What does 4-0 start to season mean for Michigan football?

Jim Harbaugh has young Wolverines off to undefeated start

Rashan Gary of the Michigan Wolverines is congratulated after a sack during the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Michigan Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan beat Cincinnati 36-14. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Rashan Gary of the Michigan Wolverines is congratulated after a sack during the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Michigan Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan beat Cincinnati 36-14. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – For the second year in a row, Jim Harbaugh has Michigan football sitting with a perfect 4-0 record at the one-third mark of the regular season. This year, with a bye week on tap, we have a chance to assess the first four games and determine how they've set the stage for the Wolverines going forward.

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Michigan is clearly a second-half team, as it trailed at halftime against Florida and Purdue, led by just three points against Air Force and 10 points against Cincinnati. The wins haven't been pretty, but the young Wolverines are gaining experience, and they've become battle tested in a short period of time.

Big Ten relevance

From a conference perspective, Michigan has cemented itself as one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten East Division.

Along with Penn State and Ohio State, the Wolverines are in a three-way race for the East crown. Penn State dodged a bullet against Iowa Saturday night, so it was critical for Michigan to escape West Lafayette with a win.

Despite trailing 10-7 at halftime, Michigan cruised to a victory with 21 unanswered points after the break.

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Ohio State is also 1-0 conference play after beating Indiana on the road in the season opener. Michigan wasn't expected to lose to Purdue, but wins from Ohio State and Penn State in their first conference games made it important for Harbaugh's team to take care of business.

That's exactly what Michigan did, ensuring its East Division rivals couldn't get a cheap head start in the race.

In terms of the Big Ten landscape, Michigan didn't have to do very much in the first four weeks to stay near the top. Penn State is the only other team in the division that has reached this point unscathed.

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National relevance

While it's tough to gauge a team's conference standing after just one Big Ten game, the broader picture has already started to sharpen.

Michigan wasn't expected to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, but after dominating Florida in Week 1 and cruising past a few tricky opponents, that has become the team's goal.

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The Wolverines haven't just stayed near the top of the Big Ten, they've risen to No. 8 in the AP Poll and No. 7 in the Coaches Poll.

Michigan's win over Florida was an absolutely critical resume builder at the start of the season. So many teams have already picked up impressive wins away from home, and Michigan needed to take advantage of the opportunity to make a statement outside the conference against a ranked team.

Since the game, Florida has taken down a ranked rival in Tennessee and an undefeated Kentucky team on the road. The Gators aren't dominant, but they should stick around the top 25 for most of the season, giving Michigan a quality win.

Even more importantly, Michigan simply had to avoid a loss at all costs. There are still 24 unbeaten teams in the country, and 18 of them are in Power Five conferences.

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A two-loss team has never gotten into the College Football Playoff, so more than 100 teams have already been essentially eliminated from championship contention or used up any room for error they might have had.

Michigan has an incredibly difficult schedule the rest of the way, and it will be a challenge to stay unbeaten through Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the second half of the season. For that reason, the Wolverines can't drop one of their easier games, and that's what they've avoided so far.

Looking ahead

After Michigan dominated Florida, the team was expected to stay undefeated until the Penn State trip. Well, it hasn't been a smooth ride, but the Wolverines are two-thirds of the way to that point, with games against Michigan State and Indiana in their path.

Then, the gauntlet begins as Michigan will travel to Penn State for a top-10 battle. Four weeks later, the season ends with another top-10 game at Wisconsin and a huge home date with the Buckeyes.

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Michigan has done its job to this point, but the heavy lifting hasn't even started.

Harbaugh's team -- especially the defense -- is good enough to beat every opponent on its schedule, but there are ample opportunities to slip up. We won't truly know if Michigan is a championship contender until Oct. 21.

Thanks to a 4-0 start, the Wolverines are, at the very least, still in the mix.