ANN ARBOR, Mich. - When the College Football Playoff committee released its second set of rankings this week, the message to Michigan was loud and clear: Weak wins don't earn recognition.
The Wolverines were left out of the only rankings that matter despite re-entering both the AP and Coaches polls. Michigan doesn't have a single win over a team with a winning record, and the committee noticed.
Unfortunately for Jim Harbaugh's team, that won't change this weekend, as Michigan visits another losing team in Maryland. But that doesn't mean the Wolverines can't continue to show improvement with another blowout win.
In the last two weeks, Michigan beat Rutgers 35-14 and Minnesota 33-10. Neither team constitutes a quality win, but it was refreshing for fans to see a pair of easy wins after Michigan struggled to put opponents away in the first seven weeks.
With games against Wisconsin and Ohio State looming, Michigan is hoping to continue that streak of blowouts. Here's how it can happen.
Hot running game
Even though Michigan won its last two games by a combined 44 points, there was nothing flashy about either victory.
Backup quarterback Brandon Peters took over against Rutgers and made his first career start against Minnesota, and so far, he hasn't been asked to do much. He threw just 27 passes.
The one-sided play calling had very little to do with Peters and much more to do with the dominance of Michigan's rushing attack. The Wolverines posted back-to-back games with more than 300 yards rushing after failing to do so in their first seven games.
Karan Higdon has become the undisputed leader of the running backs, especially after he gained an even 200 yards on 16 carries against Minnesota. In the game against Rutgers, Higdon rushed 18 times for 158 yards.
Chris Evans got in on the action last weekend, just missing a 200-yard performance with 191 rushing yards on 13 carries. He matched Higdon with a pair of touchdown runs.
But Michigan's rushing success goes beyond the talented crop of running backs, which includes Ty Isaac and Kareem Walker, who didn't play against Minnesota due to injuries. The offensive line has continued to improve in the run-blocking game, and that has showed in November.
In the win over Minnesota, Michigan recorded touchdown runs of 77, 60 and 67 yards. In all three cases, Higdon and Evans were able to get through the first level untouched thanks to huge holes opened up by the offensive line.
Michigan's struggles in pass-blocking haven't affected the rushing attack, and against Maryland's 77th-ranked run defense, that shouldn't change this weekend.
Since turning it over five times against Michigan State, the Wolverines have done an excellent job taking care of the ball. Turnovers haunted Michigan early in the season, but Harbaugh has done a nice job improving that weakness.
In four games since the loss to Michigan State, the Wolverines have only committed two turnovers: a fumble against Penn State and an interception against Rutgers.
Turnovers weren't hurting Michigan's offense as much as they hurt the defense. It's critical for Michigan to finish every possession with a score, a field goal or a punt. When opponents are forced to go 70 or more yards, Michigan's defense is tough to beat.
John O'Korn threw an interception early in the first half against Rutgers, but since Peters took over the offense, Michigan hasn't turned the ball over. Maryland needs Michigan to make mistakes to stay in the game, but that doesn't look likely.
When Maurice Hurst decided to return to Michigan for his senior season, he hoped to improve his draft stock enough to become a definite first-round pick. Through nine games, there's no doubt he's reached that goal.
Michigan's defensive line was expected to be led off the edges as Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich took over starting roles. But Hurst has been the team's best lineman, according to his teammates and several opponents.
In his last six games, Hurst has made 10 tackles for loss, which is unheard of for an interior defensive lineman. In the last four games, he's also been in on four sacks.
Maryland doesn't have anyone who can stop Hurst. The Terrapins have allowed 25 sacks this season, which is 107th in the nation (Michigan has allowed 27 sacks).
Even if Maryland makes a concerted effort to keep Hurst out of the backfield, that could open up the edges for Gary and Winovich. One way or another, Hurst is going to have a major impact on the game.
Elite cornerback play
It's hard to describe how good Michigan's cornerbacks have been this season, because good cornerback play is inherently doomed to be underappreciated.
When truly elite cornerbacks go to work, they don't even get noticed throughout the course of a game because the ball isn't thrown in their direction. That's exactly what Michigan's cornerbacks have done this year.
Lavert Hill and David Long have quickly developed into one of the best cover corner duos in the country. They've only picked off a combined three passes this season, but that's because quarterbacks have simply stopped testing them.
Take the Penn State game, for example. Quarterback Trace McSorley threw all over the Michigan defense, completing 17 of 26 passes for 282 yards. But he only attacked Michigan's cornerbacks a few times, and two of those passes resulted in a Long interception and a Hill pass break-up on fourth down.
Thanks to incredibly bad luck with injuries at the quarterback position, Maryland has an awful passing attack. The Terrapins rank 115th in the nation in passing yards per game, and their top two receivers will be blanketed by Hill and Long.
Maryland's cold streak
Before the aforementioned injuries derailed Maryland's season, the Terps got off to a strong 3-1 start with road wins over Texas and Minnesota. It looked like D.J. Durkin would lead his team back to postseason play for a second straight year.
Now, a bowl game is a long shot for Maryland, which needs to win twice in its final three games against Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
Maryland has lost four of its last five games overall, including a 48-point trouncing against Ohio State and a tough loss at Rutgers. Three of the losses came by an average of 29.7 points.
Michigan is a tough team to break a losing streak against. The defense is relentless, ranking third in the nation in yards allowed per game. Maryland's struggling offense will have a hard time getting into the end zone if the Wolverines don't commit turnovers in their own territory.
If the Wolverines take a lead early, it could go downhill fast for the Terps.
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