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Column: “Michigan Ain’t Played Nobody”

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NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Something occurred to me this weekend, right around the time Michigan was scoring its eighth touchdown against the Terps - a team that’s, admittedly, in the bottom tier of the conference according to advanced stats, alongside Michigan State, Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue.

Michigan’s opponents are running out. And I don’t just mean physical opponents, or how much time is left in the season. When the Wolverines first entered 2016, the monkey in the room was how Michigan would fare against its rivals. Could they conquer the Spartans and Buckeyes? And, along the way, was the hype real?

The Spartans, for one, are slayed. The hype is indeed real. But there is still another monkey for this team to slay, an expression that’s dogged the Wolverines throughout its dominance.

Michigan ain’t played nobody. Sure, they’ve won, but they ain’t played nobody, apparently.

“Michigan ain’t played nobody” is an expression that became popularized by Paul Finebaum and callers to his show, but it’s bigger than that - rooted in the recent success of the SEC and struggles of the Big Ten.

After an October visit by Jim Harbaugh to see five-star prospect Najee Harris in California, Najee received a call from the outside linebackers coach for Alabama, Tosh Lupoi. His message was simple.

He called Harris after Harbaugh’s visit and belittled Michigan’s schedule in the Big Ten, comparing it with the rugged road Alabama must navigate in the Southeastern Conference.

“Every game is the Super Bowl down here,” he told Harris.

This was a smart sales tactic, because Harris craves elite competition. That’s why he savored last month’s nationally televised game against perennial power De La Salle, a 28-21 Antioch loss. It’s also why the college programs still on Harris’ radar are either contending for a national championship (Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State) or play in the Pac-12, the West’s strongest conference (USC, UCLA, Cal).

Michigan’s work ethic is unparalleled; so is the scouting and coaching. But if Harbaugh wants to replace Jabrill Peppers with five more five-stars, he’ll need to prove that Michigan is able, and eager, to win the big battles. Luckily, the Wolverines could be getting a crash course pretty soon, and they have a high-profile season-opener in 2017 with SEC East-leading Florida as well.

Besides Florida and a couple historic showdowns with Notre Dame, though, the non-conference schedule is somewhat underwhelming until 2020, when Michigan plays at Washington and then home against Virginia Tech. In the meantime, Michigan needs to hope that the Big Ten continues its resurgence as one of college football’s toughest conferences - while also winning the big games laid in front of it.

Ohio State is a rivalry game, but it’s also the first chance for this team to prove it can win when all the lights are at their brightest. If Michigan proves itself there, more opportunities and challenges follow in quick succession. Is this team ready? That’s the big test now.

Nooobody. Jim Harbaugh has his own expression about other teams and other people, while Michigan haters have another. Harbaugh’s “Who’s got it better than us?” is meant to motivate his team, to remind them that there’s nothing better than the chance to work to be better. The ability to reinvest your energy into yourself. The chance to control your destiny.

It’s been a strange but effective banner for this program. Winners get to work, losers have to watch. In contrast, ‘Michigan ain’t played nobody’ is dismissive - casually so. A lazy dismissal of Michigan’s work ethic and strength, a perfect epitome of the difference between those who had a hand in its success and, on the other end of the spectrum, those who basely criticize.

It’s a shot across the bow from SEC country, and I’m starting to embrace it more and more every week. Not the belief itself - but the expression, the dislike, the fact that others happen to feel that way. It’s an opportunity, a meme in waiting, a sign that all eyes are on Michigan if and when they do make it in the playoff. Of course, Michigan could fumble once they get there. But they could dominate, too.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan
One of the young’uns: Kekoa Crawford.

With Saturday’s win over Maryland, Michigan is one of only five remaining unbeaten teams. They forced a team that’s leading in the Pac-12 South to crumple under pressure after the first quarter. They have broken through the #2 red zone defense in America, and the #6 red zone defense, and the #9 red zone defense, and the #12 red zone defense, by scoring 19 times in 23 opportunities in the red zone.

They beat three of the top eleven teams in the country, according to S&P+ ratings. They’ve held an All-American running back to the lowest total of his career in games where he got more than one carry, and held another running back who’s one of the top 40 in the country in total yards to 51 and no touchdowns. Who are these people? Who are these teams? Don’t worry, they’re nobody.

Michigan leads all of Division-I in point differential. They’re #1 in the country in scoring defense (10.7 a game), and #3 in scoring offense (48.0 a game). They’re allowing less than 140 passing yards per game. Harbaugh is 19-3 at his alma mater, the best start for a Michigan coach since Fielding Yost.

But if you happen to not respect this Michigan team, and even more if you hate them, and even more if you hope their success is not a hurricane in the making - I say don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t give them a second thought, or change any of my work habits. As we all know, they ain’t played nobody, really.

*Yes, I’m aware I mixed the “elephant in the room” and “monkey on the back” metaphors. It's what fun people do.
**From 2022 to 2027, Michigan has one game scheduled per year: UCLA in ‘22 and ‘23, Texas in ‘24 and ‘27, and Oklahoma in ‘25 and ‘26. With the emphasis on non-conference schedules raised by the Playoff Committee, the potential benefits in recruiting, and the fan service it provides, Michigan and Warde Manuel would be smart to be a little aggressive here in scheduling more high-profile home-and-homes.