If you gave the No. 4 Michigan football team a dollar for every time it’s been asked about its weak non-conference schedule, let’s just say it might need to hire an accountant.
The Wolverines have faced a constant barrage of questions about how they can gauge anything when every opponent they’ve faced is consistently listed amongst the worst teams in the FBS. But alas, after three easy wins, critics can lay their pitchforks to rest as Michigan is finally facing a “real” team this week.
Maryland may not be a juggernaut, but it is an undefeated Power Five team with a veteran quarterback and one of the strongest offenses in FBS. The Wolverines get their first real measuring stick to see how their team — which has been dominant on both sides of the ball so far — matches up against more talented competition.
Here are three things to watch for in Michigan’s Big Ten opener.
Combatting an explosive offense
The Terrapins have leaned heavily on their offense this year, and so far, have seen a lot of success. Their pass heavy, air raid scheme has generated a blistering 40.3 points per game. Junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa has thrown for 895 yards and six touchdowns, and is by far the best passer Michigan has faced.
All offseason, the Wolverines felt they could overcome the missing defensive talent that departed for the NFL, and they’ve backed it up with their play. They’ve given up just 17 points over the first three games and haven’t been threatened until the backups are in. But frankly, the offenses they’ve faced would struggle to score against anyone.
So the million dollar question is: Can the defense replicate its non-conference performance?
“They definitely have some better players than what we’ve seen so far,” Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said Wednesday. “I’m excited to see how we play.”
If the defense can stifle the Terrapins attack, the Wolverines will win this one with ease. If Maryland is able to maintain the level of offensive success they’ve been having, it will keep the door open for an upset — and open a Pandora’s box for Michigan’s defense moving forward.
Is there more ‘meat on the bone?’
It’s hard to find much to nitpick about the Wolverines offense so far, with stellar performances across the board. Sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy has been crisp with just four incompletions, graduate receiver Ronnie Bell has returned to form with 14 catches already and junior running back Blake Corum became just the third player in program history to rush for five touchdowns in a game last week against UConn.
It’s difficult to demand more from an offense that is literally the number one scoring unit in the country at 55.3 points per game. Unless, of course, you ask Michigan.
“There’s a lot of meat on the bone,” Bell said Monday. “I feel like throughout these first three games we haven’t necessarily finished our play. So there’s a lot to still be done, a lot to still be shown.”
Similar to the defense, the step up in competition is a chance for the offense to give itself a fairer assessment. It’s true, Maryland isn’t the most ferocious on the defensive side of the ball. It gave up 27 points to SMU last week and was gashed by the Wolverines last season, surrendering 59 points and 502 total yards of offense. But the Terrapins still have a defense full of Power Five level players, which none of Michigan’s previous opponents could claim.
Several offensive lineman have also pointed out the size of Maryland’s defensive front. The o-line has been a little bit leakier than expected, so whether it can shore it up against the best athletes they’ve matched up with will be critical for getting the Wolverines rolling.
The offense has been excellent but it comes with a major caveat. Whether they can continue to fire on all cylinders against the Terrapins, and realize the greater potential many players believe they can reach, could foreshadow how they’ll fare when facing the Big Ten elite.
It’s been sunshine and rainbows for Michigan so far. For all the criticisms of how easy the non-conference schedule is, the benefit also lies within — you get to play an easy non-conference schedule.
The Wolverines have cruised to victory, playing games that have been decided halfway through the first quarter. The only question they’ve faced is how many different players they can get in a game.
“I feel like we look good, but we haven’t faced any adversity,” Corum said after the UConn game. “I really don’t know how good we’re going to be. I feel it. I feel like we’re gonna be great, but I can’t tell you.”
Corum may have a reason to feel some uncertainty. Last season, after blitzing through non-conference play, Michigan opened Big Ten competition at home against an upstart, 3-0 Rutgers squad. The Wolverines won, but didn’t look good doing it — getting shutout in the second half and eking out a 20-13 victory.
But, there were valuable lessons learned from that matchup. Michigan proved it could win when the offense wasn’t dominating, forcing a turnover in the final minutes to prevent a late comeback. Plus, winning a close game early on proved vital, as the Wolverines grinded out key one-possession victories against Nebraska and Penn State later on to keep their magical season alive.
It’s possible things will go swimmingly for Michigan on Saturday, just as the first three games have. But more likely, Maryland will — at the very least — keep the Wolverines on their toes. Maybe Michigan faces a deficit for the first time all season, or the offense stumbles out of the gate.
Some sort of adversity will materialize.
How they respond to it will begin to reveal how magical this season could be.