When Michigan lost its season opener at Notre Dame 24-17, the rumblings that had been going on in Ann Arbor all summer sharply increased. When was Jim Harbaugh, a head coach paid like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, going to start winning on a level commensurate with his paycheck? Would Harbaugh ever win the games Wolverine fans really cared about? It’s too early to say for sure, but the last six games have Michigan looking like a team on the rise again.
The Wolverines recovered from the ND loss with a 49-3 trouncing of Western Michigan. Don’t dismiss that—the Broncos are one of the top three teams in the MAC and while it’s certainly a game that Michigan is expected to win, doing so with defensive domination makes a nice statement. Blowouts of SMU and Nebraska followed.
After a narrow escape at Northwestern, Harbaugh faced two significant home games against Maryland and Wisconsin. Michigan won both going away, 42-21 and 38-13 respectively. Now, as the season moves to the second half and the three biggest games await, the Wolverines are in the Top 10 and College Football Playoff buzz is in the air again.
This Michigan team is built the same way all the best teams in this program have been constructed—physical defense and a potent running game. Karan Higdon has rushed for 687 yards and averages nearly six a pop.
Defensively, the Wolverines have continued to play well up front, even with the absence of their best player, defensive end Rashan Gary. Gary is out with a shoulder injury and questionable for this week’s game at Michigan State. The Michigan D has responded by getting excellent play from defensive lineman Chase Winovich and aggressive linebackers Devin Bush and Josh Uche. This is a front seven that’s very difficult to run the football on.
But even during Michigan’s recent struggles under Harbaugh they were running the ball and defending the run. Quarterback play was a major problem and it appears Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson has at least stabilized the position. The completion percentage is over 68%, the 8.2 yards-per-attempt respectable and the 10-3 TD/INT ratio more than manageable.
While Michigan is still clearly better off playing from ahead, it’s no longer a cause for alarm if they were fall to behind 10-0 in a first quarter. Or even 17-0, the margin from which they rallied to beat Northwestern.
There’s still reason to be cautious regarding expectations for this Michigan team. Wisconsin hasn’t done anything to suggest they’re a special team this year and while Maryland is a nice up-and-comer, beating them at home doesn’t make you a playoff team. The last six games have merely stopped the bleeding in Ann Arbor. It’s the rest of the schedule—at Michigan State this week, a home date with Penn State on November 3 and, of course, the battle with Ohio State in Columbus on the Saturday after Thanksgiving—that will define how this season is perceived.
I’m in the “reasonably optimistic” camp regarding Michigan’s chances. Or maybe I should say “reasonably pessimistic”, because I’m not particularly partial to the Wolverines. But I think they’re better than Sparty this season and will win that game comfortably. The Penn State battle will be terrific, but with it being at home, Michigan deserves the edge.
If you win those two games, along with Rutgers and Indiana, the Wolverines will be 10-1 and in a de facto “Sweet 16” situation when they go to Ohio State. The formula will be simple—beat the Buckeyes and then win the Big Ten Championship Game and you go to the Final Four.
I’m not ready to say Michigan can win at Ohio State just yet, but one step at a time. The Wolverines are most definitely good enough to at least get to that game in control of their Playoff fate. And while Harbaugh is being paid to do a lot more than that, I think it’s fair to say that’s a scenario any Michigan fan would have taken in the immediate aftermath of the Notre Dame loss.