The Michigan Wolverines are one of the darlings of the college football offseason. Team 144 returns the third-most production in the Power Five, a depth of talent and experience on both sides of the ball, and is the only team from last year’s College Football Playoff to return its starting quarterback.
Yes, all signs indicate that the 2023 iteration of the Wolverines could be one of the best the program has ever seen. It has been a while, but we have seen this level of expectation in Ann Arbor before.
In 2007, Michigan was fresh off a “Game of the Century” clash with Ohio State in Columbus, returned a massive amount of offensive production, and was one of the few BCS bowl teams to return its starting quarterback.
The Wolverines opened the season as the No. 5 team in the country and 33-point favorites over FCS powerhouse Appalachian State. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 1 in the FCS subdivision, had won 14 straight games, and were two-time FCS defending champions.
Similar to a veteran underdog team in the NCAA Tournament, while they were a small school, what they lacked in size and athleticism, the Mountaineers overcompensated with experience, confidence, and knowledge.
In front of 109,218 people at the Big House and millions across the country, Michigan lost 34-32. There are several reasons why this upset occurred, and recapping them isn’t going to expose something we all missed in the last 16 years.
Instead, let’s focus on three things Michigan can do to avoid the 2007 curse.
1. Avoid the rat poison
The 2007 Wolverines were massively overrated entering the season. Pundits were so caught up in the potential of Michigan’s offense that they devalued the task of replacing seven starters on defense, including four All-Americans.
Michigan bought into its media hype – or “rat poison” as Nick Saban calls it – and forgot to focus on the little things, mainly special teams. The Wolverines had two field goals blocked down the stretch and didn’t even attempt extra points on the final two touchdown drives —instead, they opted for two failed two-point conversions.
The 2023 Wolverines only have to replace three starters on defense and three to four on offense depending on who you classify as a “starter.” Furthermore, most of the new starters already have a wealth of playing experience from Michigan’s heavy-rotational style or are transfers with a minimum of ten games under their belt.
This team shouldn’t have any risk of buying into any hype based on the fact that most of them already did that two years ago and paid the price. Entering the CFP in 2021 against Georgia, the Wolverines had undergone a month of glad-handing and praise, only to get stomped by a motivated pack of Bulldogs.
Understanding the impact of mentality and the negative byproduct of praise, expect this team to be measured and prepared. Michigan running back’s coach Mike Hart was a member of that ‘07 team — if no one else can echo a cautionary tale, count on him to have this team closer to the opposite end of the spectrum and ready to embrace the absurd like Georgia’s Nolan Smith last year.
Smith was famously quoted as saying, “They thought we were going to go 7-5” after winning a second-consecutive national championship. This of course downplays the fact that Georgia began the season ranked No. 3 and was ranked first from Week 3 onward...but if that manufactures a chip on the shoulder, the Wolverines would be wise to adopt something similar and ride the ignorance through all 15 games.
2. Stay true to your identity
Every great team has an identity. Whether that be a smothering defense, explosive passing attack, or a combination of domination on both sides of the ball. Michigan’s identity is tethered to physicality through a power-running attack.
The Wolverines want to run the ball and wear down a defense over the course of four quarters. It isn’t always the sexiest and most aesthetically pleasing, but a 25-3 record in the last two seasons embracing this philosophy is.
However, Michigan will need to incorporate a little more efficiency and explosion into its passing attack to prevent one-dimensionality from becoming an Achilles heel late in the season. That said, this does not mean skewing the play-calling in the opposite direction for the sake of forced variance.
In 2007, when spread football was all the rage, head coach Lloyd Carr had spoken numerous times about incorporating a version of the spread with three receivers (I can’t believe this is a sentence). Before the Appalachian State game, Carr was asked, “What do you think about potentially opening up to a three-wide receiver formation?”
He responded, “A year ago we ran more plays from the three wide receiver position. What you’re always looking to do is when you have some of the skill that we have at the wide receiver positions and can spread a defense out, that’s something that’s positive.”
Translation: “Speed in space.” The offense tried to shoehorn several concepts into its scheme like a square peg into a round hole. A brief Mike Hart injury didn’t help the play-calling rhythm, but embracing this new “spread” philosophy was more than a concerted effort in the 2007 season opener.
Against lesser opponents like East Carolina, Bowling Green, and UNLV, Michigan needs to overwhelm these smaller teams with a healthy serving of “Run the damn ball!” Do what got you this face, and once the game is in hand, then start working on some of the new explosive additions in the passing game.
Last week, Jake Butt appeared on the In the Trenches podcast with Jon Jansen and voiced something similar.
“I’d like to see them work some of those explosive plays and put the ball in JJ’s (McCarthy) hands, and once they’re up two to three scores against some of these teams, operate the offense as if it’s the second half of that TCU game.”
Team 144 already has an identity. Growth is imperative for sustained success, but this team only needs to be a finished, well-rounded product by Week 14/15.
3. Don’t panic
The Wolverines panicked in 2007: the defense gambled for turnovers and played undisciplined, the offense forced the issue trying to get everything back in a single play, and the special teams had zero trust from the coaching staff.
Michigan’s recent teams have done an excellent job of not panicking. Against teams like Rutgers (2021, 2022), Nebraska (2021), Maryland (2022), Indiana (2022), Ohio State (2021, 2022), and Illinois (2022), the Wolverines didn’t let a slow start or trailing at halftime cause a rift of focus on either side of the team.
Harbaugh teams of the last two years have learned the importance of trusting cultural resolve and sticking to the game plan until the end.
Team 144 is not Team 128; Harbaugh is not Carr; East Carolina is not Appalachian State. This team has everything necessary to win a national championship and avoid the curse of 2007. But if you ask me, I think they’re going 7-5.