You’ve thought it quietly to yourself. Now it’s OK to start thinking it out loud.
Michigan might have played its worst quarter of the season to close out its 32-23 win over Michigan State on Saturday, but the end result clinched it. At 8-0, ranked No. 2 in the country and (finally) with a win against one of its chief rivals, it’s time to start thinking about this as a special season in Ann Arbor.
Of course, it’s no lock. The Wolverines still have to win two more home games and then beat Iowa in a road night game. They still have to face an Ohio State team that has the talent and coaching to upend those dreams in the season’s final week. They’ll likely have to beat either No. 8 Wisconsin again or No. 9 Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game.
But after this weekend, that’s the bar. This has special-season potential, and the next month is all about whether Michigan can realize it.
Thanks to the College Football Playoff, seasons are no longer bound to a championship-or-bust dichotomy, except in Tuscaloosa, Ala. If the Wolverines go 13-0, winning their first Big Ten Championship since 2004, it’s special. If they make the playoff, even if it means losing to Alabama, it will be remembered forever.
Even though this season doesn’t have to end with confetti like 1997, it’s hard to argue there would be no disappointment if it turned out like 2006. If Michigan walks into Columbus undefeated and loses, the deflation would be palpable. A Rose Bowl win would probably be significant enough to declare it a banner year, but with the way the Wolverines are going, a loss in Pasadena might make the year feel like something of a missed opportunity.
That’s how far Jim Harbaugh has taken Michigan in the last 22 months.
Interestingly enough, the Wolverines have stats on their side — the normal ones and the weird ones.
The analytics-driven S&P rankings have Michigan at No. 1 in the nation behind a suffocating defense that also ranks first in scoring and yards allowed. The Wolverines are scoring the third-most points per game in the country, and ESPN ranks their special teams unit as the nation’s 16th most efficient, second-best among teams currently ranked in the Associated Press top 10.
And then there are the oddities that past national champions have tended to share. Seven of the last nine quarterbacks to win a national championship have been first-year starters on their team, which redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight is. Of all the coaches to win national titles since 2000, only one (Mack Brown) did not win one in his first four seasons, and Harbaugh is in his second year with Michigan.
There all kinds of ways to explain those two stats (young quarterbacks have the benefit of chasing the top, not staying there; dominant coaches tend to win early and often), and it’s possible they don’t mean all that much. But when a team like Michigan possesses both and is in conversation for the playoff, they come up. That’s one of the identifiers of a special season.
So are Heisman Trophy candidates, and Jabrill Peppers is most certainly that. He probably was before he scored two rushing touchdowns against Rutgers, and he certainly is now, after another rushing touchdown, two more tackles for loss, a sack and a defensive 2-point conversion return against the Spartans.
He’s the kind of player fans pine for long after they’ve left, and he’s not the only one Michigan has on its roster. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis and tight end Jake Butt spurned the NFL to play their senior seasons. Receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and defensive linemen Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley came back for their fifth years. Most of the offensive line has been together for three seasons. It’s the kind of roster fans fantasize about in their championship dreams.
Which brings us back to Saturday, a day fans have looked forward to for a year. They anticipated a remedy to the painful memories of seasons past, and they got one.
After Speight took the final kneel down, Peppers did a back flip. Speight gave a triumphant fist pump as he moved toward the tunnel. Both tried to get the crowd even louder.
It was a special moment. And for the first time in a long time, it feels like more are coming.
Max Bultman can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @m_bultman. If you believe the 2016 season is going to be special, please send him an email explaining why.