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Five biggest surprises from the 2021 Michigan football season

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This list could be a whole lot longer than just five.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Big Ten Championship Game - Michigan v Iowa Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines are the 2021 Big Ten Champions. That still feels great to say. However, it certainly wasn’t expected during the preseason. Prognosticators had the Wolverines finishing anywhere from 5-7 to 9-3. I don’t know a single person who predicted Michigan to finish 11-1 and win the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis this year. Thus is life in the wild world of college football.

To get to the point that we are, several things had to go right for Jim Harbaugh. Just about every single one of things ended up happening in the perfect storm in Ann Arbor. Today we’ll explore the five most impactful surprises that happened during this wild, wonderful college football season.

The two-quarterback system actually worked

If you’re like me, you absolutely dread watching a team split time between two quarterbacks. Defenses learn to key on tendencies as to why the other quarterback is in, playing time debates among the fanbase become incessant, and one of the two inevitably becomes unhappy and is a cancer to the team.

Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy were quite literally the exact opposite of everything I just mentioned. Early in the season, opposing defenses assumed a McCarthy appearance meant one thing and one thing only: a running play. After McCarthy threw dime after dime throughout the season, that no longer became a valid tendency.

Playing time debates certainly existed early in the season, particularly after the Washington game when Harbaugh refused to call passing plays. Those debates sorted themselves out by midseason, as it was clear McNamara was the more polished starter who was capable of leading this team to it’s goals. The consensus is now clear McNamara should start, with McCarthy making occasional appearances to change the tempo and bring new wrinkles into the offense.

Lastly, it has become obvious neither quarterback is a cancer to this team. Both have put the team above themselves and are excellent representatives of the university, both on and off the field. It’s not impossible one or the other decides to test the transfer portal waters this offseason, but for now both appear to be fully bought in to the program which is the best that Michigan could have hoped for.

Michigan’s OL became the best in the conference

Coming into 2021, the offensive line was expected to be mediocre. I didn’t anticipate it being a weakness necessarily, but I also didn’t expect it to be a strength. If you would have told me Michigan would have six rushing touchdowns against Ohio State, I would have openly laughed in your face. Yet here we are.

Andrew Vastardis overcame his athletic limitations and became one of smartest, strongest centers in the country. Ryan Hayes, Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan all became maulers in the run game. We can’t forget Andrew Steuber, who was probably the best of the bunch. The offensive line became one of the greatest strengths for this iteration of Michigan football. They are a massive (literally and figuratively) reason why Michigan is Big Ten champs.

DJ Turner and the cornerbacks became a strength

It’s safe to say the corners were a major liability in 2020. They were a big reason why many didn’t foresee the Wolverines having success this year, especially knowing Ohio State would be trotting out Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson on the last weekend in November.

You would be forgiven for doubting the Michigan secondary’s ability to defend the pass. Vincent Gray and DJ Turner were much maligned in the past. How did they respond in 2021? They shut down Giles Jackson. They shut down Jahan Dotson. They bended but didn’t break against Olave, Wilson and Smith-Njigba. This was a stunning turnaround.

Josh Gattis won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach

The headline speaks for itself here. I would have bet my life on the fact Michigan didn’t have a Broyles Award winner on staff this year. I wasn’t entirely convinced Josh Gattis was even in charge of the play calling duties for much of last year.

This season, he introduced new wrinkle after new wrinkle. He developed the wide receivers to the point where there was virtually no drop off from Ronnie Bell’s absence. He also turned opposing defenses into Swiss cheese. Michigan scored more than 28 points in 11 of the 13 games this year. I didn’t see that coming.

The schedule wasn’t as daunting as expected

Don’t take this point as a discrediting of Michigan’s 12-1 record. Without a doubt, Michigan earned all 12 wins. With that being said, the schedule appeared very daunting in the preseason and declined throughout the year. Washington was expected to be favored against Michigan prior to its Week 1 loss against Montana. Wisconsin and Penn State were both expected to be heavily favored over the Wolverines as well. Both the Badgers and Nittany Lions had decent years but neither met expectations, as Graham Mertz regressed and Sean Clifford couldn’t stay healthy. Lastly, my worst take of the year was expecting an Indiana victory over Michigan. I could not have been more wrong. The Big Ten was still tough as it always is, but it would be naive to consider it a gauntlet as it was expected to be.