It really doesn’t matter in the end.
You are what your record ultimately says you are.
Even so, we’re going to play along and counter those who think Michigan won’t be doing much winning this season. Here are five reasons why Michigan just might be underrated.
Increased focus on Ohio State
The ‘one game at a time’ approach has went away, with a lot more energy being devoted to Ohio State on a daily basis.
“We change and adjust things every single offseason, and that’s one thing we did is just to put more of that emphasis on Ohio State and that’s because of coach Harbaugh,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said at Big Ten Media Days.
Michigan added a graphic to their weight room that says, “What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?”.
“We have a lot of things, whether that be signs, whether that be other things that remind us of Ohio State,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve never done some of the things we’ve done.”
Kicker Jay Feely, part of Michigan’s 1997 National Championship team, recently spoke to the team and a question he posed during the talk was “What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?”.
In the past Michigan would collectively deflect any banter about Ohio State and not try to amplify arguably the most heated and hated rivalry in all of college football — but after years of losing a new way forward was needed.
“Every day,” linebacker Josh Ross said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s about beating them every single day. To do that, we’ve got to stack the days, and that’s one thing that’s been a focus for our program, for the players, for the coaches. Make the best of every day.”
Better QB play
Joe Milton wasn’t able to get it done at quarterback for Michigan a season ago, one of many issues that did the team in. Milton has since transferred to Tennessee and Cade McNamara will be Michigan’s starting quarterback.
Coaches and teammates have praised McNamara’s football intelligence, playmaking abilities, and heightened leadership.
“Cade’s leadership, since I’ve been here, I haven’t seen a quarterback really take charge like he has,” offensive tackle Ryan Hayes told the media last week. “He’s really trying to lead, he’s really putting that effort in, he’s not afraid to tell you when you need something or he wants something from you. So it’s been nice to have. Nice change.”
While leadership goes far, and from Hayes’ account McNamara has taken charge in ways prior Michigan quarterbacks haven’t, it still will boil down to his execution during games — and there’s hope McNamara can be consistent while not shooting himself in the foot.
“He’s got so many of those competitive traits, the ability to make all the throws, but also the ability to get the ball in other people’s hands, make others better,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Probably the No. 1 job of a quarterback when it comes down to it, to be that point guard. So he’s on it, he’s on every detail. He’s on every facet of the leadership, et cetera. And that’s why I’ve said I don’t see him taking a knee or taking a breath.”
Revamped defensive coaching staff turns unit around
Michigan has a mostly new defensive staff (besides Shaun Nua) consisting of coaches who’ve had success in the past and proven their worth as coaches and recruiters.
- Shaun Nua- defensive line coach
- George Helow- linebackers coach
- Steve Clinkscale- defensive backs coach
- Ron Bellamy- safeties coach
- Mike Macdonald- defensive coordinator
Along with the new hires has came a new energy to the defense. “Everyone in this building, every single coach, it’s kind of ecstatic and you can kind of feel that high energy in practice,” Aidan Hutchinson said. “In practice I’ve seen some energy, some things I haven’t seen in three years of being on this team. Just those little things that you can tell guys just want to play ball, guys are just fired up.”
Energy along with execution will go a long way in righting the wrongs the unit made a season ago. Former defensive coordinator Don Brown continued to be outschemed and couldn’t adjust accordingly — Michigan’s defense ranked near the bottom in just about every statistical category. Wholesale changes had to be made, and now leading the operation is defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who had major success as the Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach. Not only was Macdonald’s linebacker group successful, the entire defense is one of the best year after year.
With the new faces have come new ideas, and the new energy Hutchinson described. Whether it leads to on-field success remains to be seen, but things seem to be trending in the right direction.
“It’s almost like a scrimmage, almost like a scrimmage is going on, ideas are flowing and getting talked through, and it’s a fun, exciting room. You can tell that there’s trust,” Harbaugh said about the defensive coaches. “You can tell that there’s trust in the room. Guys can speak their mind and be heard and then they bat it around and they get to a good result. So that’s been tremendous.”
Lots of weapons on offense
The key to how the weapons on Michigan’s offense performs resides in the ability of their offensive line to play at a high level. However, if the o-line is indeed good this year than Michigan’s offense might morph into one that can slice the opposition up through the air and on the ground.
Michigan’s running backs are highly talented and are ready for a big year collectively. The same can be said for Michigan’s receivers, who have a balance of speed and possession, along with height via grad transfer Daylen Baldwin. The question mark will be at tight end, a unit there’s hope for but will absolutely have to produce.
Harbaugh on Michigan’s running backs: “Two of our best players on the team are Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. They’re both tremendous. Blake Corum is doing everything he says he’s doing and then some. Hassan Haskins isn’t saying anything but is doing everything that Blake Corum is doing. They’re looking really good. Donovan Edwards coming out of spring ball; OK we know he’s going to be a guy but he has a level of speed that the best backs have.”
Harbaugh on Michigan’s receivers: ”This is as many good receivers as we’ve had on the team at one time since I’ve been here. We’ve had years where we’ve had some really good guys; this year I can talk about six guys in there that are all going to play and contribute. At the top of that list is Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson. They’re winners. They’re going to make plays. They block. The third best....Roman Wilson with speed, Mike Sainristil with his ability to block and get open, AJ Henning is really going to pop this year and make some plays. Daylen Baldwin gives us another big receiver we can put out there. There are a lot of combinations of guys we can throw out there to see what they can do.”
Harbaugh on Michigan’s tight ends: “Luke Schoonmaker is running fast. You put the pads on and he’s still running fast and faster. Erick All; what he did over the summer. He would throw his body around and get the blocks done but still looked a little thin. He looks different now. He’s a big body running just as fast if not faster. Erick All sets the tone in the room but Schoonmaker is running good. He’s faster. The guy who has come out of nowhere is Hibner. He walks around now like he owns the hallway.”
Underrating because of a poor 2020 isn’t a good strategy
Granted, Michigan’s 2020 season was abysmal — frustration within the fanbase has reached a fever pitch after finishing 2-4. The thing is, that was last year.
Fans clamored for defensive coordinator Don Brown to get the axe, and he did.
Fans wanted fundamental changes to the way Michigan approached the matchup versus Ohio State — changes have been made.
The fact of the matter is 2020 was a pandemic season, things were weird in the world, and Michigan wasn’t the only team in collegiate sports that had an off year (i.e. North Carolina and Duke Basketball).
As we get closer to the start of the season, there’s less gloom and doom and more openness from the fanbase to wait and see how things play out. And yes, there’s cynicism and blindingly bright optimism on the fringes as well — but The Big House is going to be at full capacity, Michigan’s going to have a season, and that’s pretty cool.