5 ways this year's Michigan football team looks like the best Jim Harbaugh has had in Ann Arbor

Wolverines coming off three straight blowout wins

Head coach Jim Harbaugh talks to Michigan QB Shea Patterson during the Notre Dame game on Sept. 1, 2018, in South Bend. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan football took care of business the last three weeks, bouncing back from a loss to Notre Dame with a trio of blowout victories.

The actual results haven't been surprising. For years, the Wolverines have dominated lesser competition but struggled in big games, particularly on the road. So far in 2018, that's the script Michigan has followed.

But the path Michigan took to 3-1 has been much different than in past years. While we won't know if anything has truly changed until Michigan beats a quality opponent, here are five reasons this team looks better than Jim Harbaugh's past squads.

Quarterback depth

Quarterback play is the most obvious difference for the 2018 team. Even though Michigan hasn't needed much from its quarterbacks the last three weeks, the difference from last season is clear.

The Wolverines have had decent quarterback play at times under Harbaugh, but the position hasn't been as stable as it is with Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey.

Michigan QB Shea Patterson throws a pass against SMU on Sept. 15, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In 2015, Jake Rudock was solid for Michigan after a rocky start to the season. Since then, Wilton Speight has provided the few bright spots for Michigan at quarterback, but the offense wasn't explosive.

When Speight got injured, the offense went from vanilla to a complete disaster.

Patterson has done everything Harbaugh asked of him so far, completing more than 70 percent of his passes for 709 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions through four games. He's only averaging 177.25 passing yards per game, but he's been highly efficient and is taking better care of the ball.

McCaffrey has also shown flashes of brilliance when called upon. He held his own against Notre Dame, completing four of six passes and extending a drive with his legs.

Dylan McCaffrey throws a pass against Nebraska Sept. 22, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

When he came in during mop-up duty against Nebraska, McCaffrey threw three accurate deep balls that should have been touchdown passes, the third of which was caught by Ronnie Bell down the sideline for a 56-yard score.

Since the end of 2015, Harbaugh has desperately searched for a quarterback who could elevate the offense. Now, it looks like he has two.

Freshmen receivers breaking out as sophomores

One of the greatest disappointments from the 2017 season was the play of Michigan's talented young receiving corps. While they were highly rated as recruits, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Nico Collins and Oliver Martin weren't difference makers as true freshmen.

Black looked like he would be Michigan's top offensive weapon early in the season before suffering a foot injury, and he's back on the sidelines with an injury this season. But that's the only similarity in this group, as Peoples-Jones and Collins have become the team's top two targets.

Donovan Peoples-Jones catches a touchdown against SMU on Sept. 15, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Michigan won the game 45-20. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Peoples-Jones leads the team with 15 catches, 169 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns. He's already approaching Grant Perry's totals from last season, when he led the team with 25 catches and 307 yards.

Collins has been a major upgrade to an offense that was glaringly void of deep threats a year ago. The true sophomore is averaging more than 20 yards per catch, and he's already torched opponents twice for grabs of longer than 40 yards.

Martin has also grown into a complimentary role in the offense, catching six passes for 72 yards after redshirting last year. Half of Martin's catches came in the biggest game Michigan has played so far: Notre Dame.

While much of the criticism last season was directed at the quarterbacks, and deservedly so, Michigan's receivers added to the offensive struggles. This year, they look like a much more explosive group.

Third-down efficiency on offense

There was a night-and-day difference in Michigan's third-down efficiency on offense and defense last season.

The Wolverines were No. 1 in the country last season in terms of third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 26.1 percent of third-down attempts.

On offense, however, Michigan ranked 116th in the country with a 32.6 percent conversion rate. The Wolverines faced a lot of long-yardage third down situations and couldn't make a play in the passing game. Even when the offense faced a third-and-short, opposing defenses could sell out to stop the run because there was no true passing threat.

This year has been a different story so far, as Michigan has converted 46.2 percent of its third-down attempts -- good for 29th in the nation.

Michigan is averaging 5.5 yards per carry this year, as opposed to 4.4. yards per carry in 2017. That means the offense is typically facing shorter third-down situations, and it helps that Harbaugh has the option to pass or run on critical downs.

Unexpected contributions

Every college football season, the elite teams get contributions from players who weren't expected to be factors heading into the year.

For example, Alabama decided to make a change at quarterback in the middle of the national championship game, and Tua Tagovailoa stepped in to lead the Crimson Tide to another title. Michigan State bounced back from a 3-9 season to win 10 games, largely thanks to the emergence of under-the-radar receivers such as Felton Davis III and Cody White.

But Michigan hasn't gotten many unexpected contributions during Harbaugh's tenure. The players expected to perform have largely been the only ones showing up.

This season, Michigan has gotten some big performances from unheralded players.

When featured running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans were out with injuries, former walk-on cornerback Tru Wilson stepped up and rushed for more than 50 yards. He's averaging 6.5 yards per carry as a third-string option.

Tru Wilson celebrates a touchdown against SMU on Sept. 15, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson is another example. With Michigan's loaded defensive line, the true freshman was a longshot to make a major impact this season. But he's already worked his way into the two-deep after just four games.

Hutchinson has 10 tackles, a tackle for loss and seven forced a safety with an athletic play against Nebraska. He fits well in Don Brown's aggressive defense.

Brad Hawkins is taking advantage of a different kind of opportunity. Despite missing on a key interception against Notre Dame, the former wide receiver has taken to the safety position, particularly at the line of scrimmage.

Hawkins already has 13 tackles -- including eight solo tackles -- and 2.5 tackles for loss this season.

Punting

It's not the most glamorous part of the game, but Michigan's massive punting improvement can't be ignored.

Punting is extremely important to a team like Michigan, which plays a conservative style of offense and leans on a dominant defense. The Wolverines want to force teams to put together long drives to score, so the offense and special teams can't give opponents a short field.

Last year, Michigan's punting was a disaster, ranking 101st in the nation with an average of 39.55 yards per punt.

Michigan punter Will Hart (Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It's been a complete 180 through four games this season, as Michigan is third in the nation with an average of 52.64 yards per punt. That's an additional 13 yards per kick.

The improvement is thanks to redshirt sophomore Will Hart, who punted in only four games last season with an average of 37.7 yards.

Hart has handled all 11 punts for Michigan this season, with nine going at least 50 yards and a long of 64 yards. He's pinned five kicks inside the 20-yard line while registering only two touchbacks.

Harbaugh wants to control field position, and Hart has been a huge weapon in that regard.

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