ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Does Michigan football have a tendency to overlook opponents from the Mid-American Conference following big wins? Let’s see what recent history says.
Last week, the Wolverines picked up a nice win over Washington -- a Pac-12 school that was ranked in the top 20 entering the season. The Huskies have plummeted out of the rankings after losing to Montana and Michigan, but still, the night game atmosphere was electric, emotions were high and it was an overwhelming victory.
This week, Jim Harbaugh’s team will host Northern Illinois at noon with the Big Ten season looming. If there was ever a chance for a letdown week, this would be it.
Saturday will be the second all-time meeting between Michigan and Northern Illinois. The first came in 2005, when Michigan beat NIU comfortably, 33-17.
Between the two meetings, it feels like there have been a few instances of Michigan overlooking MAC teams. I wanted to see if that is actually true, or if this is a case of a few outliers standing out in my mind.
Here’s a look at some of the examples I found.
Ball State in 2006
The Ball State game in 2006 didn’t technically follow a big game, per se, but it did come with Michigan at 9-0 and No. 2 overall in the country.
The Wolverines had just taken down the 2-6 Northwestern Wildcats, but the resume also included wins over then-No. 2 Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa.
My point: Michigan had a lot to play for and definitely took Ball State lightly.
Many will remember the Brady Hoke-led Cardinals, which came into the game 3-6, led 9-7 at the end of the first quarter and had the ball on Michigan’s 2-yard line down eight points with under three minutes to play in the game.
While the Wolverines escaped, I still believe that performance played a role in dropping them to No. 3 in the final rankings, robbing them of a rematch with Ohio State in the national championship game.
Eastern Michigan in 2007
Michigan hosted Eastern Michigan the first week of October in 2007 after winning three straight games against Notre Dame (a 38-0 thrashing), No. 10 Penn State and Northwestern.
Again, Northwestern didn’t qualify as a big win at the time, but blowing out Notre Dame certainly did, and obviously, Penn State came to the Big House as a top-10 team.
Well, the Wolverines were sleepwalking against EMU and gave up a third-quarter touchdown to make the game 16-14. It wasn’t until under the seven-minute mark of the third quarter when Michigan finally put the game out of reach against the 2-3 Eagles.
In the end, Michigan won by 11 points despite being a massive home favorite.
*UMass in 2010
*Massachusetts didn’t actually join the MAC until two years later (and left in 2015), but I think this game fits the spirit of this exercise.
Michigan had just gone into Notre Dame and won a hard-fought road game to start the season 2-0 and came home as a massive favorite over the 1-1 Minutemen.
It didn’t take long for Michigan fans to start feeling uncomfortable. UMass jumped out to a 17-7 lead late into the second quarter, but Michigan managed to score two touchdowns in the final 61 seconds of the half thanks to a fumble recovery.
Two more touchdowns in the third quarter weren’t enough to put the game away, as UMass pulled within five points in the final two minutes. The Wolverines recovered an onside kick and got one first down to seal a shaky win.
Akron in 2013
Michigan had no problem with its first MAC opponent in 2013, blowing out Central Michigan 59-9 in the opener. But after an emotional night game victory over No. 14 Notre Dame in Week 2, Akron proved a much tougher foe.
The Zips had already lost to UCF by 31 points that season, and they would go on to lose the next four games after visiting the Big House.
But boy did they give Michigan a scare.
The Wolverines trailed 10-7 well into the third quarter before taking a 21-10 lead into the fourth. Then, a pick-six and an 11-play drive put Akron back on top in the waning moments of the game.
Michigan trailed until 2:49 left, when Fitzgerald Toussaint found the end zone to cap off a four-play, 70-yard drive.
But Akron still wasn’t done. The Zips drove all the way down to Michigan’s 2-yard line with seconds remaining, and it took a goal-line stop for the Wolverines to avoid a monumental upset.
Is four scares in 15 years a trend? Not really, especially considering how many times Michigan has handled these types of opponents with ease after big wins.
Michigan beat Eastern Michigan by 38 points after upsetting No. 18 Notre Dame in 2009. The Wolverines pummeled the Eagles again in 2011 after their famous night game win over the Irish.
Here’s what Harbaugh has done against all MAC and non-Power Five opponents:
- Beat UNLV 28-7 in 2015.
- Beat Hawaii 63-3 in 2016.
- Beat UCF 51-14 in 2016.
- Beat Cincinnati 36-14 in 2017.
- Beat Air Force 29-13 in 2017.
- Beat Western Michigan 49-3 in 2018.
- Beat SMU 45-20 in 2018.
- Beat Middle Tennessee State 40-21 in 2019.
- Beat Army 24-21 in overtime in 2019.
- Beat Western Michigan 47-14 two weeks ago.
Other than the Army game in 2019, none of those games were ever really in doubt. The next-closest was Air Force in 2017, and Michigan never trailed in that game.
Will Michigan struggle against Northern Illinois on Saturday? It’s certainly possible, but that hasn’t been a trend during the Harbaugh era, nor was it common in the years prior.