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Should Michigan’s 2023 roster be the blueprint for teams moving forward?

Should Michigan’s 2023 roster be the blueprint for teams moving forward?

Roster building in the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) era of college football has led to some chaos in recent years, with thousands of players entering the portal each offseason and teams trying to add the best talent in what’s become the sport’s version of free agency.

However, that wasn’t necessarily the path that Michigan took to winning the national championship this past season. After making the College Football Playoff in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, the Wolverines were able to retain a significant amount of their roster entering the 2023 season, going 15-0 en route to winning a national title. 

Experience played a big hand in it as well. All but five of Michigan’s starters in its national championship game win were fourth- or fifth-year seniors. That’s part of the reason why FOX Sports’ Joel Klatt believes coaches should make experience one of the top, if not the top, priorities when building a roster. 

“I talk a lot with coaches about this,” he said on the most recent episode of “The Joel Klatt Show.” “I think that experience is starting to become the currency that we should begin to be talking about more in college football. We’ve talked about stars and talent. Yes, that’s important … but I think that having a veteran team is more important. I think Michigan was evidence of that. Washington, in a lot of ways, was evidence of that. 

“The older that you can be, I think the better you’re going to be in college football. In particular, when you’re starting to see teams that are built at a year-in and year-out basis. So, the depth at which their leaders can lead and that they can play is minimized. If you get a veteran team, their ability to win and their competitiveness could increase. Michigan is a case study in that.”

Ohio State, Michigan & Utah in Joel Klatt’s post spring top 25 To Klatt’s point, Michigan’s roster wasn’t full of elite talent, at least in terms of recruiting rankings. Its average recruiting class in the four years prior to 2023 ranked outside the top 10, its talent composition ranked 14th in the nation, and it only had two five-star recruits on its roster. 

In addition to experience, Michigan’s roster was full of players who came up through the program. Left tackle LaDarius Henderson and center Drake Nugent were the only two starters in the national championship game who transferred into the program.

As Klatt mentioned, Washington was built similarly. While two of its best players transferred to the program (Michael Penix Jr. and Ja’Lynn Polk), both were experienced. Penix was a sixth-year senior last season and Polk was a fourth-year senior. All but two of the Huskies’ starters in their championship game loss were in their fourth season or later of college football. 

Of course, it’s hard to have experienced rosters without being able to retain players, which was also key for Michigan last season. The Wolverines were able to keep underclassmen, such as Blake Corum, following the 2022 season and prevent them from declaring early for the NFL Draft.

That’s why Klatt thinks that teams should use their NIL collectives to focus on keeping their star players around while using the portal to fill in the gaps instead.

“Coaches are spending money on their own players to retain them at a much higher level than they are to acquire players that are not on their team,” Klatt said. “That doesn’t mean that money is not spent on players in the transfer portal to acquire them through name, image and likeness deals, or pay-for-play as I like to call it. It’s just that the money is more well-spent on players that are currently on your roster.”

In the aftermath of Michigan’s win, its biggest rival is using part of its blueprint to build its roster for 2024, hoping for the same success, according to Klatt.

“I think Ohio State could be a case in point of that this year, moving into next season,” Klatt said as he explained Michigan’s ability to retain a good deal of its roster from 2022 into 2023. “Ohio State kept a lot of that roster and they had to invest heavily to do so. By way of that veteran leadership, that veteran presence, at least in Ohio State’s case, they’re hoping it pays off just like it did for Michigan to the tune of a national championship.”

Is 2024 Ohio State’s year to win the National Championship? There are certainly some parallels between the Buckeyes’ offseason this year and the Wolverines’ offseason in 2023. While Marvin Harrison Jr. declared early for the draft, Ohio State was able to get nearly every other notable draft-eligible player to return. Eleven key players, such as Emeka Egbuka and JT Tuimoloau, opted to remain in Columbus.

Unlike Michigan, though, Ohio State made some pretty splashy additions in the transfer portal. The Buckeyes added former Ole Miss star running back Quinshon Judkins to pair with TreVeyon Henderson. They added former Alabama safety Caleb Downs to their strong secondary after his impressive freshman season. They also nabbed former Kansas State quarterback Will Howard, an experienced signal-caller who led the Wildcats to a Big 12 title. 

Regardless, if Ohio State is prioritizing retention similar to Michigan, then it’s certainly a sign that teams have taken notice of what happened in Ann Arbor the last few years and are applying the same methods in their programs. 

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