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Top five biggest surprises from Michigan football’s regular season

The season’s unparalleled success found its impetus in these auspicious developments.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

The coaches, culture and attitude have propelled the Michigan Wolverines back to being the apex predators in the Big Ten and on the cusp of playing for a national title. However, Michigan would not be in the rarified air it now occupies without several surprising developments happening along the way.

Below are my top five picks for these phenomena, organized by a combination of their unexpectedness and impact on the season.

5. The rise of Will Johnson

Names like Charles Woodson and Ty Law immediately come to mind when one thinks of what a Michigan cornerback ought to be. We may have to add Will Johnson to that list soon.

From surrendering Michigan’s only points allowed against Colorado State to becoming the best cornerback on the roster, Johnson has earned his keep. The defensive coaching staff consistently raves about his work ethic and ability to learn from mistakes. Rarely does a freshman cornerback rise to such prominence so quickly. He will play a pivotal role in defending TCU’s Quinton Johnston and, hopefully, Georgia’s lengthy tight ends.

4. The seamlessness of Mike Sainristil’s transition to the defense

When the news broke that Mike Sainristil would be on defense, it was speculated the move was merely to increase the playing time of underclassmen wideouts. Frankly, I was disappointed. I thought the 5-foot-10 speed merchant had a ton of promise as a receiver and never thought he would be playing regularly on defense. He was, metaphorically, being put out to pasture. I’m thrilled I was wrong.

Sainristil has made a compelling case for the title of Michigan’s best overall defender. This play speaks for itself:

In many ways, Sainristil is the cornerstone of the defense. His quickness, awareness and toughness have caused many headaches to Big Ten offenses. This was a stroke of unmitigated genius and we should be thankful he’ll be back next year.

3. The form the QB competition took

In the dog days of summer, nearly every Michigan fan expected the quarterback competition to play a pivotal role in shaping the season’s trajectory. How that would play out remained a mystery. That is until head coach Jim Harbaugh announced J.J. McCarthy and Cade McNamara would each get a designated start to decide who would earn the starting job moving forward.

Unprecedented, quirky, what have you: The scheme set the tone for positional competition on the team. Whether McNamara lost confidence in himself because of the situation or because McCarthy was just that much better, a changing of the guard commenced in the aftermath of the slaughter of Hawaii.

It wasn’t so much McCarthy completely changed the identity of the offense — I’d argue the offense changed him more than anything — it’s the competition made clear Harbaugh was not content to rest on the laurels of last year’s successes. Team 143 would be defined by its accomplishments, not Team 142’s. That message resonated. This highly-public, meritocratic framework bespoke the cultural renaissance under Harbaugh.

2. Michigan’s defense being better than last year’s

I had to do a double-take on this one: So far this year, Michigan’s defense is holding opponents to 53 fewer yards on average per game than last year: a category it ranked in the top 20 in. No Hutch, “no stars,” no problem for Jesse Minter.

It may be trite to say at this point, but all the doubters betting on a down year from the Wolverines pointed to a loss of stellar defensive talent in their reason. At the time, Harbaugh’s offseason claim that the defense could be better than 2021’s seemed like the eccentric ramblings we as Michigan fans have grown accustomed to over the years. But lo and behold, the so-called “no-star defense” has a chance to make college football history as one of the best all-time if Michigan can win the whole thing.

1. Michigan’s 22-point victory at Ohio Stadium

It wasn’t necessarily the victory itself that was surprising; it was the degree to which it happened. Ponder this: Michigan handed Ohio State its worst loss to the Wolverines at home since — fittingly — the Ford administration in 1976. One wouldn’t have called you unhinged if you said the Wolverines would beat Ohio State. But to say they’d beat them by three touchdowns in front of their hometown fans? I’ll have whatever you’re having!

This was a seismic win by any measurement, entirely unforeseen by nearly all sober individuals outside the Michigan locker room. Hopefully, this monumental victory portends a lasting shift in the rivalry. After all, the Buckeyes will come to the Big House next year.

What surprised you the most this season? Did I miss anything? Let us know down below!