When the Michigan football team last won the Big Ten Championship in 2004, few players on the Wolverines’ 2021 roster had even started elementary school.
Now, nearly two decades later, Michigan has a chance to claim the conference crown once again. After toppling Ohio State for the first time in a decade this past weekend, the Wolverines can now climb even higher. This weekend will mark Harbaugh’s first trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game in his seven years as Michigan’s coach, and a win would propel the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff.
Around Schembechler Hall, players and coaches know the stakes just got a whole lot higher.
“We’ve got to take home a Big Ten Championship,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “There’s not one dude on this team that has a ring. Definitely not a Big Ten Championship ring. (Beating Ohio State) was one of our goals that we wanted to achieve this season. Now we have to go on and achieve the next one.”
Harbaugh has seen the impact of the postseason through conversations, texts and other interactions with players. He and freshman running back Donovan Edwards usually begin every morning with a fist bump, but on Monday, they hugged instead.
“Onward to Iowa,” Harbaugh recalled telling Edwards. “I’m with you 100%. Let’s go.”
That attitude has extended to the team’s veterans, who understand the magnitude of the situation better than anyone. Michigan’s fifth and sixth-year players using the extra season of eligibility granted due to COVID-19 are on the doorstep of something special. Whereas younger players are excited and captivated by the moment, the veterans have remained grounded in their experience.
“Now, we’re on an even bigger stage this week going against Iowa,” fifth-year linebacker Josh Ross said. “Everything is in front of us and we’re just ready to attack the week with our preparation.”
Preparation woes have hurt previous iterations of Harbaugh’s Michigan teams. Last fall, for example, starting quarterback Joe Milton admitted he didn’t know who Michigan State All-Big Ten linebacker Antjuan Simmons was. But when Harbaugh overhauled his staff by hiring six new assistant coaches this past winter, preparation was a focal point.
So far, the new staff has delivered. And it’s making all the difference on the field.
“Just from a week to week basis, we do a great job of game-planning,” Ross said. “Our coaches do a great job working together and our players do a great job preparing as well. It’s gotten us to this point, so we’re just looking to keep pushing forward, have a great week of preparation and go get it this weekend because preparation is what it’s all about.”
McNamara conveyed a similar sentiment.
“We’ve been tested this season,” McNamara said. “We’ve gone through basically all kinds of game situations, and that’s something we’ve prided ourselves on since camp, being a very sound and good situational football team. All that work and all the preparation the coaches have done to get us here is going to make sure we’re ready come Saturday.”
With the win over the Buckeyes, Michigan reinvented its national perception. Before, the Wolverines had become the embodiment of a team stuck on the wrong end of a one-sided rivalry. Now, an opportunity to continue the program’s upward trajectory awaits in Indianapolis. Earning its first College Football Playoff berth would further thrust Michigan into the upper echelon of college football after almost two decades on the outside looking in.
That goal, like all the Wolverines’ others, starts with an added emphasis on preparation — a staple of their 2021 success.
“We haven’t won a Big Ten Championship since 2004,” Ross said. “This is huge for our program, this is huge for our team. Let’s get it. Let’s ride. There’s nothing more to be said. It’s a great opportunity in front of us and we’re ready to go get it.”