Michigan might benefit from being able to ease into its Big Ten schedule
Time is a critical thing for this Michigan football team. Another full week of practice and another game on a Saturday is just what the doctor ordered as the Wolverines try to get better with a new quarterback and an offensive line that’s still a work in progress.
The nonconference portion of the schedule is over now and the nine-game Big Ten schedule is set to begin. The Wolverines have lofty goals — winning the Big Ten East and a conference title — but to do that, they need to keep improving. Every week, they need to get better while winning games.
To do so, they have been given quite the gift. Suddenly, the first four weeks of their Big Ten schedule isn’t nearly as daunting as we thought. Here’s what happened Saturday with Michigan’s next four opponents:
- Nebraska (Sept. 22): The Cornhuskers were an 11-point favorite in a home game against Troy, but lost outright 24-19.
- Northwestern (Sept. 29): The Wildcats were a 6-point favorite in a home game against Akron, a team that hadn’t beaten a Big Ten opponent since 1894, but lost outright 39-34.
- Maryland (Oct. 6): The unbeaten Terrapins were a 16-point favorite in a home game against Temple, but lost outright 35-14.
- Wisconsin (Oct. 13): The then No. 6-ranked Badgers were a 24-point favorite in a home game against BYU, but lost 24-21.
That’s four favorites, all at home, favored by a combined 57 points. And all four lost outright, by a combined 34 points. That’s a wild swing of 91 points that I have never seen before in a Big Ten four-team parlay. (The fifth game, by the way, is against Michigan State, who lost two weeks ago before its bye. They were favored by six against Arizona State on the road and lost.)
Suddenly, Nebraska seems to be a shell of the team we expected. Northwestern, too. Both of them are an absolute mess right now. Nebraska still hasn’t won a game under Scott Frost, losing to Colorado the week before Troy. Northwestern has lost back-to-back home games to Duke and Akron as favorites, and its only win came in the opener against Purdue, a team who’s 0-3 themselves.
It doesn’t seem as though either are in a position to turn their seasons around overnight. Maryland came back to reality after a 2-0 start and Wisconsin, a team many thought was flawless, had a ton of flaws exposed against BYU.
Nebraska has played well enough to win both games, but they’ve had an issue with penalties (21) and turnovers (6) in two games. Having their season opener cancelled because of lightning might have contributed to that, but it’s also not something that disappears overnight.
They’d like to think they aren’t far off, but they still have a lot to prove. They are 13th in the Big Ten in turnover margin and 14th in penalty yards per game.
The Big Ten, if you need reminding, only has 14 teams.
“Those are the things where we’ve come a long ways but there’s still a little bit left to go,” Nebraska captain Luke Gifford said. “And it shows up on the field on Saturdays when it’s third-and-whatever and you get a penalty for whatever it is. It’s just shooting ourselves in the foot
“It sucks to keep telling everyone we’re almost there, and then have it not happen. It’s where we’re at right now.”
Michigan keeps getting better throwing the ball with quarterback Shea Patterson, the transfer from Ole Miss. He’s had three touchdown passes in each of the last two games, and he’s completing more than 70 percent of his passes.
Nebraska’s secondary isn’t very good. Colorado threw for 351 yards in Lincoln and opposing quarterbacks have completed 66.2 percent of their passes in two games, second-worst in the Big Ten. Patterson could have a field day, especially if the offensive line can continue to get better. They need to, because one thing the Cornhuskers can do is put some pressure on the quarterback.
Michigan’s defense has been very good, too, and they’ll need to continue to play well to get off to a good start in the Big Ten. Nebraska has a talented freshman quarterback in Adrian Martinez, but he missed the Troy game with a knee injury. He may be back this week — it’ll probably be a game-day decision — and they’ll have to be ready.
In any case, these next four weeks suddenly look different. Maybe it’s something Michigan can take advantage of.