CHICAGO — At night, Ben Bredeson‘s mind races, so he starts to visualize.
Bredeson, a two-time All-Big Ten guard at Michigan, began visualizing in high school and has used the technique ever since. He starts with specific things: what blitz a defense is using, what his footwork is on a blocking scheme, certain line calls, split-second adjustments to prevent a sack or spring a long run. But Bredeson visualizes the big things, too. Beating Ohio State. Reaching the Big Ten championship. Winning a conference title. Making the CFP for the first time. Leading Michigan to its first national title since 1997.
“I’m a big believer in visualization,” Bredeson told ESPN.com on Friday. “It’s something I’ve definitely gotten better at through college, and I totally feel like it helps. You’re able to picture scenarios and play it out in your mind before it happens. It will make you respond that much stronger in a game.”
Bredeson and his Michigan teammates can only visualize beating Ohio State, or reaching the Big Ten title game, or hoisting a trophy at Lucas Oil Stadium, or reaching the CFP, or winning a national championship. The Wolverines haven’t actually checked any of those boxes.
For Bredeson, a senior, this fall marks his final chance to achieve Michigan’s program goals. While the stakes aren’t the same for every Michigan player or coach, their shared failures create a unique urgency around Schembechler Hall.
The Wolverines came to Big Ten media days as a popular pick to win the league, but they’ve held that label before and are approaching 15 years without a conference title. Their chances of beating Ohio State seemingly increase with the retirement of Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and the NFL departure of Dwayne Haskins, the first Big Ten quarterback selected in the first round since Penn State’s Kerry Collins in 1995. And yet Michigan was supposed to end its losing streak last year in Columbus after letting Ohio State escape in 2016. A historic beating, propelled by the offensive play calls of soon-to-be Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, extended the Wolverines’ slide to seven.
The Maize and Blue breakthrough was supposed to have happened already, especially under coach Jim Harbaugh’s watch. It hasn’t. The 2019 season undoubtedly has an if-not-now-when? feel.
Bredeson can only visualize, hoping seeing becomes believing and, ultimately, achieving when the games begin.
“Hopefully, we can make that one come true,” Bredeson said of beating Ohio State. “It’s going to be a very fun day when it happens.”
When it happens, not if, evokes a level of confidence, and Michigan enters the 2019 season with more than the typical preseason cheer. Quarterback Shea Patterson returns after a solid Wolverines debut (2,600 passing yards, 22 touchdowns). So do four starting offensive linemen and a wide receiver group — Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black — that, if healthy, should be among the league’s best.
New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who ushers in an RPO-heavy, up-tempo system, joins a coaching staff Harbaugh touts as his best, a sentiment echoed privately by others in the program. Defensive coordinator Don Brown, whom Harbaugh called the best assistant he’s ever worked with, oversees a unit that has been among the nation’s best but must replace two first-round draft picks (linebacker Devin Bush, lineman Rashan Gary) and relentless rusher Chase Winovich. Bredeson said the offseason has been the best in his time at Michigan, as a push to do more, which usually peters out by June or early July, has carried through, weeks away from the start of camp.
“It has been not only diligent but religious by everybody this year,” he said.
Michigan also is owning its past. Bredeson called the team’s 10-3 record in 2018 “not a good season.” He said of the Wolverines’ struggles against Ohio State and in bowl games, “That’s a narrative I’d really love to change.” Harbaugh noted the typically positive tone of mid-July, which includes this Michigan team, and flipped it.
“You hear that from everybody … accentuate the positive,” Harbaugh said. “We embrace the negative, we embrace the suck. OK, let’s improve. Let’s take it into account the things that we’ve done, the times we’ve lost and what we can do to make that not happen again, ever.
“That kind of team, that kind of mentality … that’s who we are, our identity.”
Harbaugh’s identity as Michigan coach has been shaped more around headlines, which he continued to make this week, than tangible achievements. He’s 38-14 at his alma mater, but 0-4 against Ohio State with no Big Ten titles makes 38-14 seem hollow. He’s in no danger of being fired, but another season like the previous four will feed doubt about his ability to meet the job description.
Harbaugh prefers the term “challenge” to “pressure.” He wants his players, not those outside the program, to apply most of it this season. Some, like linebacker Jordan Glasgow, view each Ohio State game independently. Others acknowledge the buildup of the streak, magnified last year in a 62-39 loss at Ohio Stadium.
“Having the past three seasons the way that it happened, it feels like a reoccurring thing, and we don’t want that no more,” senior linebacker Khaleke Hudson said. “We want to be better than that. We know where our potential is, and we know where we can be. We want the end of the season to have a different outcome next year. We want to have wins. We want to go undefeated. We want to be the best team.”
Hudson’s words will sound empty to many, and that’s fair. Michigan’s frequent preseason popularity rarely equates to significant results. But Hudson needs to say them. He needs to see them. Like Bredeson, he visualizes beating Ohio State and thinks it can only help lead to the real thing.
On Nov. 30, Ohio State will visit Michigan Stadium, where the Wolverines have been perfect in two of the past three seasons and last fall won six of seven home contests by 21 points or more. Michigan also hosts Michigan State, Notre Dame, Iowa and a tough Army squad in Week 2.
The Big Ten East division is largely in transition, which multiple coaches acknowledged this week. Day and transfer quarterback Justin Fields both enter new, pressure-packed roles in Columbus. Penn State loses record-setting quarterback Trace McSorley and lacks experience throughout its offense. Michigan State returns a top-5 defense but must upgrade a bottom-5 offense.
Michigan seems to have the most certainties, especially if Harbaugh’s addition of Gattis, a first-time play-caller, translates to a more dynamic scheme that suits Patterson’s skills. It’s not hard to make a case for Michigan as the Big Ten champion.
After the past decade or so, however, it’s harder to see the Wolverines actually getting it done.
“Why not us? Why not this year?” Hudson said. “We want to go out on top this year. We don’t want to wait two years from now, three years from now. We want to go now. That will propel us until years later, to keep that same outcome, keep going on and on.”