The expectations for Michigan Football were low heading into the 2021 season, so low the team wasn’t even ranked in the preseason polls — that’s what a 2-4 season does.
The narrative on the outside was much different than the new mentality building in the locker room.
“This is the first year in Michigan football, for me, where we’re seen as underdogs. Usually, we’re ranked top fifteen, top ten sometimes. This year, we’re not even ranked and I love it,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said in July. “I hope people continue to see us as the underdogs and, once we get rolling, they’ll see the speed and the athleticism of this defense, this team. We’re going to get rolling.”
Michigan’s certainly gotten rolling, starting the season 6-0, and ranked in the top ten in both the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll.
Part of Michigan’s success can be attributed to Jim Harbaugh adding new faces and personalities to his coaching staff, and a new defensive coordinator in Mike Macdonald who has turned his unit into a successful and schematically unpredictable D. These coaches have made a difference, but coaches are only as good as their pupils allow them to be.
“They get in our butt consistently, but they’re coaching us up every chance they get,” defensive end Mike Morris said last month. “It’s always constructive criticism, and we just have to take it and deal with that and do better. I really like how they’re coaching us, and not necessarily just getting in our butt, but knowing that we can and should do better, and holding us to a higher standard.”
The coaches are holding the team to a higher standard, and in turn the team is holding themselves more accountable as well.
“I was kind of enlightened by (Mike Macdonald). He came in and we kind of discussed this, talking about culture and the importance of it,” Hutchinson explained at Big Ten Media Day. “And he kind of opened my eyes to how you can have the greatest Xs and Os or the greatest plays, but if your team is not fully bought in and 1,000 percent invested in what you’re doing, it’s going to fail.”
Therein lies the difference for Michigan this season. Yes, the fundamentals and schematics have improved, but so has the investment the players have made,
“Overall, this team has decided to be different this year,” starting quarterback Cade Mcnamara said after Michigan’s 32-29 win over Nebraska. “It’s not much what you see football-wise, it’s the atmosphere we’ve created. Really, the mindset we’ve rebuilt this off-season. I think it showed today.”
Michigan’s strong start to the year, as McNamara pointed out, dates back to the beginning of 2021 and a long, cold Midwest winter. When players and coaches showed up to Schembechler Hall, something felt fresh and better.
“It’s definitely a different vibe,” running back Hassan Haskins said in March. “I feel like everybody this year on the team amped their game up, amped the energy up in practice and anything, really. It’s definitely a different vibe in the building and we can all feel it as a team and as a staff. It’s something you just feel. As soon as you walk in the building you’re happy to be here, happy to be around each other. The energy is up.”
“There’s no doubt that this group, going back to January, mid-January, February started, the amount of guys that were bought in, were hungry to be good,” Harbaugh said this week, reflecting on what has this team believing. “Picked up some experience in the ‘20 season, just daily, weekly, monthly, the way they worked and came together as a group of players has been very special. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of teams we’ve had in the past. 15 to 16 team, 18 to 19 team, 17. In many ways, very similar. And, yet to be seen, maybe better. They have the license and the ability to do that.”
For McNamara, what turned things around is simple. “Because we are tired of losing. It’s that simple. I think we’ve lost too many games in the last couple years,” McNamara said. “It’s common mindset amongst the team that we’re tired of losing and we chose to be different.”
How precisely Michigan is different remains to be seen, as tough tests await such as No. 10 Michigan State, No. 7 Penn State, and No. 6 Ohio State — but there’s no doubt they’re in a much better position to succeed and compete against the best on their schedule than they were in 2020.
The 2021 Michigan team has a heightened focus and good leadership on both sides of the ball — but their biggest battles are ahead and those games will ultimately define them.