Ethan Wolfe: What do you believe?
It’s a tired ultimatum at this point: win these three games, and only then is the Michigan football team for real. Only then is Jim Harbaugh, after four years of manifesting his all-star presence, the savior.
With No. 15 Wisconsin rolling into Ann Arbor on Saturday (opening as eight-point underdogs, mind you), fans are handling the game as a make-or-break ordeal. The team is, too, and they’re talking about it.
“This is one of those games you see on the schedule, you gotta get those first six games out of the way,” said junior linebacker Devin Bush Jr. “But you know this game is eventually coming, and now that it’s here, it’s all you’ve been waiting for.”
The 12th-ranked Wolverines have talked big game of their potential in the past and faltered. Why believe them now?
Flashback to August 29. Notre Dame awaits.
“The reality is,” said assistant head coach Pep Hamilton, “that everybody’s gonna find out who we are and what we’re made of on Saturday night.”
The Wolverines, of course, lost that game, 24-17. As of October 11, there is nary a word that Michigan is remotely the same team as the one that looked outmatched end-to-end in South Bend.
The team has spoken in the same manner before, but not like it has now. Maybe it’s bulletin board material for them. But maybe, with momentum and genuine confidence in hand, there is truthful conviction.
Ask the team’s emotional leader, defensive end Chase Winovich.
“It’s pretty obvious there’s something different about this team,” the fifth-year senior said.
Obvious. Ask another fifth-year senior, Jared Wangler.
“There is something special with this team,” Wangler said. “You can feel it. I feel like we’re hitting on all cylinders right now … confidence is there, which is really what you need, especially in these big games coming up. I sense something great about this team.”
Even Wisconsin’s head coach, Paul Chryst, can see it on film.
“They have great confidence and knowledge in their scheme,” Chryst said.
So now you have to consider for yourself if you believe the hype, or if the five games after Notre Dame were just a gift with a pretty bow on top. Can you put yourself on the bandwagon that a loss to the Badgers is devastating and, more importantly, unexpected? Leaving the Wolverines’ words to the wayside, the answer might still be “yes.”
Wisconsin, geared for a transcendent season, has been far from perfect. National title hopes vanished with a loss to BYU, and the Badgers’ patented roughneck defense has been suspect. Michigan State has looked wholly unimpressive in all five of its games. Penn State’s offense is still at a Penn State level, but a near-loss to Appalachian State and three tight quarters against a downtrodden Illinois have exposed chinks in the armor.
Going 0-3 in this stretch, like last season, is possible. But it seems utterly more impossible than winning them all at the moment, like two seasons ago. It’s a rejuvenated confidence predictably built on the shoulders of Michigan’s newfound torchbearer: junior quarterback Shea Patterson.
“There’s the preparation part there,” said running backs coach Jay Harbaugh of Patterson. “And then there’s that kind of gut trust that this guy can make some stuff happen. Our team never feels like we’re out of it or we’re gonna lose or anything. But having a guy like that kinda amplifies it. You really feel like there’s nothing that can stop us because he’s so dangerous and able to make things happen.”
Added cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich, perhaps the most no-nonsense coach on the Wolverines’ staff: “They’re starting to feel comfortable with each other the system, and they’re playing together. … I think Shea has done a hell of a job of bringing everyone together on that side of the ball.”
The team goes as Patterson goes. Jim Harbaugh said that even his seven-year-old daughter Katie recognizes that. And with marked game-by-game improvement by Patterson, redshirt junior tight end Zach Gentry claims that he’s never been more confident in the offense and the team as a whole. It’s not as “fragmented” like last year as Zordich believes.
The experience, the hunger and the weight of every confident syllable the team has uttered are there. And if you still don’t believe — if Harbaugh’s play-calling causes you physical distress, if the offensive line has every flaw we thought it did, if the defense takes too much time to settle in on Saturday or whatever else can happen — there is nothing that’s been said to suggest a loss is unavoidable.
Or maybe the team understands something that we don’t.
“This is the part of the season where it defines your whole season and what your team wants to do,” Bush said. “We know how to beat teams like that. We know what it takes to beat teams like that.”
They’ve talked the talk. Now, with the hunt of a Big Ten Championship truly beginning with this three-game gauntlet, how those words present themselves will speak to the talent and mettle of this team.
Are you convinced?
Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanewolfe.