On November 22nd, 2014, the Maryland Terrapins strolled into Ann Arbor to take on the struggling Michigan Wolverines. Maryland’s record stood at 6-4, while Michigan’s was just 5-5. The Wolverines just needed one win against a not-that-great Maryland team to become bowl eligible.
What ensued on the field was an embarrassing 23-16 loss on their home field that summed up the state of the Michigan football program at the time – they were struggling mightily, and needed change. While the loss itself was almost expected at that point given Michigan’s inability to do, well, anything on offense, fans were still angered beyond belief and called for Brady Hoke’s job.
Sure enough, after their loss the following week to the eventual National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes, Hoke was fired, and the future in Ann Arbor was murky.
Fast forward to October 3rd, 2015, when Michigan went into College Park to take on the Terrapins on their home field. This result was a little bit different – the Wolverines dominated every phase of the game, winning 28-0. Despite the blowout, some fans thought the Wolverines had actually under-performed and felt they could have won by more.
What happened in just over 10 months that changed everything?
The simple answer, obviously, is Jim Harbaugh’s triumphant return to Ann Arbor. A month-long coaching search for Michigan ended with them landing Harbaugh, the crown jewel of available coaches last offseason – on any level. Harbaugh could have chosen any NFL opening (and probably even a few jobs that weren’t open), but he chose to coach at his alma mater.
After settling in and the initial shock and disbelief of Harbaugh’s hire wore off, fans started making predictions. The most common would be something along the lines of, “Michigan will be improved this year, maybe win 7 or 8 games, and Harbaugh will have them in national title contention by year three or four.”
Now, halfway through the regular season, Michigan has matched its win total from a season ago and has done so in dominating fashion. They are currently 5-1, ranked #12 in the AP Poll, and await a showdown with their in-state rival Michigan State that is the first game in a triumvirate of matchups that will likely determine the Big Ten East champion (both of their games against Ohio State in November being the other two). Should Michigan win this week, they will be in the Top 10 and will not face another team nearly as good as Michigan State or Northwestern until the Buckeyes roll into town on November 28th.
How did the Wolverines go from a Big Ten doormat with a bleak future, to a team dominating national headlines and streaking towards a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs so quickly?
It all starts with Harbaugh. He has re-instilled the toughness and responsibility of the likes not seen in Schembechler Hall since… well, Bo Schembechler was coaching. He also has instilled a level of competitiveness that drives players to compete and improve more than they ever did under Hoke. These are the footprints of their success.
Harbaugh also is a pretty good developer of talent, too, particularly at the quarterback position (see: Luck, Andrew). When Jake Rudock transferred here, fans expected a game manager who didn’t make mistakes, led the offense to a few scoring drives a game, and put the defense in positions to succeed. Other than a three interception game against Utah (coincidentally, the only game the Wolverines lost this year), Rudock has done a great job in all of those areas. Sure, he could do a better job at hitting receivers on deep balls, but that’s not his game. He has done his job very well, especially with the last point of putting the defense in positions to succeed.
If you haven’t noticed, this year’s Michigan defense is absolutely nasty. They are at or near the top nationally in nearly every single defensive static. In their last 19 quarters, they’ve given up exactly 7 points, which would equate to about 1.5 points per game. Oh, and that seven was a garbage time touchdown against UNLV, when the game was already decided.
They also have held their last three opponents scoreless, becoming the first FBS team with three consecutive shutouts in twenty years. It’s not as if they shutout three slouches, either – both BYU and Northwestern were ranked when Michigan beat them, and Maryland put up 28 points on Ohio State’s defense just a week later.
The most impressive part of the defense is that it’s not littered with elite NFL prospects, either. The only player currently starting on defense who will probably be a first round pick is Jabrill Peppers – players like Jourdan Lewis, Chris Wormley,and Willie Henry all could (and should) be mid-round picks, but won’t be anywhere near the most talked about names in the next few drafts. Defensive coordinator DJ Durkin has done an incredible job making this defense into the premier defense in the country.
On offense, Harbaugh has laid his footprint down much quicker – and much more effectively, at least this early – than anyone thought. Harbaugh runs the classic “pro-style” offense – this entails the use of multiple tight ends and full backs, and lots of power running. Luckily, the Wolverines have the right ingredients for that, with bruising RB De’Veon Smith leading the way. They also have two great fullbacks in Joe Kerridge and Sione Houma, and a bevy of options at tight end, headlined by Jake Butt.
Even though they have struggled this season, Michigan State will be Michigan’s stiffest test this season. They are largely the same team that beat Baylor in a classic in last season’s Cotton Bowl, and have as much talent as any team in the country. However, a battered offensive line and secondary have hurt the Spartans, but not enough to prevent them from still being 6-0. Also, while their struggles have seen them drop in the AP Poll from #2 to #7 in the last two weeks, they will still be ready as ever to play Michigan – head coach Mark Dantonio HATES Michigan and always has the Spartans ready to play. This weekend’s game should tell us a lot about the direction of the season for both programs – the winner will have the inside track to the Big Ten Championship game if they can beat Ohio State (the Buckeyes face Michigan State and Michigan in consecutive weeks, the last two of the regular season).
All in all, Harbaugh has the Wolverines in a spot that they haven’t been in since 2006 – in national title contention. Considering they weren’t even in a bowl game at all just last season, this is just astounding. Through some incredible coaching jobs and marked improvements by nearly everyone on the roster, the Wolverines are back. Make no mistake – Michigan is for real, and should be near the top for the foreseeable future.