DETROIT – Michigan football put itself back on the map with a 10-win season in Year 1 of the Jim Harbaugh era. Now the preseason AP Poll is predicting another step forward for the Wolverines.
Michigan checked in at No. 7 in the season's first AP Poll, trailing only Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State, LSU and Ohio State. The ranking won't mean anything when the players hit the field, but it is a reflection of the job Harbaugh has done bringing talent into Ann Arbor over the last 20 months.
How has Michigan fared historically as a preseason top 10 team? As with any school, U of M has seen mixed results, but that's to be expected for a practice based on speculation rather than on-field results.
In the 66 seasons since preseason rankings were introduced into the AP Poll in 1950 (not counting 2016), Michigan has been ranked in the top 10 a total of 31 times and unranked 21 times (the AP has ranked as many as 25 teams and as few as 10 teams in preseason polls).
Back in the day
After appearing only five times from 1950-1969, Michigan spent the entire 1970s in the preseason top 10, ranging from No. 2 to No. 10. Under head coach Bo Schembechler, the Wolverines won or shared seven Big Ten titles that decade and played in four Rose Bowls. Michigan went 96-16-3 in the '70s.
Schembechler's Wolverines received their first ever No. 1 preseason ranking in 1981, but lost three games and finished in a tie for third in the Big Ten. Michigan's only other preseason No. 1 came in 1989, when it went 10-2 and won the Big Ten in Schembechler's last season.
The 2007 disaster
Top 10 rankings have been unkind to Michigan over the last decade, most memorably in 2007.
Michigan entered the season ranked No. 5 in the country behind star senior trio Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Jake Long. The Wolverines had come one penalty away from the national championship game in 2006 and returned a ton of talent on offense.
But the ranking vanished in historic fashion. After becoming the second ranked FBS team ever to lose to an FCS school, Michigan became the first team ever to fall from top five to unranked in one week.
The following week, 109,733 fans watched Michigan fall to Oregon, 39-7, in the Big House. The Wolverines briefly got back into the top 15 with eight straight wins, but finished just 9-4 after losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State.
You might have forgotten...
...but in 2012, the Brady Hoke-led Wolverines were preseason No. 8 after winning 11 games and knocking off Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl during the 2011 season.
Michigan was led by senior quarterback Denard Robinson and junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who combined for over 2,200 rushing yards in 2011. But injuries and turnovers doomed an otherwise talented roster.
Once again, Michigan's top 10 ranking didn't last a week. After getting pounded by Alabama, 41-14, in Dallas in Week 1, the Wolverines fell out of the top 10 and eventually went on to lose five games that season -- four to top 10 teams.
The Wolverines haven't sniffed the preseason top 10 since.
Recent success outside the top 10
Michigan's last Rose Bowl appearance came in 2006, when it began the season ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll. Lloyd Carr's team won its first 11 games, including a 47-21 rout at No. 2 Notre Dame in Week 3 and a 14-point win over a Wisconsin team that finished 12-1.
Michigan lost a 42-39 slugfest to No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus and got rocked in the Rose Bowl after a national championship game snub, but still finished No. 8 in the country.
Since that year, Michigan has won double-digit games twice -- 11 in Hoke's first season and 10 in Harbaugh's first season. The Wolverines weren't ranked in either preseason, but finished No. 12 in both final AP rankings.
What does this mean?
Results from past seasons obviously have no direct impact on the players and coaches who will represent Michigan this year, but the team's top 10 ranking does put 2016 expectations into perspective.
The college football world recognized the job Harbaugh did his first season in Ann Arbor, taking over a team that was 46-42 the previous seven years and bringing it within a couple of unusual plays from a truly special season. He's won at every stop of his coaching career and there's no reason he can't do the same at his alma mater.
It doesn't hurt that Michigan's talent has grown, especially at some of the most important positions in football. The defensive line will be one of the deepest in the conference and Jourdan Lewis is the type of lockdown cornerback who can lead a championship secondary. On offense, four starters return on the line and three elite weapons -- Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson -- will greet whoever wins the starting quarterback job.
But just like the 2006 Wolverines, the 2012 Wolverines and all the other highly-ranked Michigan teams of the past, this group will have to prove it deserves to have that single-digit number next to its name, regardless of who is coaching or how much talent is on the field.
It's something Michigan hasn't proven in a decade.