As the No. 4 Michigan football team wrapped up a 59-0 victory over lowly UConn Saturday afternoon, everything seemed rather ho-hum. There was no hoopla, no stir in Ann Arbor over the Wolverines’ ranking in the AP Top 25 poll, which slots them behind only Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State — college football’s three goliaths.
This is the standard now. While Michigan has always been known as a football school, the proclamation feels realistic following last year’s monumental breakthrough. The Wolverines should be this strong, and their passionate fanbase has a blueprint by which they judge success by; everyone knows how it feels and what it looks like.
Good teams, though, are forged through crucibles of adversity. Sure, the first three games — all cakewalks — played out as they should, as the Wolverines avoided the fate that befell Notre Dame and Texas A&M. But that doesn’t mean that the non-conference slate is a harbinger of what’s to come.
“I feel like we look good, but we haven’t faced adversity,” junior running back Blake Corum said. “I really don’t know how good we’re gonna be. I feel it. I feel like we’re gonna be great. But I can’t tell you.”
The real challenges — the real season — starts now. A grueling Big Ten schedule beckons, beginning with a clash against an upstart, undefeated Maryland squad on Saturday. It’s not a litmus test, but nonetheless an important barometer.
Last year serves as a cautionary tale. After a domineering 3-0 non-conference slate, Michigan opened up Big Ten play at home against woeful Rutgers. After waltzing out to a 20-3 halftime lead, the Wolverines stagnated, leaving the door ajar for the Scarlet Knights. A fumble late in the fourth quarter secured a Michigan victory, but the game served as a wake-up call.
And the Wolverines answered that call in resounding fashion, storming their way through their Big Ten schedule and into Indianapolis. When adversity hit — a fourth-quarter deficit in Lincoln, a heart-wrenching loss in East Lansing, a nail-biter in Happy Valley — Michigan responded.
That’s where a team with potential transcended into a team bound to be cherished for generations.
This team, merely because it’s only Week Three, hasn’t faced any tests to push it there.
It is simultaneously confident and aware of the need for growth.
“We’re in a good spot, but we still got stuff to build on,” junior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said.
Though it’s entering conference play in a good spot, Michigan has caught flack for its lackluster non-conference opponents. But, as Corum reiterated Saturday afternoon, you can only play your schedule.
“We treat every game like a championship game,” Corum said. “We’re just playing the schedule, having fun out there. It’s been great, and Big Ten’s on the way.”
To their credit, the Wolverines have played a brand of disciplined, mistake-free football. They like where they are, and there’s no reason not to. The offense is humming with McCarthy under center, while the defense has picked up where it left off last year, despite notable roster turnover.
They’ve said the right things, too. They maintain that they approach each game as if the opponent is Michigan State or Ohio State, stressing the minutia and nuances of each practice. It’s all eerily reminiscent of last season, especially in the way that their play has lent credence to their words.
“I like the team a lot,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after Saturday’s game. “… And there’s been zero entitlement.”
Harbaugh went on to recall a text he received last week from a childhood friend.
“He said he just can’t wait to watch Michigan football,” Harbaugh remembered. “It reminds him of the days of Rick Leach and Harlan Huckleby and Anthony Carter. That’s the way he feels about this team. I do as well. I get the same feeling about this team.”
But there are signs, too, that this year’s group is different. The Wolverines may carry with them lessons and memories from last year, but they are not the same.
Saturday after the game, that distinction shined brightest. McCarthy — fresh off his first start as the full-time starting quarterback — took a seat at his press conference with a grin plastered on his face. Gazing towards the cameras pointed at him, McCarthy leaned over to Corum and marveled, in an audible whisper: “So, this is what it’s really like?”
Yes and no. Because Michigan’s season starts now, and when adversity hits, that’s when these Wolverines will find out what it’s really like.
And they know it.
McCarthy said he is becoming more comfortable each game, which will lead to a path of “exponential progress.” For now, though, he is dwelling on his shortcomings, like the second drive of the game which still “haunts” him.
The same growth mindset holds true on defense. Sophomore linebacker Junior Colson said that the defense, despite its success, is still crafting its identity.
Harbaugh walked through a number of areas that need to be worked through, as is customary for a team in Week Three.
“We’re shooting for perfection,” Jenkins said. “The sooner we can get to that, the better.”
But are they ready for the Big Ten?
“We’ll find out,” Harbaugh said.
That’s why, in essence, the season starts now.