As far as the No. 8 Michigan football team is concerned, its season starts now.
After two home non-conference games that didn’t exactly go according to plan, the Wolverines (3-0) are eager to close the curtain. While their mentality has always been that the most important game is the next one, the pressure is cranked up a notch now that the Big Ten season is set to begin.
As Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made clear Saturday night, conference games count for much more. With how close the Big Ten races have been in recent years — then-No. 2 Ohio State was left out of the Big Ten championship game after it allowed 17 fourth-quarter points in an eventual three-point loss to then-No. 24 Penn State last October — Harbaugh said that Big Ten games are worth twice as much as nonconference contests.
His team has adopted that mantra, too.
“We want to win the Big Ten games. We want to win all of them,” said sophomore receiver Eddie McDoom on Monday. “We know that if we lose, it’s a big crush on the season, so we’re trying to go into the Big Ten season and tear it up.”
The Wolverines will be tested right off the bat when they head to Purdue for their conference opener Saturday. The Boilermakers are off to a surprising 2-1 start after an abysmal 3-9 season in 2016. Though they opened the season with a narrow neutral-field loss to then-No. 16 Louisville, they rebounded with blowout wins over Ohio at home and Missouri on the road.
Much credit for Purdue’s early resurgence is due to new head coach Jeff Brohm, who previously spent three years at Western Kentucky — compiling a 30-10 overall record, a 19-5 Conference USA record and a 3-0 bowl game record. Not only were the Hilltoppers back-to-back league champions in 2015 and 2016, but they were ranked in the top 10 in the nation in scoring offense, passing offense and total offense all three seasons.
Brohm has taken that successful model and adapted it to fit the Boilermakers, rejuvenating the program in the process. While the Big Ten is traditionally known for stout defense and power running, Brohm and Purdue have taken the opposite approach, emphasizing a pass-heavy and high-scoring offense more emblematic of the Big 12.
The Boilermakers are averaging 286.7 yards per game and boast 10 passing touchdowns — a stark contrast from their average of 173 yards and four total touchdowns on the ground. The strategy has worked well for them in non-conference play, but how well it will fare in the Big Ten remains to be determined.
“They have a lot of confidence right now,” said senior linebacker Mike McCray. “They do a lot of things well on offense. They use two quarterbacks, they have athletic backs (and) they have an offensive line that uses great technique.
“… They’ll be a great challenge for us.”
Michigan knows how beneficial it can be to inject a team with a new coach and overall philosophy. Harbaugh’s arrival just three years ago has already turned the program around faster than many expected after its dismal 2014 campaign, and the Wolverines see that same process could be happening now at Purdue.
“When you get a new coach and you start winning, (there’s) just a lot of confidence,” said senior offensive tackle Mason Cole. “… And having confidence in this sport is a good thing to have. So, a team with a new coach that’s playing really well, it can be scary.”
Adding on to the challenge of facing the Boilermakers, who Cole described as a team “with a lot of new energy,” Michigan will be playing its first true road game of the season in West Lafayette.
Though the fans at Michigan Stadium weren’t entirely forgiving of the Wolverines’ plethora of non-conference mistakes — as boos rained down in back-to-back games for the first time in the Harbaugh era — a hostile environment on every down will be new terrain for Michigan to traverse.
“Going to Purdue and playing there is obviously a challenge,” Cole said. “… (It’s) playing on the road, playing against a team that’s been playing well, that has some momentum and has good players, too.”
The Boilermakers may not have posed much of a threat to the Wolverines in recent years, but Michigan has been humbled into the lesson that it can no longer afford to look past any team. With the Big Ten season now upon them, the Wolverines know that every game counts. Twice.