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Maryland at No. 4 Michigan Preview: Enough with the asterisks

Michigan finally faces a real opponent, and with it a chance to shed the early-season caveats.

COLLEGE PARK, MD - NOVEMBER 20: Michigan Wolverines running bac Photo by Terrance Williams for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Three up, three down for the Michigan Wolverines and their overly criticized non-conference schedule. None of the first three victims were ever going to put up much of a fight, but it still is hard to deny that the Wolverines did exactly what a top-five team should against this level of competition, winning the first halves by a combined 103-0.

Saturday brings the beginning of Big Ten play for Michigan, which should finally silence some of the critics. First up in the conference slate are the Maryland Terrapins, a talented offense that also started the season undefeated. This is not the steepest test, but it will be nice to finally face a legitimate opponent.

While Maryland is not a bottom-20 team in college football, this is still a bit of a lopsided matchup. Jim Harbaugh has not lost to the Terps, winning six straight with no game finishing closer than 21 points. SP+ has Maryland 39th overall in the country and ninth in the Big Ten, offering a nice way to ease into conference play.

Maryland Terrapins (3-0) at No. 4 Michigan Wolverines (3-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Sep. 24, Noon ET
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV/Streaming: FOX

New questions have appeared

Quarterback battle aside, the Michigan offense entered this year absolutely loaded at just about every position. As good as the running backs and wide receivers looked on paper, it was the offensive line — coming off the 2021 Joe Moore Award — that appeared to be the leading unit once again.

Through three games in 2022, that has not quite manifested. Injuries have been part of the issue, though depth along the line can be just as important as the starters, so that excuse does not hold a ton of weight. The non-conference schedule was not enough to cause substantial fear, but it does bring pass protection into question after the offseason was spent assuming everything would be perfectly fine up front.

Maryland’s strength is definitely not the defensive line, so this weekend might not provide a ton of answers just yet. The Terps are tied for 100th in tackles for loss despite playing a fairly weak opening schedule as well, and that should give J.J. McCarthy plenty of time to attack an average-looking secondary. This might be the sophomore quarterback’s biggest test to date, but the way he is playing should not be significantly slowed down on Saturday.

The Wolverines might not need him, but it would be great to see Donovan Edwards back healthy. Last year’s contest in College Park was a bit of a breakout party for the electric talent, as he recorded an astounding 170 receiving yards in the 59-18 win. If he is unable to go, this could be another strong week from Blake Corum instead, as the Michigan running backs will have opportunities for success both on the ground and in the air.

The real test begins now

All summer, everyone said the real challenge for the Michigan defense would not begin until Taulia Tagovailoa came to town. Well, the time has come and the dynamic quarterback is ready to test the Wolverines in a way that the first three opponents could not. The four-star redshirt junior enters the weekend with 895 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 77 percent completion rate, as well as 54 rushing yards and a score.

Tagovailoa had a rough game against the Wolverines last year with under 200 yards and two touchdowns coming only once the contest was out of hand; he also created a D.J. Turner pick six. However, mobile quarterbacks have always been a struggle for Michigan, and the Terps leader carried the ball 13 times last week.

Maryland ranks fourth offensively in the Big Ten per SP+ and 25th overall, so this is a team to take seriously. Tagovailoa is supported by legit weapons such as five-star receiver Rakim Jarrett and budding running back Roman Hemby, two players who can take a big play for the house. This will be a good battle for a Michigan defense that has looked good across all three levels so far, but has not faced many Power Five-quality athletes.

This feels like a good opportunity for some of the newer starters to prove their validity after cruising through the first three weeks. Mike Sainristil has seamlessly transitioned to defense, but he has not faced any intimidating quarterbacks. Neither have the plethora of edge rushers like Jaylen Harrell, Braiden McGregor, Taylor Upshaw, and Derrick Moore, who have the difficult responsibility of both pressuring and containing the mobile Tagovailoa. This matchup is winnable for the home team but difficult enough to require a complete effort.

A chance for validity

Looking at the schedule, none of the next three games for Michigan are that eye-popping, but at least Big Ten opponents should command a little more national respect than the non-conference fodder. A convincing win against Maryland would mostly validate the Wolverines’ dominance of those three cupcakes, but any stumbles this weekend would put some of those early successes into question.

Vegas, advanced metrics, and history suggest that Michigan should be comfortable here, and anything other than a multi-possession win would be disappointing. Facing a true weapon at quarterback will put the new defensive starters — and Jesse Minter — in the spotlight, and this is probably a good forum for that to happen, as the offense should be able to make up for any defensive slips.

McCarthy certainly owns the job now after two good performances and an unfortunate injury to Cade McNamara, but he did show a few imperfections against UConn. His blemishes were very minor and had no major repercussions, but seeing how he bounces back against another overmatched foe will only help confirm his development and coronation.