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Nebraska at No. 3 Michigan Preview: A three-week audition

Style points count when the schedule is weak.

Michigan v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

It does not appear the College Football Playoff Committee dinged the Michigan Wolverines too much for a dicey first half against Rutgers, as the Wolverines moved up a couple spots thanks to a couple losses at the top of last week’s rankings. Another close call, though, could start turning into a trend.

November is certainly not the time for bad habits to be forming. In fact, Michigan needs to do everything it can to demonstrate its strengths over the final month because it is clear the non-conference schedule is going to be a hindrance should there be a multiple teams considered for a final spot in the top four.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers are slightly more respectable than last year, but no one will be tricked into thinking this is a quality opponent. SP+ has the Huskers 71st overall with both units landing in the 60s, so there does not seem to be a good path for the visitors to pull off the upset.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-6, 2-4) vs. No. 3 Michigan Wolverines (9-0, 6-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Nov. 12, 3:30 p.m.
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV/Streaming: ABC

Accepting expectations

The pessimistic take (one very common within the Michigan fanbase) has plenty of complaints about the passing game. Whether it is conservative play calling, continuing inaccuracy downfield from J.J. McCarthy, or repeated drops from the receiving corps against Rutgers, there are no shortage of reasons why the Wolverines are not as explosive through the air as many had hoped.

There are rational rebuttals to this argument, of course, starting with the overall accuracy of McCarthy and the general reliability of the pass catchers. While this passing attack has not hit its ceiling — hopefully that is met by the end of the month — the general sentiment has not matched reality here.

That being said, after nine games it is time to accept Jim Harbaugh is still here and this is what he wants an offense to be. Coordinators can come and go and the talent level at quarterback can rise, but as long as there is a dominant offensive line (check) and a dynamic backfield (check, check), then this is a run-first and run-second team, which is a feasible way to live.

What does that mean for Nebraska? Nothing fans have not seen before. McCarthy has not totaled fewer than 24 attempts since UConn, so there will be yards available for him this weekend as in the last few games, even if they do not always materialize. But all else being equal, this will be the Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards show yet again. Sit back and just enjoy the ride (which might end up in NYC...).

Rinse and repeat

Michigan still has a few things to clean up before the end of the season, but the three interceptions against Rutgers were a nice boost to a turnover total that was tracking below where it should be. While the Wolverines are doing just fine in the sack department (tied for ninth nationally), this is a great chance to add a few more against a Nebraska team that is just 98th in sacks allowed in conference play.

The area of focus this week should be putting together a consistent 60 minutes. Rutgers had just one offensive touchdown, but there are still some occasional breakdowns that could prove much more costly in the future. On paper, this is not the type of offense to really cause many headaches, so this is a great chance for a clean defensive outing.

The receiver this week who will make the annoying, yet ultimately meaningless, big catch or two is Trey Palmer, who leads the Huskers in receptions (53), yards (819), and touchdowns (5). The LSU transfer was the No. 112 overall prospect in the 2019 recruiting class but never really got it going in Baton Rouge.

Palmer’s (and Nebraska’s) problem is there is not exactly a solid option under center. With starting quarterback Casey Thompson already ruled out, either Chubba Purdy or Logan Smothers will get the nod. Purdy is the one who saw the most action last week, but his stats (44 percent completion rate, 2.5 Y/A, 0 TD, 3 INT) were terrible. Meanwhile, Smothers has only attempted 11 passes (completing barely half of them), so neither option is encouraging.

A clear picture

The committee acknowledged Michigan’s performance to date with the No. 3 ranking but did not promise anything. The only thing the Wolverines can do to ensure a return trip to the College Football Playoff is win The Game (and probably the week after, though that is a debate for another time); any other path is much less certain.

The problem is Michigan cannot beat Ohio State this week. Instead, the Wolverines need to keep bolstering the resume as best as they can, even if the change is only going to be incremental. But after slow starts against multiple weaker opponents, a front-to-back performance against Nebraska will help push some of the memories behind them.

I would love to see McCarthy go out and dominate as much as anyone, and I do think that sort of game could come at any time, but for now Michigan should be just as happy with 30-yard runs as 30-yard passes. Nebraska should offer the chance for either, so expect Harbaugh to lean into the one that has been working more as of late.