The Michigan Wolverines are set to face the No. 15 team in the country in prime time on Saturday night in Ann Arbor, and this will be their most important game of the season to this point.
Their opponent will be the Wisconsin Badgers and one of the most explosive backs in the country in Jonathan Taylor. It will be a clash between Michigan’s top-five defense and the Badgers’ top-10 offense according to S&P+ Rankings.
The significance of this game cannot be stressed enough for both teams. Here are the three reasons why this game is the most impactful for the Wolverines thus far:
It’s the opening of a brutal three-game schedule
Let’s be honest, you have all heard this a thousand times and know this is true — this is the heart and the heat of the Wolverines’ 2018 schedule. All fans know their next three games are going to be the defining games of the season. They will be the difference between Michigan going 10-1 heading into Ohio State or going in at 7-4.
Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State would be three losses on an average Big Ten teams schedule. But the Wolverines will have to prove they are more than the average team with this gauntlet.
According to S&P+, the Wolverines will face the No. 13, No. 31 and No. 7 teams in the country, respectively, in a row. These three games have been pointed out by the media as the most important stretch of the season.
Therefore, the importance of opening this stretch with a win cannot be stressed enough. Imagine having to play one of your arch rivals and another top-10 opponent after a loss at home in prime time. I think at that point Michigan’s playoff hopes would be out the door.
However, if the Wolverines can find a way to slow down Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor and force Alex Hornibrook to throw the ball, they will have more than a fighting chance to win this game.
Offensively, it will be crucial for Michigan to put up points the way it has been. They must continuously put the ball in the end zone against a tougher opponent; something they haven’t been able to do much of in the past in this series or under Jim Harbaugh at all.
This game is huge for the Big Ten
Lets be real for a second. The Big Ten East is leaps and bounds ahead of the Big Ten West. The imbalance of the divisions in the Big Ten is laughable. Every year the Big Ten West is won between two teams: the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Badgers. Meanwhile, the East has four teams that have cracked the top-15 this year and are annual contenders for the Big Ten title.
For Michigan, this is a statement win over the West division. Most importantly, though, it would ensure the Wolverines stay undefeated in the Big Ten. That is what makes this game more valuable than the Week 1 game against Notre Dame. Sure, the lights were on in Notre Dame Stadium and it was fantastic for the rivalry to be renewed, but in all honesty the game wasn’t crucial for Michigan’s long term success this season.
Would it have been nice to beat the Fighting Irish? Absolutely, but at that point there is so much season left and so much more time for the Wolverines to truly define who they are.
This game is the first real test Michigan has faced in their own conference. Wisconsin is the big name and the top-ranked opponent the Wolverines need a win against. There is no guarantee after this week they will face another opponent like this until the Buckeyes.
The Michigan State Spartans and the Penn State Nittany Lions face off this week as well. If Michigan State pulls off a win, Penn State’s image is going to look severely depleted because of how poorly the Spartans have played so far this season.
Even if Penn State does manage to beat Sparty like they should, they have a mini gauntlet themselves over the next few weeks. The Nittany Lions play Indiana on the road, and this Hoosiers team kept up with Ohio State for three quarters this past week. Then, the week before Michigan, they play host to Iowa to match up with the Hawkeyes. Penn State could easily find a way to lose one of these games if they aren’t careful.
Retrospectively, this could make Michigan’s game against Wisconsin their only top-15 opponent before going into Columbus. To prove they have what it takes to the committee, they have to win this week.
It will show if Michigan is the real deal
Harbaugh has his chance here to prove what he has been doing over the past four years has been worth it once again. These are all Harbaugh’s guys running whatever system he wants to be run, and the success or failure at this point is entirely on him and his staff. Starting off this gauntlet with a win against one of the best teams in the country is going to be crucial to his legacy at Michigan and the legacy of this team.
Fans no longer want a team making an upper-echelon bowl game or even a New Years Six game; it is time for the Wolverines to emerge from their cocoon of mediocrity and make their way into the playoffs and contend for a National Championship.
This game is the first step in Michigan’ process of getting there this year. It will show whether or not this team is at that point yet, or if they are still going to be caught gestating.
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