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Analytics and eyeballs say Michigan football is good, so embrace it

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Michigan is playing hard and has an identity again. Major tests await

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines are out to their first 3-0 start since the 2017 football season after a 63-10 destruction of the Northern Illinois Huskies this past weekend. The latest victory came after they had already stacked a pair of them in the first two weeks with Western Michigan (47-14) and Washington (31-10).

Michigan beat the tar out of a pair of MAC teams and a Pac-12 opponent that looks like it may fall well short of expectations this year. It is fine to question how things may look when the talent on the other side increases, but there is something to be said for the complete and utter destruction the Wolverines unleashed in all three wins.

The analytics love Michigan with a pair of ESPN metrics helping fuel the hype train for the Wolverines. The Football Power Index (FPI) has Michigan at 9.6 projected wins while also giving them a positive chance to win each of their remaining games. Bill Connelly’s SP+ has them as the sixth-best team in college football behind only Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Clemson, respectively.

Michigan said all summer it wanted to be more physical and establish its run game. Not only has it pulled that off so far, but they lead the nation in rushing. Blake Corum might be the leader in the clubhouse to join the Michigan football September Heisman Hall of Fame. Hassan Haskins is quietly consistent as the 1b option in the run game. Donovan Edwards is starting to see his role increase. The offensive line is mashing and turning its opponents into dust.

There’s not much to hate about the identity the Wolverines have created on the offensive side of the ball. Could they pass the ball more? Sure. But statistics do not care about your feelings. They found something they do well and they have run with it. Cade McNamara has been efficient and leads a calm, poised offensive attack whose drives end in points. That’s all Michigan could ask for. He might not wind up being a superstar, but he is exactly what the Wolverines need right now. At some point, they will probably have to lean on him a bit more, but they have been afforded the luxury to not have to do that while a young group of wideouts operates in a post-Ronnie Bell reality.

Much of the same applies to the defense. A long-overdue change in how that unit operates took place this offseason with the hiring of Mike Macdonald. He did not come in making bold promises or spewing catchphrases. There was a lot of work to do, but it did not have to be complicated. The Wolverines are playing a “see the ball, get the ball” defense that is multiple in its looks and puts the talent it has in the best position to succeed. The staff has also done a really nice job of disguising looks and confusing offenses. The talent might not be exactly where they want it to be in a few areas, but Rome was not built in a day. The best part of what we have seen from them on the defensive side of the ball is how hard they play and how they swarm to the football.

You can work with guys that do that. Head coach Jim Harbaugh sees it too.

“The biggest is just how hard they’re playing,” he said during his weekly press conference. “And they’re having fun doing it. Good things happen. Good things happen when you play hard. Energy. The energy just finds the ball, whether you’re on defense or whether you’re on offense. Energy. The ball just finds you.”

Harbaugh and his program are under an immense amount of pressure coming off of a 2-4 campaign in 2020 and the totality of his time in Ann Arbor seeing goals go unfulfilled. There is a pep in the step and a chip on the shoulder from everyone in the building. For years, Michigan has resited and downplayed criticisms hurled their way. This group seems to have internalized them and uses them as fuel to improve every day. That has started at the top of the food chain and trickled down to every aspect of football operations.

Does this mean Harbaugh is ready to lead Michigan to the things he was hired to achieve? No sound mind would make such a proclamation this early. A vibe of cautious optimism still exists. Michigan fans are nothing if not perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The 2021 Wolverines have proven that they have the potential to throw a hell of a punch, but what happens when someone punches back? What type of resolve will this program show the second it tastes blood in its own mouth again? Michigan came out swinging in the 2020 campaign only to take a beating against Michigan State and never truly got up off the mat again.

This team will be defined by what happens next, but it is fine to sit and appreciate what has already happened.

Many labeled this group as destined to finish the year 7-5/8-4. Who’s to say that still might not happen? That’s why they play the games. However, Michigan made a statement large enough during non-conference play to at least make us consider what could be. Considering how wide open the Big Ten looks through three weeks, there is no other option than to stay in the bunker and keep working. Great football teams emerge in November, not September.

If Michigan continues to win football games, the goalposts will move. Teams they beat will be labeled as overrated or never a threat. But with each additional win comes increased expectations. If we are sitting here a month from now with an unblemished team on our hands, it stops being a rebuilding year and becomes something else entirely. Embrace that chase. There are plenty of fans who will never be satisfied and only expect perennial trips to Indianapolis and beyond. The most logical fans only ever hope that Michigan takes care of business with its in-state rival and that the game on the last weekend of November has championship implications. That is not an unfair expectation. Not with the resources this program has at its disposal.

Right now, Michigan looks like a team that stacks up with anyone else in the conference. The rest of the story is still to be written, but wrap your arms around it.

You’re about to find out what’s real and what isn’t.