigan team that is suddenly looking for real? — @Mazen_Hammoud

A: Depends on who you ask. It has been an interesting group due to all the new pieces in new places, but a talented one that probably doesn’t even know it’s ceiling at this point. The Big Ten isn’t overly deep this year and Michigan’s shot at great wins is dwindling, but this is probably a bit ahead of where I thought they’d be through 18 games. 

The UCLA win was impressive, as was a win at Texas. Michigan had Ohio State beat before collapsing, and nearly pulled off a huge upset vs. No. 7 Purdue on Tuesday. The rotation remains in flux, so it’s tough to predict which team shows up every night. 

But John Beilein is encouraged, no question. Through January, they have made more progress this season than some of the NCAA tournament teams he has had in the past.

A very promising start to what could be a nice few years for Beilein’s group. 

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►Windsor: U-M basketball hasn’t realized how good it could be this season

Contact Nick Baumgardner: nbaumgardn@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner.

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