Time to Start Talking About Michigan as a National Title ContenderOctober 11, 2015
Have a seat. Get comfortable. Pour yourself a drink, if you please. Over the next few minutes, I’m going to tell you why Michigan—yes, that Michigan—is suddenly a very real threat to make the College Football Playoff and flip this sport on its side.
The massive three-year rebuild suddenly looks more like a tidy three-month renovation. And those reserved, “they might make a bowl game” preseason predictions? Gone and forgotten. Everything has changed in the past month.
It’s not just the five consecutive wins. It’s the way Jim Harbaugh’s team has been Harbaugh-ized overnight. It’s the way Michigan puts its opponents in a vice and squeezes the life out of the opposition until it inevitably taps out.
Against Northwestern on Saturday, one could argue that moment came in the first half. Heck, you could argue it came on the very first play, when wide receiver Jehu Chesson took the opening kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown. Those were the only points the Wolverines needed.
From there, the Michigan offense scored two first-half touchdowns, both predictably short, unsexy runs. That’s the plan. There’s no need for anything more extravagant.
And the defense, having been one of the nation’s elite groups since the season began, capped off the first half with a score of its own. Jourdan Lewis’ 37-yard interception return right before halftime essentially sealed the game—pushing the deficit to 28-0.
It was over then. In reality, it was over far earlier than that.
With his team cruising right along, up 31-0 in the second half, Harbaugh finally kicked back and relaxed. Well, not exactly.
In perhaps the finest sideline tirade since his last one, Harbaugh uncorked a sequence of unique, patented body movements while the rest of the stadium let the joy of the performance wash over them.
Oh, this is getting fun.
The final score of 38-0 told a tremendous tale of dominance. As Michigan took one final knee after stopping Northwestern on fourth down, the crowd, still completed engaged and in awe, let loose a stadium-wide, “De-fense” chant.
This kind of buzz was expected to seep into Ann Arbor in Year 3, maybe Year 2 if things progressed at an expedited rate. It has been realized in Week 6.
Since losing to Utah on the opening weekend, Michigan has outscored its last five opponents 160-14. It has not allowed a single point—forget about a touchdown—since September 19.
That’s three straight shutouts, two of those coming against teams that were ranked at the time (BYU and Northwestern). By the time it plays Michigan State next weekend in a game suddenly magnificent in size, it will have gone nearly a full month since the opposition showed anything more than a zero on the scoreboard.
The week ahead is a natural transition to the bigger picture. Suddenly at 5-1 and ascending weekly polls with more violence than a Harbaugh sideline meltdown, Michigan has become one of the nation’s most feared bullies. With Michigan State headed to Ann Arbor in Week 7, the Wolverines can continue to validate their place among college football’s elite.
"As I said early, we've got a tremendous opponent,” Harbaugh told reporters following the game. “Coming off this impressive win, congratulations—next. It's a heck of a football team, no doubt. We look forward to a great week of preparation. That's really what has to happen."
As it stands now—and the national picture seems to evolve hourly given the upsets unfolding—Michigan could very well be the favorite in every remaining game.
Think about that for a moment: The team that had a daunting rebuild ahead—the one with the nation’s defending national champion at the back end of the schedule—in a strange way, controls its own playoff destiny.
Nothing is a given. A lot still has to unfold for this to be realized. For starters, the Wolverines have to continue to develop as they have all along, especially on offense. They have to protect the football and avoid the turnovers that unhinged the game plan in Week 1.
Quarterback Jake Rudock doesn’t have to be Cardale Jones, but he will be asked to win games, and more importantly, not lose them. If the offense can grow, this team becomes that much more dangerous. The defense needs to continue what it's doing. It's been exceptional.
But there’s another part of this dream equation, too. The teams around Michigan—in particular, the two overwhelming conference favorites—suddenly look vulnerable.
Michigan State and Ohio State have each underwhelmed. Both teams still don’t have a blemish in the loss column, which is critically important. But both, in undefeated efforts, have not looked as polished as anticipated.
In a matter of hours during Week 5, Michigan State edged Purdue with a three-point win and Ohio State sneaked by Indiana thanks to a superhuman performance from running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Spartans then needed a late touchdown to get past Rutgers in Week 6 while the Buckeyes were close with Maryland for longer than anticipated.
Each team has fantastic individual players. And yet, in both cases, the teams just have not quite meshed as many anticipated.
Bleacher Report’s own Ed Feng, our resident analytics expert, has run his numbers on the Wolverines and scrutinized the likelihood of their winning every regular-season game moving forward.
Suddenly, Michigan finds itself in a favorable spot. My, how things have changed.
|Ed Feng's Michigan Win Probability|
|October 17||vs. Michigan State||74%|
|October 31||@ Minnesota||74%|
|November 7||vs. Rutgers||95%|
|November 14||@ Indiana||87%|
|November 21||@ Penn State||72%|
|November 28||vs. Ohio State||52%|
Percentages, of course, just reinforce what we’ve already seen—that the Big Ten is suddenly wide open. It's still extremely top heavy, although there's a new addition to the group.
This is a theme that isn't exclusive to one conference. In general, there appears to be a clear shortage of dominant teams nationwide, creating a hazy hierarchy. It’s why each week brings about a new avalanche of upsets and rebooted rankings. More important to Michigan’s efforts, it’s why the Wolverines are suddenly much more than a nice group with a charismatic new coach.
Even the loss has aged well. Back in Week 1, on the first night of the season, we weren't quite sure what losing at Utah meant.
Having seen the Utes perform exceptionally well early on, it's become abundantly clear that this out-of-conference defeat will not work count heavily against Harbaugh and Co. By the end of the year, depending on how Michigan evolves, it could serve as critical ammunition.
Ultimately, the Wolverines have to keep winning to make that matter.
Right now, its unique style is making winning a weekly reality with minimal suspense. While “unique” is an odd term for a formula built on excellent defense, quality special teams and a capable offense, this is a commodity in 2015. It's unusual.
Playing a classic, predictable brand of football can be extremely dangerous if you do it well. Right now, Michigan is doing it better than just about anyone. It is trending in the right direction unlike so many others, and it's doing so at the perfect time.
Forget about Year 2 or Year 3. A playoff berth and a national championship are suddenly there for the taking. The fact that we can have this conversation in plain sight in the middle of October is a testament to the players and their magical head coach. Why not Michigan? Why not now?
The future in Ann Arbor is remarkably bright. This is something we've known all along, and nothing that happens over the coming weeks that will change that. But while we’ve spent the last nine months fixated on what Michigan will look like years down the line, we breezed right past the very real possibility that the future might be now.