Finally not overrated, Michigan is Ohio State’s biggest threat in the Big Ten
It feels like this isn’t something I’m supposed to say out loud, so I’m going to whisper it and then duck.
Michigan is the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten.
OK, I know I’m supposed to list off a bunch of stats that illustrate the talent gap between the programs, like the fact that Ohio State has 14 5-star recruits and Michigan has 2. I know I’m also supposed to mention that Ohio State owns this rivalry with 8 straight wins and 15 of the last 16. That’s all still true.
But this isn’t me predicting Michigan to beat Ohio State. Rather, this is me looking around the Big Ten and acknowledging the fact that Michigan was, at worst, the second-most impressive team on opening weekend. And you could make an argument that they were more impressive than the Buckeyes, though I won’t go that far.
Strip away the names of the programs like this is a blind résumé. If I told you there is a team that played on the road against a ranked team, led for the final 52:46 and won by 4 scores, that’d be a slam dunk pick for a prime B1G contender, right? Of course. Michigan dominated a Minnesota team that was coming off a top-10 AP ranking in 2019 that returned its dynamic duo at quarterback and receiver, plus all 5 offensive linemen (though 2 sat out Saturday).
Every year, it seems like Michigan is overrated. But is it possible we’ve overcorrected and Michigan is actually a little underrated? This was Michigan’s lowest preseason ranking (16th) since Jim Harbaugh’s first season. The Wolverines did rise from No. 18 to 13 in the latest AP poll, with Wisconsin going from No. 14 to 9. There’s obviously plenty of football still to be played, but Michigan went from an afterthought (behind Wisconsin, Penn State and Minnesota) to front of mind in just one weekend.
The biggest reason is that Michigan finally looks like it has an offense that belongs in the 21st Century. It took Josh Gattis some time to get it going, but the 2nd-year offensive coordinator had Michigan looking like a well-oiled machine in the opener. That was a little surprising, given how much turnover Michigan had from last year (it had 5 offensive players draft, including 4 on the offensive line), when it did show steady improvement offensively.
The Wolverines averaged 8.5 yards per play on Saturday, which is a clip they occasionally reach against teams like Rutgers, Maryland and cupcake nonconference teams, but they hadn’t done it against a ranked team since at least 2000. For reference, Michigan averages 6.5 yards per play against ranked opponents in the Harbaugh era, per ESPN’s Bill Connelly. In the 94 conference games between Power 5 teams this season, only 8 times has an offense averaged 8.5 yards per play, and Michigan did it its first time out. Not bad.
Michigan’s offensive line was supposed to be a big red flag, as it returned just 1 starter. But the Wolverines averaged 8.2 yards per carry, something they have done only 4 times in Big Ten play since 2000.
Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism is that Michigan appears to finally have an answer at quarterback. It’s just 1 game, but Joe Milton showed a diverse skill set and maturity that exceeds his level of experience. Milton is a weapon in the run game (8 carries, 52 yards), a major threat as a passer (15-of-22 for 225 yards) and seems to have just the right temperament as a leader, telling reporters afterward that, “(It was) time to prove to the world who I am and what I can do.” Let’s not forget that Dylan McCaffrey, who was the slight favorite to be the starter this season, entered the transfer portal in the preseason. He already knew what the rest of the college football world found out on Saturday night.
There was a ton to like on the defensive side, too. The Wolverines forced Tanner Morgan, who was 4th nationally in yards per pass attempt in 2019, into arguably his worst game since 2018. And they allowed just one big play to likely 1st-round pick Rashod Bateman.
Individually, was there a Big Ten defensive player that was more dazzling than Kwity Paye? And is there a better edge duo than Paye and Aidan Hutchinson? I didn’t see one.
The only other team that really wowed me and feels like a threat to Ohio State is Wisconsin, thanks to stud QB Graham Mertz. But beating Illinois — the worst team in the B1G West — at home doesn’t really reveal much about the 2020 Badgers other than the fact that they chose not to overlook the Illini this year. Plenty of question marks remain for a team that so heavily relied on Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus in 2019.
In addition, reports Sunday indicated that Mertz had tested positive for COVID-19, calling into question his availability over the next 3 weeks. Take the starting QB off any team and there is bound to be a serious drop-off, I know. But my nitpick of Wisconsin over the weekend was that Wisconsin was overly reliant on Mertz (5 passing TDs) and its running game was not good (3.2 yards per carry). It’s early, and it could certainly improve, but that does not feel like a sustainable formula for success for the Badgers.
Michigan, on the other hand, looked like a much more complete team. It had 9 players catch a pass and 4 running backs get between 4-6 carries — and 3 of those backs found the end zone. In fact, I feel Michigan only scratched the surface on Saturday. If it shows the same growth it did in 2019, look out.
Michigan wasn’t perfect — 7 penalties for 80 yards is too many and it had a punt blocked 1st quarter — and it certainly caught a few breaks, like Minnesota being a little short-handed, especially in the kicking game. But in terms of controlling what they could control, like having no turnovers, the Wolverines passed their first test convincingly.
Their schedule — they have Minnesota and Wisconsin as their 2 crossovers, in addition to the East gauntlet — will be incredibly difficult, but it will just mean they have a few more chances to prove me right, that they are in fact the best team not named Ohio State.
Remember, I’m not saying Michigan is going to beat Ohio State, but I’m just acknowledging that you shouldn’t be afraid to trust Michigan in 2020. The Wolverines, though still a tier below Ohio State, are for once not overrated and actually a very good team.