It’s been more than 11 years since Michigan has done it.
Ohio State has done it 15 times in that span. Michigan State five times. Hell, even Illinois, Indiana, and Rutgers have each done it once in that time frame. In fact, the only other Big Ten school not to have done it during this period is good ol’ Purdue.
What is it?
It is beating an AP Top 25 team on the road.
Not at a neutral site or in a bowl game. On the road where an entire stadium is packed with raucous fans cheering for your team to make every mistake or miscue imaginable.
The last time Michigan entered such an environment and left with a win over an AP Top 25 team was on September 16, 2006. The Wolverines traveled to South Bend to take on No. 2 Notre Dame. It was their first true test of the season and not one they were expected to pass. Notre Dame had pummeled Penn State by 24 points the prior week and, with a senior Brady Quinn under center, was considered one of the prime national championship contenders. Most predicted that the Fighting Irish, as a six-point favorite against No. 11 Michigan, would add another quality win to their resume.
Michigan had other plans.
The Wolverines utterly thrashed the Irish. They buried the Heisman campaign for Quinn, who crumbled under constant pressure and was responsible for four turnovers, two of which were returned for scores. Mario Manningham had a coming out party, terrorizing the Notre Dame secondary with four catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns and one of the filthiest double moves you will see from a wide receiver. Michigan left no doubt as to who was the better team, winning by a score of 47-21 and kicking off its own campaign as a true threat to win the national championship.
It was one of the best, unexpected true road wins Michigan has had.
And they have not had anything like it since.
In the 11-plus years after that momentous win, Michigan has had 15 opportunities to topple an AP Top 25 team in enemy territory, and U-M has failed each and every time:
And in most cases, they have not come close. Michigan lost by at least two touchdowns in 10 of those 15 games and has an average margin of defeat of 18 points in all games.
To be fair, beating an AP Top 25 team on the road is no easy feat, and not all AP Top 25 teams are created equal. The ranked teams Michigan has faced on the road tended to have cemented themselves as one of the nation’s best. Five of the 15 were ranked in the Top 5. Nine in the Top 10. Eleven in the Top 12. Only three of the 15 were ranked outside the Top 20, on the verge of falling out of the AP Top 25 with a single loss. There is a reason that Michigan has been the underdog in each of these 15 games.
However, the Wolverines have performed below expectations in most of these games. They did not cover the spread in 11 of the 15 games and have covered the spread in only two of their last 11 such games (at Ohio State in 2014 and 2016). As a result, Michigan has, on average, performed 7.7 points worse than the spread in these games.
That’s the problem. The Wolverines aren’t just losing to ranked teams on the road. They are consistently putting up uninspiring, uncompetitive efforts in these contests.
They also put up these type of efforts as road underdogs even when they are not facing ranked teams. Since that win against Notre Dame in 2006, Michigan is 4-21 as a road underdog and a loser in eight straight such games. The Wolverines haven’t sprung a road upset since the 27-19 3OT win against Northwestern in 2013 when Drew Dileo slid into place to hold Brendan Gibbons’ field goal at the end of regulation, and the only one that was a real surprise was the Nick Sheridan Game at Minnesota in 2008.
These past 11 years have given Michigan fans little reason to be hopeful when the Wolverines hit the road as an underdog, especially when the opponent is ranked.
But Michigan has a chance to change that next weekend. On Saturday, Michigan will head to Madison hoping to hand No. 5 Wisconsin its first loss of the season. Though the Badgers have played a Charmin-soft schedule (their only win vs. a S&P+ Top 40 team was vs. No. 19 FAU), they have statistically dominated all of their opponents and are fresh off of a snuffing of Iowa, whom they held to 66 total yards (1.32 YPP). As a result, Wisconsin opened up as a 10-point favorite and is still more than a touchdown favorite.
This is an important game for Michigan. It is a chance to stay alive in the Big Ten East hunt. It is a chance to earn their first quality win of the season (their best win so far is at No. 43 Purdue). It is a chance to snap this horrendous losing streak once and for all.
Much of this streak occurred with Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke as Michigan’s head coach, and it has become part of Michigan’s DNA and culture the past decade. Jim Harbaugh was hired to change that, to restore Michigan to its former glory, and to reinstil that attitude that Michigan will beat anyone, anywhere, and at anytime.
The Wolverines almost did it when they were an inch away from edging No. 2 Ohio State in 2OT in Columbus last season, but the young Wolverines were shell-shocked by No. 2 Penn State in a 29-point loss in Happy Valley last month. They should be more prepared this time around, but this will be Brandon Peters’ first start in such an environment and Michigan’s passing game still looks very rudimentary. The Wolverines could probably get away with that on the road against a team ranked in the lower half of the AP Top 25. But Michigan doesn’t get that on Saturday. It gets No. 5 Wisconsin.
So the odds are longer that Michigan will emerge victorious this weekend, and Harbaugh will need the Wolverines to be at their very best. If they are, they could earn their first unexpected true road win against an AP Top 25 team since September 2006.
And if they do, do not expect them to wait 11 more years for another one.