On Saturday, relishing the Michigan football team’s bye week, Joel Honigford transformed his living room into a quasi-man cave. He placed two TVs side-by-side, one for consuming a day’s worth of college football and the other for video games, namely NCAA Football 14.
As the day evolved, Honigford watched the action on one TV mirror the other: Upsets and parody ran rampant in both the video game and real life, an accurate snapshot of the college football season heading into Week Eight.
“This year has been crazier than I can ever remember,” Honigford, a fifth-year tight end who first joined the Wolverines in 2017, said on Tuesday. “Records aren’t necessarily tendencies to show how good somebody can be. You really can’t look past anybody.”
To date, Honigford and the sixth-ranked Wolverines have resided on the favorable end of that chaos, ascending from the depths of the unranked to become a formidable contender. A season many envisioned as a bridge year has quickly entertained the imagination.
In eight days, Michigan’s season is set to reach a crucible. The Wolverines will travel along I-96 W to East Lansing for a clash with hard-nosed, ninth-ranked Michigan State in the most anticipated chapter of the fabled in-state rivalry in recent memory. Forget Paul Bunyan — Big Ten title hopes and College Football Playoff aspirations will be at stake.
That is, if Michigan can beat Northwestern this weekend.
It is, to be frank, a game the Wolverines should win rather easily. They opened up as 19.5-point betting favorites and have since seen that spread balloon to 23.5. At 6-0, Michigan has mostly humiliated its opposition, and the Wildcats, having already lost to Duke and Nebraska this season, don’t pose too much of a threat.
Everything would seem to be working in the Wolverines’ favor, except for the fact that a potentially epic showdown with the Spartans is very much looming. If they aren’t careful, they’ll enter the Michigan State game on a sour note.
But, if Michigan is who it insists it is, it will blow Northwestern out of the water, not succumbing to the pitfalls of a trap game, the likes of which past iterations of Wolverines have wilted in.
“We’re not overlooking them at all,” sophomore receiver A.J. Henning said on Monday. “We know they’re a great football team. They’re going to come in here and give us their best show, so we’re going to take the necessary preparations to try and have a successful outcome.”
Added junior defensive tackle Chris Hinton: “We can’t look to next week because we’ve got a very good opponent coming this week. We’ve got to take every game, every week, one game at a time. Because if we don’t handle our business this week, the next week is just not as significant.”
It’s one thing to say the right things, as Michigan players have done throughout this week. It’s another thing, though, to actually act on those declarations.
To the Wolverines’ credit, it appears they have.
A recurring refrain throughout this season has been the alleged difference between this year’s Michigan team and teams of the recent past. In a way, it’s emerged as a rallying cry, and one that the Wolverines have given an element of tangibility with their play.
Michigan didn’t practice on Friday or Saturday, allotted a rare break because of the bye week. On Sunday, practice resumed, with Harbaugh declaring on Monday that the team “had as good a practice” as he’s ever seen a team have on the heels of a two-and-a-half day break.
“In the past, the energy would not be up on those days,” Honigford said. “Guys would be a little frustrated about coming in on Sundays.”
Not this year.
“I think what (last season) did teach us this year was that no game is taken for granted,” fifth-year offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said. “Every opponent we look at is, ‘We could lose to this team if we don’t show up.’ I think that’s shown up in our preparation for every team. No team is taken lightly.”
Stueber didn’t reference a specific game, but it’s a fair assumption that he was at least thinking about last year’s bout with Michigan State. The Spartans waltzed into Michigan Stadium as three-touchdown underdogs and stunned the Wolverines, who had made a statement by trouncing No. 21 Minnesota the week prior.
After the game, Joe Milton, then Michigan’s starting quarterback, professed that Michigan State starting linebacker Antjuan Simmons, a 2019 All-Big Ten selection, “wasn’t on my radar.” Milton’s comments made for a stunning indictment on the team’s preparation and mentality in between games.
The Wolverines haven’t made the same mistakes this year, and that’s reflected in their pristine 6-0 record.
“Each week, we’re going in with a 1-0 mindset,” sophomore linebacker Kalel Mullings said.
The Spartans, it should be noted, stood in Michigan’s shoes just last week. Ahead of a road game against Indiana, Michigan State coach Mel Tucker mirrored the Wolverines’ disciplined mindset.
“They’re all big games, every single one of them,” Tucker told reporters on Oct. 12. “Especially when you’re playing a rivalry game for a trophy like we are with the (Old) Brass Spittoon this week.”
Michigan State took care of business, edging an upset-minded Hoosiers squad. Now, the Spartans sit comfortably in their bye week, knowing they survived a potential trap game and did their part to secure an undefeated showdown next Saturday.
It’s up to the Wolverines to do theirs.