The Michigan football season is now two-thirds complete, and the Wolverines find themselves firmly in control of their own destiny.
After debuting at No. 3 in the first College Football Playoff rankings of 2016, Michigan has a clear path to the playoff if it wins out. But winning out is no guarantee.
While the Wolverines should be favored in each of the three games prior to a road showdown at No. 6 Ohio State, they’ll have to take care of business to reach that game intact. That quest starts Saturday, when they host a rebuilt Maryland team manned by former Michigan defensive coordinator DJ Durkin.
Here’s what to watch for when the teams take the field Saturday.
What does Durkin have up his sleeve?
Just one year removed from coaching every starter on Michigan’s current defense, Durkin has the benefit of knowing some of the tendencies of most Wolverine starters. He could try to exploit those tendencies, but it’s far from a guarantee any flaws the Wolverines had under Durkin will still be present Saturday.
Under Don Brown, the Wolverines’ defense has reached new heights, currently leading the nation in both scoring and total defense.
It wouldn’t be a surprise for Durkin to come out with a specially tailored game plan to attack certain facets of the Michigan defense. It might be a surprise if it works.
Will Butt be more involved?
After racking up 15 catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the Wolverines’ first three games, Butt has totaled just seven for 80 yards and a score in their last three. It’s not that Butt has been doing anything wrong — he caught a deep pass against the Spartans — but he hasn’t been the late-down safety blanket he was at the season’s outset.
Part of that, to be sure, can be attributed to the emergence of fifth-year senior receiver Amara Darboh, and part seems tied to the fact that Speight hasn’t needed a safety blanket. But Michigan’s offense is at its most dangerous when Butt is heavily involved.
Jabrill Peppers’ Heisman campaign
Ever since he unleashed Peppers against Rutgers last month, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been putting his do-it-all redshirt sophomore in more positions to make highlight plays.
While Illinois seemed to have Peppers snuffed out all game, the multi-position star made his impact felt in a big way against Michigan State with a rushing touchdown, defensive two-point conversion, two tackles for loss and a sack. Durkin knows exactly how good Peppers is, but knowing might not be enough.
Harbaugh has publicly stumped for Peppers to win the Heisman Trophy, but if he’s going to overtake Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Peppers will need to do more than just make big hits and score the occasional touchdown.
Expect Peppers to take his usual wildcat quarterback reps in the red zone, and maybe even throw a pass out of the formation for the first time all season.
Will the defense respond to a down week?
After giving up 401 total yards and two late touchdowns against Michigan State last week, the Michigan defense will be out to prove that performance was an anomaly.
Behind a litany of missed tackles that had players displeased after the game, the Wolverines allowed the Spartans to crawl back into a game that was 30-10 halfway through the fourth quarter. Saturday, Maryland could either take advantage of that or be the victim of a vicious rebound effect.