ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan football's nonconference season is over, and now the grueling Big Ten schedule begins.
The Wolverines cruised past Florida, Cincinnati and Air Force to stay undefeated before conference play, but now the tests will get much tougher.
This weekend, Michigan is playing the most surprising team in the Big Ten: A Purdue squad that's coming off three straight impressive performances and two consecutive wins.
Michigan is a 10 1/2-point favorite, but many in the college football world are mentioning Purdue as a possible upset pick.
Here are my predictions for Michigan's first Big Ten game of the season.
Purdue gets off to a fast start
This is the biggest football game for Purdue University in a decade, and the fans will show up hungry for a victory. It also coincides with a young Michigan team's first true road test.
Purdue hasn't wasted any time getting on the scoreboard in the last two games, scoring 34 points in the first half against Ohio and 28 points against Purdue. Even in the loss to Louisville, the Boilermakers struck first with a touchdown to take the lead on its second drive.
Purdue Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm yells at a player in the first quarter of a game against the Ohio Bobcats at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 8, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Michigan has already faced plenty of adversity this season, so if Purdue takes an early lead, don't expect Jim Harbaugh's team to back down. In the win over Florida, Wilton Speight threw back-to-back pick-sixes to give up the lead, but Michigan bounced back immediately after halftime and never looked back.
Against Cincinnati and Air Force, Michigan led by just three points in the third quarter despite entering the games as a huge favorite. Previous Michigan teams might have crumbled in those situations, but these Wolverines won by an average of 19 points.
Purdue is a vastly improved team, so in front a raucous home crowd against an inexperienced Michigan team, the first quarter could be a battle.
David Blough gets a rude awakening
It's been smooth sailing for quarterback David Blough so far, completing more than 75 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Blough never showed signs of elite performance during his first two seasons, but he's flourishing under new head coach Jeff Brohm. At Missouri, Blough completed 22 of 28 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.
The best way to throw a quarterback off his rhythm is to hit him, and that's exactly what Don Brown loves to do.
Purdue hasn't played an offensive line as dangerous as the one it will see Saturday, and Blough has still been sacked eight times. Only 21 teams in the country have allowed more sacks than the Boilermakers' offense (Michigan has also allowed eight sacks).
It's bad news for Purdue fans, as Michigan ranks fourth in the nation with 13 sacks through three games. That's even more impressive considering Michigan played an Air Force team that only threw the ball nine times.
Michigan has a talented defensive line running a relentless scheme, so Blough isn't going to be sitting in the pocket for very long.
Michigan has success running the football
Harbaugh finally has the pieces in place to put his offense into motion. Ty Isaac emerged as Michigan's best all-around running back, while Chris Evans and Karan Higdon provide a nice change of pace.
Ty Isaac stiff arms a Florida defender in Michigan football's opening win against Florida (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images).
The offensive line is still a work in progress, but it's as talented as Michigan has had in years. Michael Onwenu and Ben Bredeson are only going to improve, and Mason Cole and Patrick Kugler have been the team's top linemen so far this year.
Purdue is absolutely terrible at getting penetration, as it only has one sack and eight tackles for loss through three games. The Boilermakers are dead last in the country in both sacks per game and tackles for loss per game.
The lack of athleticism up front defensively for Purdue will not only allow Michigan to run the bull between the tackles, but Isaac, Evans and Higdon should be able to get outside and make big plays.
Wilton Speight will have his best game yet
If you read our story Thursday about Wilton Speight, you know Purdue is the type of team he can have success against, primarily because of the reasons above.
Wilton Speight #3 of the Michigan Wolverines drops back to pass during the first quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Michigan Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.(Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Speight really struggles when opposing teams pressure him, and he's not mobile outside the pocket. Against a team such as Purdue, which won't provide much of a pass rush, Speight should have time to stand in the pocket and step into his throws.
Harbaugh knows Speight is one of the final pieces to the puzzle if Michigan is to compete for a Big Ten championship, so there's no doubt the redshirt junior will improve throughout the season. Look for Michigan to run some short pass plays early in the game so Speight can get into a groove. Then, when it's time to take a shot downfield, Speight needs to be on target.
Michigan will stay undefeated
For the reasons outlined above, I believe Michigan will survive its first road test and knock off Purdue this weekend.
Michigan has superior athletes at almost every spot on the field, and while Brohm has done a nice job so far, there are few coaches better than Harbaugh.
The Wolverines will always have a chance on the road because defense travels, and Brown's unit is one of the best in the country. Purdue's offense has outperformed Michigan's offense to this point, but I'm not convinced it's actually better.
PREDICTION: Michigan 31, Purdue 20
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