Going into the season, 8-4 was a hopeful prediction for the Michigan football team’s record. Our own beat’s highest prediction was that. Washington, Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State smelled like instant losses. Michigan State and Indiana would push them, and winning both would be a sign of progress after losses last year.
This year was supposed to be a gap year — a year to let freshman phenom J.J. McCarthy mature and allow the new defense to settle in. But now, 6-0 and ranked in the top 10, this season is no longer a bridge to a brighter future, it is an opportunity for the Wolverines to be disruptive and play at a national scale.
Two weeks ago against Rutgers, the defense held strong and kept the Scarlet Knights from turning the table after an abysmal offensive second half from the Wolverines. A week ago, Jim Harbaugh won his biggest road win at Michigan. This week, the offense kept the team in it even as the defense floundered. Then, when it needed to, the defense forced a late fumble to set up a game-winning field goal.
“We didn’t flinch,” senior safety Brad Hawkins said. “We stayed composed throughout the whole game. We knew adversity was going to hit. It hit, and we didn’t flinch. I love this team, I love this defense, and I know we’re fighters.”
Michigan teams of the past couldn’t have done any of those things.
This year, the dominoes are falling the right way for the Wolverines. When looking across college football, the traditionally top teams are struggling. Oklahoma has scraped by in five of their six games, Alabama lost to an unranked team, Clemson has plummeted out of even the top 25. Notre Dame has looked ugly in its 5-1 start and now Penn State has a questionable quarterback situation due to Sean Clifford’s injury.
There is actually a path to the College Football Playoff. Which is, inherently, a ridiculous thing to write.
But Michigan still has to face its biggest tests. Michigan State, the Nittany Lions and Ohio State are all top 10 teams left on its schedule, and each of them are finding their identity (Clifford’s injury aside).
If the Wolverines lose just two of those games, this could be Harbaugh’s best season ever at Michigan. If they lose one of those games, they would be contenders for the College Football Playoff and likely give Harbaugh his first Big Ten Title.
And after the past three weeks, Michigan losing only one of those games isn’t a laughably absurd thought. Because unlike in previous years, the Wolverines have shown an ability to adjust and learn from their shortcomings.
The abysmal offense from Rutgers’ second half hasn’t reappeared, and that game remains the only one in which Michigan failed to score more than 30 points. McNamara has improved throughout the season, and despite a few missed throws on Saturday he played well. The defense has made in-game adjustments, repeatedly shutting down teams after their first drive. There’s no reason to suspect it won’t learn from Nebraska’s second half.
All that goes to show that this isn’t a gap year for Michigan — not because it’s biding its time for McCarthy to take the starting job but because it won’t accept a loss. That’s why the team danced despite being behind at the end of the third quarter and why they continued to respond.
“The grit they have, the fight they have, the mindset of not being denied,” Harbaugh said. “The way they prepare and they have fun doing it. It’s in the eyes. Practice and games.”
Now, 8-4 would be a disappointing end. And Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State are winnable games and the Las Vegas Bowl a let down. So forget the gap year, the Wolverines have crashed the playoff conversation.