Hickey: Michigan isn't No. 1, but that time may come soon enough
By halftime of Saturday’s rout at Nebraska, the most interesting game for Michigan fans to watch didn’t even involve the Wolverines. Nor was it in the Big Ten.
At Auburn, trouble was brewing for top-ranked Georgia. And if the Tigers could finish off the job, there’d be little question that Michigan would open next week as the new No. 1 team in the country.
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Auburn, led by former Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne, could not complete the favor. Thorne was picked off near midfield on Auburn’s final play, allowing Georgia to escape with a 27-20 win.
Perhaps some votes will swing Michigan’s way in the polls, but not enough to overtake the Bulldogs.
You can blame otherworldly Georgia tight end Brock Bowers, with whom Michigan fans are already familiar after he played a role in the Dawgs’ 34-11 dismantling of the Wolverines in the 2021 Orange Bowl.
Bowers was at his unstoppable best against Auburn, finishing with 157 receiving yards and the game-breaking 40-yard touchdown reception.
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) September 30, 2023
Oh, well. Good things come to those who wait, right? Being No. 1 in January is a great deal more meaningful than being No. 1 in October.
And as Michigan demonstrated in its 45-7 shellacking of Nebraska, it has the pieces to become that team.
A complete performance from a complete team
Michigan’s first 4 games this season told us very little.
The first 3 opponents — East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green — didn’t belong on Michigan’s schedule. Bowling Green followed up its loss at Michigan with a 38-7 home loss to Ohio. Not Ohio State. The Ohio University.
Rutgers provided a real-life Big Ten defense to test Michigan’s offense, but the Scarlet Knights are too limited on offense to hang with the Wolverines for much longer than they did last week.
And though Nebraska isn’t anything to write home about in its first season under Matt Rhule, at least a road test at a hostile venue would give us a little better idea of how complete this Michigan team is.
The answer: about as complete as you can get.
Whatever this Michigan team’s weakness might be, it has yet to be revealed this season.
That much was known in the preseason, though there was 1 reasonable question to be answered: who would step up to be JJ McCarthy’s top target with Ronnie Bell gone to the NFL?
As Jim Harbaugh would say, “As young people say, Roman Wilson is that dude.”
Wilson caught all 4 passes thrown to him for 58 yards and a pair of spectacular touchdowns. The first of those touchdowns is the catch of the year in the Big Ten this season and may well remain holding that distinction at the end of the season.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 30, 2023
The McCarthy-Wilson connection is the most obvious sign of what’s different about this Michigan team compared to the last 2 seasons of Playoff disappointments.
The Wolverines were effective passing the ball before, but now they are dynamic. And they’re doing it while still having the services of the B1G’s best running attack. The offense is still designed to mash you. But it can better abet the mashing by keeping defenses more off-balance.
But it’s not the offense that stands out as the biggest reason Michigan could finish the season as national champions.
A defensive juggernaut in the making
The stat of the week:
Michigan has held its first 5 opponents to 7 or fewer points for the first time since 1941.
— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) September 30, 2023
Given the strength of Michigan’s schedule, it’s a stat that comes with a heavy dose of “Yeah, but.” But there’s a counter “yeah, but” for that.
UNLV is proving to be 1 of the most explosive offenses in the country this year. The Rebels are still averaging 36 points per game despite being held to a single touchdown by the Wolverines. That’s a more dangerous offense than many in the B1G.
And let’s be real. If do something that hasn’t been done since guys were playing in leather helmets, it’s going to garner some attention.
Considering the rule changes, it should be damn near impossible for a defense in 2023 to replicate anything done in 1941. You could probably gouge a guy in the eyes without it being called pass interference back then. Or targeting.
How different was the game then? The ’41 Wolverines allowed 5.1 points per game and still didn’t finish unbeaten.
Michigan’s defensive front completely overwhelmed the Huskers, allowing 1.6 yards per carry until a late 74-yard touchdown run prevented Nebraska from being shut out for the first time since 1996.
The obvious game plan was to make run-first quarterback Heinrich Haarberg a passer, and it worked. Haarberg’s 199 yards through the air did little damage — holding him to minus-2 rushing yards ensured that Nebraska would never have a chance in this game.
Haarberg didn’t exactly have an easy time of it as a passer, either, getting pressured on 8 of his 29 drop-backs and completing 56% of his throws for 6 yards per attempt.
Sure, maybe this performance revealed more about how much work Matt Rhule still has in front of him at Nebraska than it did about Michigan.
But winning a road game without needing your starters on the field for the final 25 minutes is the type of thing you only expect to see from the nation’s best teams.
There should be little doubt that Michigan is among them. And the Wolverines may well prove themselves the very best. Eventually.