The predictions leading up to this year weren’t flattering as the Wolverines came off a disastrous 2020. But winning cures many ailments, and it’s the exact prescription Jim Harbaugh needed to put his program back on track.
Here are some of the things we thought we knew about Michigan football that have already been disproven:
Jim Harbaugh’s future
Michigan restructured Harbaugh’s contract this offseason and made it easier to sever ties should last year’s debacle bleed into 2021. Many considered him a dead man walking, and speculation about the next Michigan coach crept into preseason conversations.
Six wins later, those talks have ceased. Harbaugh ditched half his coaching staff and focused on revamping the culture. Some of those changes were drastic, but they’re paying dividends.
Harbaugh’s battle is far from over, but he couldn’t afford to get off to a slow start. He’s back to chewing out officials, calling timeouts with big leads and dropping quirky lines in press conferences. This Michigan team more closely resembles the 2016 and 2018 versions than what we saw in 2020.
The six-game winning streak makes last season feel like a distant memory.
Michigan has dropped in Big Ten ranks
Ohio State remains the class of the Big Ten, but for the better part of two decades, Michigan sat firmly among those in the second tier. Even though the Wolverines never beat the Buckeyes, they kept pace with the likes of Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Well, the past two years brought that standing into question.
In 2019, Michigan got boat raced in Madison, at one point trailing 35-0 in the third quarter. A few weeks later, Penn State jumped out to an early 21-0 lead over the Wolverines, who couldn’t dig out of that hole. The Ohio State game went exactly as expected.
Harbaugh made a habit of softening those types of blows by avenging them the following year at home. But in 2020, Wisconsin embarrassed Michigan by 38 points in Ann Arbor and Penn State knocked off the Wolverines despite coming in with an 0-5 record.
A home loss to Michigan State didn’t help matters, either.
A third-straight loss to Wisconsin sure felt like a possibility, and fans began to question whether Michigan had fallen from that second tier of Big Ten teams. Fast forward to Oct. 11, 2021, and the Wolverines are one of five teams representing the conference among the top 10 nationally. It’s fair to look at 2020 as an anomaly.
When pollsters released their preseason rankings in August, Michigan’s schedule included five games against top 25 teams: No. 4 Ohio State, No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 17 Indiana, No. 19 Penn State and No. 20 Washington. Road games against Nebraska and Michigan State figured to be daunting tests, and Northwestern was no slouch, coming off a Big Ten West title.
Many predicted the Wolverines to lose six or more games and remain nationally irrelevant for the second year in a row. Michigan began the season unranked for the first time since Harbaugh’s arrival in 2015.
National outlets only brought up Michigan for ridicule and Harbaugh speculation, not only fueling the fire of a frustrated fan base but also damaging recruiting.
It’s safe to say those conversations have died down with Michigan undefeated and ranked No. 8 in the country.
Whenever Michigan plays important games, broadcast crews bring up stats that date back to the Lloyd Carr era and detail how much the Wolverines have struggled since. That reputation includes losing every tough game on the road.
Even after ripping off four wins to start the season, nobody knew how the Wolverines would fare outside of Ann Arbor.
Last week, they earned their first win at Camp Randall since 2001. This might not be a typical Wisconsin team, but the Badgers are still stout up front and boast one of the nation’s top defenses.
On Saturday, Michigan faced an even tougher environment: a night game at Nebraska. When the Cornhuskers overcame a 13-point deficit to take the lead in the third quarter, the crowd was deafening. I’ve been to White Out games at Penn State -- Memorial Stadium in Lincoln was every bit as loud.
Michigan’s ability to recover from that blown lead not once, but twice, showed tremendous growth for Harbaugh and the program. That will be critical in the second half, as tests in East Lansing and Happy Valley remain.
Michigan wastes 5-star talent
Everybody wants to talk about how Michigan develops top recruits until those recruits start to succeed.
There’s a misconception that Harbaugh hasn’t done enough with five-stars during his time at Michigan, but this year’s team certainly doesn’t fit the narrative.
Daxton Hill, the No. 1 safety in the 2019 recruiting class, emerged this season as perhaps the team’s best player -- with the possible exception of Aidan Hutchinson.
Hill leads the team with two interceptions and four pass break-ups while ranking second (behind Josh Ross) with 29 tackles. Though he plays safety, Hill is the best cornerback on the team and also excels against the run.
It’s hard to watch Michigan’s defense and not notice Hill’s incredible talent.
Conversely, many probably haven’t noticed Christopher Hinton, a former five-star in that same 2019 recruiting class. Hinton didn’t make much of an impact his first two seasons with the Wolverines, but this year, he plays a critical role on the interior defensive line.
Hinton ranks second to Hutchinson in tackles for Michigan defensive linemen, with 19, and has also recorded a sack and batted down two passes. He’s a big reason for Michigan’s improved rush defense.
On offense, five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy already carved out a role as a true freshman, entering Saturday’s game in some of the most critical moments. McCarthy picked up an important first down with a six-yard run and threw a perfect pass that was dropped by Daylen Baldwin.
McCarthy completed nine of 14 pass attempts in the first half of the season for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for 33 yards and a score (excluding sack yards).
If Jabrill Peppers, Rashan Gary and Donovan Peoples-Jones weren’t enough evidence, this year’s Michigan five-stars look just fine.
An inability to rush the passer proved to be Michigan’s greatest weakness the last two years. That remained a concern this season with so many unknowns behind Hutchinson on the defensive line.
Hutchinson addressed some of those concerns on his own, morphing into one of the top individual pass rushers in the country. He’s racked up 4.5 sacks, drawn a handful of holding penalties and affected too many plays to count through six games.
Perhaps the most important development, though, is David Ojabo going step-for-step with Hutchinson. The junior made 4.5 sacks of his own in the first six games, including two that forced fumbles in critical moments of the Rutgers and Wisconsin games.
The Hutchinson-Ojabo combination lays a foundation for a more typical Michigan pass rush.
Michigan’s overall defensive performance in 2020 was bad enough for Harbaugh to fire a coordinator who recently fielded three-straight top-five units.
Don Brown looked completely overmatched against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Rutgers a year ago, largely because of the aforementioned inability to create pressure.
Mike MacDonald arrived in Ann Arbor as a relative unknown, but so far he’s earned high marks. Michigan rode its defense to a win over Rutgers at the beginning of Big Ten play, and it’s been mostly solid since.
The Badgers scored a quick touchdown right before halftime of their matchup against Michigan and then failed to get back on the board until garbage time. The Wolverines dominated that game defensively.
Michigan shut out Nebraska for the entire first half Saturday before a stretch in which it allowed four touchdowns in five drives. But MacDonald’s unit bounced back to force a fumble on the penultimate drive and shut down the Cornhuskers in the final moment to seal the victory.
This might not qualify as a “vintage” Michigan defense, but it’s vastly improved from 2020.
Offense can’t win games
“Michigan won’t be able to win games with its offense.” This was more of an early season overreaction than a preseason prediction, but questions surrounding the offense -- and in particular, the passing game -- dominated the conversation in September.
Michigan doesn’t want to rely heavily on its passing game, but Saturday proved it does have the capability to do so.
With less than a minute remaining in the third quarter against Nebraska, the Wolverines fell behind for the first time all season by blowing a 12-point lead in less than eight minutes. Memorial Stadium exploded, and Michigan fans saw all the signs of this familiar script: A typical big-game meltdown.
Except this time, Cade McNamara and the offense answered the bell.
McNamara completed a 14-yard pass to Erick All on third-and-eight to keep the ensuing drive alive, while Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins combined for a pair of first downs of their own. Corum capped the drive with a 29-yard touchdown run to regain the lead.
In all, Michigan went 10 plays and 75 yards for the score.
Four minutes later, with Michigan trailing again, the offense put together a nine-play, 69-yard drive to get within field goal range. That drive included a 50-yard run by Haskins, a 12-yard third-down conversion from McNamara to All and a clutch field goal by Jake Moody.
Those two drives, considering the stakes and the atmosphere, demonstrated the growth of Michigan’s offense. It’s rarely explosive and almost never pretty, but McNamara and company get the job done.