DETROIT – Before Michigan kicked off against No. 22 BYU in Ann Arbor on Saturday, the Wolverines were named a surprising favorite over the battle-tested Cougars. BYU was coming off a one-point loss in UCLA, a top 10 team, and already notched a pair of impressive wins against Nebraska and Boise State, while Michigan had only destroyed two cupcakes in Oregon State and UNLV.
As it turned out, the Wolverines didn't get enough credit.
Michigan came away with its first win over a ranked team in two years and 19 days, but that's not why Jim Harbaugh's team turned heads.
The Wolverines didn't just beat the Cougars in the Big House, they dismantled them. BYU came to Ann Arbor averaging over 432 yards per game, putting up 511 in Lincoln, 381 against Boise State and 405 at the Rose Bowl and outgaining opponents in each game.
The Cougars didn't outgain Michigan.
D.J. Durkin's defense held BYU to just 105 yards on Saturday. Freshman phenom Tanner Mangum completed just 12 of 28 passes for 55 yards and finished with a 12.2 quarterback rating. The Cougar running backs were no better, rushing 15 times for 68 yards without even a whiff of the end zone. Michigan didn't force a turnover, but surrendered just eight first downs and shut down an offense that dominated three teams that went a combined 31-9 last season.
Meanwhile, the offense continued to improve. De'Veon Smith showed that his breakout game against Oregon State was no fluke by rushing for 125 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Drake Johnson, Michigan's starting running back in 2014, ran five times for 5.2 yards after being fully cleared to play. The duo, with help from Derrick Green and USC transfer Ty Isaac, makes up Michigan's deepest core of running backs since 2007.
Quarterback Jake Rudock bounced back from a shaky game vs. UNLV to enjoy his best performance as a Wolverine, throwing for 194 yards, running for 33 yards and scoring three combined touchdowns. Most importantly, the Iowa transfer didn't turn the ball over for the first time this season.
What does this win mean?
BYU already knocked off Nebraska and then-No. 20 Boise State before coming within a play of upsetting No. 10 UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Obviously, the Cougars are a good team, despite their poor showing in Ann Arbor.
So where does that leave Michigan? A 24-17 loss at Utah hurts less after the Utes' 62-20 pounding of Oregon in Eugene. Utah appears to be one of the top teams in the country, and Michigan outgained them 355-337 in the opener. A loss is a loss, but it's clear Michigan fell to a very good team on the road.
The only definitive takeaway from the nonconference season is that Michigan is obviously getting better each week. Harbaugh didn't panic after a mistake-riddled opening loss, but went back to the drawing board and used three straight home games to make steady improvement on both sides of the ball.
Statistically, Michigan checks out as one of the most impressive defensive teams in the country. The defense is one of just five in the country allowing fewer than 10 points per game and ranks in the top 10 defending both the pass and the run. Only Boston College has been stingier than Michigan, which allows 204 yards per game.
On the other hand, Michigan ranks 81st in the nation with 27.8 points per game. The Wolverines are 47th in rushing and 96th in passing. Simply put, the offense is a work in progress, and the defense will be asked to carry the team through the Big Ten schedule.
But this offense continues to improve, especially along the offensive line. Rudock's newfound efficiency was largely thanks to the time he had while going through his progressions in the pocket. He was only sacked twice in the game, but had time to get rid of the ball before both hits came.
Even the run blocking has drastically improved. Where there were no holes for Smith at Utah, there are now significant running lanes to take advantage of. That's why the Wolverines have had a 100-yard rusher in each of the last three games.
Everyone wants to point the finger at Smith, or Rudock, or the receiving core. But the heart of the offense is on the line, and that's where Tim Drevno has seen the most improvement.
Now that the nonconference schedule is in the rearview mirror and the Big Ten season looms, Michigan will start over with a clean slate. It doesn't matter than the Wolverines lost in Utah and shut out BYU; Harbaugh's staff will have his team ready to play Saturday night in Maryland.
The conference is tough. Atop the Big Ten East Division sits a two-headed monster, Ohio State and Michigan State, undefeated and ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the country. But there's also Northwestern, ranked in the top 20 and boasting the 3rd best defense in the country, and Penn State, winner of three straight games after an opening loss at Temple. Those four teams, along with Michigan, will duke it out for the right to play the West champion in Indianapolis on Dec. 5.
Is Michigan the best team in the conference? No, not yet. Ohio State is coming off a national championship and Michigan State has won 24 games over the last two seasons. But with those teams, and Northwestern, playing in Ann Arbor this season, the Wolverines control their own destiny. It's not out of question that they could make some noise.
My advice for Michigan fans: Don't look too far ahead. Hot September starts are not uncommon for Michigan, even over the past seven years. In 2013, Michigan jumped up to No. 11 in the country during a 5-0 start but finished an uninspiring 7-6. Even Rich Rodriguez went 10-2 in September at Michigan, but averaged just five wins per season.
This looks like the best Michigan team since 2011, but we won't know for sure until back-to-back games against Northwestern and Michigan State.
The Wolverines are strong in the trenches and excellent in all phases on defense, so they'll have a chance to win every game on the schedule. But for now, their focus is on a bad Maryland team coming off a 39-point loss in West Virginia.
If Michigan can blow out the Terrapins and pick up a road win next week, it'll crawl even closer to becoming the team Harbaugh wants to build.