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Need some hope? 7 reasons not to give up on Michigan football just yet

Mistake-ridden Michigan team stumbles to 2-0 start

Daxton Hill #30 of the Michigan Wolverines carries the ball after making a catch against the Army Black Knights on a fake punt during the first half at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The sky is falling in Ann Arbor. At least, that's what many fans and experts would have you believe after Michigan's 0-2 start to the season.

Wait, Michigan is 2-0? That can't be right. Twitter says Jim Harbaugh already bolted for the NFL, Shea Patterson is bagging groceries and the university shut down the program to put more emphasis on academics. There's no way Michigan could be undefeated and ranked in the top 10 nationally.

On a serious note, the first two weeks haven't been pretty for the Wolverines. They were shaky at times on both sides of the ball against Middle Tennessee and nearly saw their season go up in flames against Army.

Michigan deserves the skepticism -- and maybe even some criticism. But the national narrative is that Harbaugh's team is dead and buried.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh argues a call during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Voters in both major polls dropped Michigan three spots in this week's rankings. One analyst is now predicting Michigan to finish fifth in the Big Ten East Division. Another projected the Wolverines to play in the Holiday Bowl.

Three weeks ago, the media selected Michigan as the favorite to win the Big Ten. Two wins later, Michigan has been completely cast aside.

This feels like a turning point for the program. If 2019 is really Michigan's best shot to win a conference title, the mistakes need to be fixed immediately. Of the last 10 games, seven will be against currently ranked teams, including three on the road.

The road isn't easy and Michigan hasn't looked great. But there are still reasons for hope.

That's what Army does

Most of the concern about Michigan stems from its performance in the Army game, when it needed double overtime to escape with a three-point victory.

Sure, it was a disappointing performance, but instead of heaping all the blame on Michigan, some credit should be given to Army.

The Black Knights executed their game plan beautifully in Ann Arbor. They held Michigan to just nine possessions in regulation, bled the clock by running the ball 61 times and left Michigan out of sync offensively.

Michigan appeared to slow down its offense to try to avoid a massive time of possession disparity. For reference, Army possessed the ball for 44.41 minutes against Oklahoma last season, compared to just 15:19 for the Sooners.

Oklahoma's fast-paced offense backfired in that regard and left its defense on the field for three-quarters of the contest.

It looked like Michigan tried to counter that by running the ball 45 times, but that broke the offensive rhythm and left the Wolverines with long third downs.

Throw in three lost fumbles -- even more catastrophic for a team that only had nine possessions -- and it's easy to see why Michigan's offense struggled.

That's what playing against Army and its unique triple-option attack can do. Michigan won't have to worry about that again this season.

Strong defense

Another college football season, another elite Don Brown defense.

Despite allowing 42 total points to MTSU and Army, Michigan has been quietly excellent on the defensive side of the ball.

Four of the six touchdowns allowed came on short fields after the offense fumbled the ball. Another touchdown came against the second-string defense. The final touchdown came on a 25-yard field in overtime.

Khaleke Hudson #7 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates after quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. of the Army Black Knights fumbled the ball which was recovered by Michigan during the second overtime to end the game at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

When Michigan punts or kicks off, rather than turning the ball over, the defense has been stout. With Brown's pedigree, it's fair to assume this defense is coming along despite the losses to the NFL.

It's also worth noting that Michigan has split its defensive preparation between MTSU and Army -- two polar opposite offenses -- since the start of the spring. Now that Brown can focus entirely on much more familiar Big Ten offenses, the game-to-game transition should be even smoother.

Injuries don't seem serious

When Harbaugh spoke about the injury to All-Big Ten left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. after the Army game, he said the decision to hold Runyan out was so they could get him "fully healthy" instead of "mostly healthy."

He said Runyan could have played, but they wanted to give him one more week. Well, with a bye week ahead of Wisconsin, he's fully expected to be back on the field against the Badgers, which should give the offensive line a nice boost.

Michigan could also get star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones back after he missed the first two games. Peoples-Jones is one of the team's top two receivers and has a skill set that should perfectly fit what offensive coordinator Josh Gattis wants to do.

He's also the best punt returner on the team, and Michigan has had a muffed punt and a fumbled return in the first two games.

Donovan Jeter and Michael Dwumfour aren't as impactful as Runyan or Peoples-Jones, but they're valuable for interior defensive line depth because that's the weakness of the defense.

It would also help to have Tru Wilson back behind Zach Charbonnet, especially since Ben VanSumeren and Christian Turner have had ball security and pass protection mishaps.

Fumbles can be fluky

The No. 1 problem for Michigan so far has been taking care of the football, and while turnovers can easily derail a season, this seems like an issue Michigan could clean up.

Patterson specifically has coughed the ball up three times in two games after being extremely disciplined in 2018. Lavert Hill and VanSumeren have also lost fumbles.

In total, Michigan has put the ball on the turf eight times.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines shouts for an official during the first half of a game against the Army Black Knights at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

There are fumble issues, and then there are flukes. Eight fumbles in two games feels like a bit of both.

Patterson and Hill are senior leaders. VanSumeren will either take care of the ball or lose carries. The fact that Michigan had some bad fumble luck and still came away with two wins is encouraging, in a way.

Maybe Gattis didn't preach ball security enough in the offseason and Michigan will fumble 52 times in 13 games. It seems more likely, though, that the importance of ball security will be hammered home the next two weeks and Michigan will take better care of the ball.

Last year Michigan only lost three fumbles all season -- best in the country. This year, the Wolverines are the only team to have lost five fumbles in two games.

Regression seems likely.

Shea Patterson's track record

Fumbles and inaccuracy have plagued Patterson early in the season despite coaches raving all offseason about how well he fits into the new offense.

The knee-jerk reaction for some has been to give up on Patterson, but he's got a track record of being a solid quarterback that spans longer than two games.

Quarterback Shea Patterson #2 of the Michigan Wolverines is tackled behind the line by Arik Smith #53 of the Army Black Knights during the first half at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Is he injured? Does he not trust his protection? Are the fumbles simply throwing off his rhythm?

Whatever's going on, Gattis needs to figure it out in the next two weeks. Michigan's offense is reliant on getting the ball to playmakers, and Patterson is the one who has to do so.

With Runyan returning and Charbonnet earning a higher percentage of snaps at running back, the protection should be better going forward. That could allow Patterson so settle in and make the throws he did a year ago.

Breakout players

Every championship team gets contributions from unexpected sources over the course of a season, and that's already been the case for Michigan.

Charbonnet is the most obvious example, racking up 215 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries and four catches in his first two career games.

But freshmen aren't the only players who can break out. Sophomore Ronnie Bell has already surpassed his catch total from last year, leading the team with nine grabs. He was the offensive savior for Michigan against Army, picking up four critical first downs on third and long to extend drives.

Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines is tackled by Cole Christiansen #54, Cedrick Cunningham #22 and Cam Jones #20 of the Army Black Knights during the second half at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Coaches raved about Charbonnet and Bell during the offseason, and so far, they've back up the hype.

On defense, fifth-year senior Jordan Glasgow is an obvious breakout player. He's second on the team with 17 tackles and leads the defense with two sacks.

As a former walk-on in his fifth year on the roster, Glasgow is the definition of a breakout player.

We've seen the other side

As bad as Michigan has looked in its first two wins, fans have seen plenty of the opposite throughout the Harbaugh era, and it hasn't led to any championships.

Michigan beat No. 22 BYU, Maryland and No. 13 Northwestern by a combined score of 97-0 in consecutive weeks in 2015 and still lost to Michigan State at home and got blown out 42-13 against Ohio State.

In 2016, Michigan beat Hawaii, UCF, Colorado and Penn State by a combined 153 points and demolished Rutgers 78-0. The season ended with three losses in the final four games.

The 2017 team crushed Florida, Cincinnati and Purdue early in the season before ultimately losing five games.

Nine double-digit wins during a 10-game winning streak wasn't enough to help Michigan beat Ohio State last season.

Conversely, Ohio State nearly lost to Penn State, Nebraska and Maryland last season before beating No. 4 Michigan, winning the Big Ten championship and taking home a Rose Bowl trophy.

Recent history suggests early season tune-up games are less about how teams look and more about surviving.

So far, Michigan has survived. Now we'll find out if it's a true contender.


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