Last November, the Michigan football team stumbled into Piscataway, N.J., on the heels of three consecutive losses and required three overtimes and a quarterback change to escape with a victory. The game made for a stunning indictment of the state of the program, exposing the depths to which the Wolverines had fallen in Year Six of the Jim Harbaugh era.
Now, as Michigan prepares to face Rutgers again this weekend, the 3-0 Wolverines appear to be back on the upswing, causing others to take notice.
“Sounds like Michigan’s back to being Michigan,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano told reporters on Saturday.
A calamitous 2020 season resulted in Michigan entering the 2021 campaign as a national afterthought, a first under Harbaugh. But that perception is beginning to change.
Having outscored their opponents 141-34 through three games, the Wolverines find themselves ranked 19th in this week’s AP Poll. And, according to ESPN’s SP+ metric, Michigan is the sixth-best team in the nation, sandwiched between Ohio State and Penn State.
The obvious disclaimer is that these marks are both wonky and meaningless, by no means an indication of what is to come. Each of the Wolverines’ three opponents have been unranked — their stiffest competition was Washington, which dropped its season-opener to FCS level Montana.
Michigan players recognize the insignificance of a national narrative themselves.
“We’re just looking at it as if we haven’t won anything,” fifth-year senior safety Brad Hawkins said on Monday. “We haven’t done anything yet. Yeah, we’re 3-0, but we still haven’t done anything. We’re just gonna continue to play with that chip like we haven’t done anything, which we haven’t. That’s just where we are.”
That mentality is quickly becoming the mantra for this iteration of Wolverines. After the season-opening victory over Western Michigan three weeks ago, senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson offered, “We haven’t done a damn thing. We’re not content with this at all.”
Senior cornerback Vincent Gray echoed Hutchinson’s sentiment, chipping in, “We haven’t done anything yet.”
That phrase is a common trope among sports teams, often used as a way to restrain egos and focus on expectations. Now that Big Ten play and a subsequent uptick in competition are imminent, Michigan continues to adhere to that mindset.
“We know as soon as we lose one game, everyone’s gonna be like, ‘Michigan sucks again.’ We’re just taking every game as an underdog,” junior linebacker Mike Morris said. “I feel like we’re underdogs against Rutgers. Everybody probably thinks we’re gonna lose that game. Everybody probably thinks we’re going to lose every game in the Big Ten right now. We’re just taking it as us versus everybody. We don’t care if that team is 3-0 or 0-3. We’re just taking it one week at a time and just kicking everybody’s butt.”
The collective chip-on-the-shoulder disposition can in part be attributed to Michigan’s culture change, starting with the coaching staff — a common talking point through fall camp. In the offseason, Harbaugh turned his staff upside down, bringing in four new coaches in a youth infusion that instilled a new energy within the program. That vigor has carried over into the season, painting a stark difference through the first three games.
“As you can see on the sidelines, we’re having a bunch of fun,” sophomore running back Blake Corum said. “Last year, when you looked at the sidelines, we weren’t having much fun. We’re dancing now, we’re cheering each other up. We’re here for each other.”
The true test of the team’s new culture will come with the inevitable adversity. And as it heads into the gauntlet of Big Ten play, Michigan is sticking to the same mentality it shaped in the offseason.
“What we’ve done to this point is good,” Harbaugh said on Saturday after the team’s 53-point victory. “But now, it really starts counting.”