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A deep dive into previous early-season struggles for Jim Harbaugh and what happened after

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Wisconsin on Saturday could swing the pendulum toward greatness or mediocrity for the 2021 season.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Four games into the college football season and you could convince me Michigan is either going to win the Big Ten or go to the Motor City Bowl. To quote William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” Yet.

Under Jim Harbaugh’s guidance, Michigan has faced unexpected early season tests almost like clockwork. Some of these performances can be chalked up to the Wolverines looking ahead, while the others are glimpses into cracks that will quickly fracture in the future.

Much like music, sometimes a bad song is just a bad song and is not indicative of the rest of the album. On Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, the song “Escape” is one small mistake on an otherwise perfect album.

Other times, a bad song is indicative of the rest of the album. Kid Cudi’s single “Confused!” from his fourth album Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven should have served as warning that this album would be an insult to anyone with ears.

Is the stale Rutgers performance a small blemish on an otherwise masterful album? Or is 2021 going to feel like an inescapable Donda listening experience?

Inspired by Zach Shaw, here are four examples of Michigan overlooking an early season opponent and what happened in the short and long term to follow.

2016 Colorado (Michigan favored by 17.5); Michigan wins 45-28

Much like the 2021 team, the 2016 Wolverines came into this game rolling. Michigan had beaten Hawaii 63-3 and then toppled Central Florida and Scott Frost 51-14 in the infamous, “We out hit Michigan” game.

Colorado came to the Big House undefeated, but expectations remained low for the Buffaloes coming off a four-win season in 2015. However, they surprised everyone in attendance jumping out to leads of 14-0, 21-7, and not surrendering the lead until the third quarter.

Michigan’s comeback was aided by the exceptional play of Jabrill Peppers and the injury to Colorado starting quarterback Sefo Liufau. The Wolverines punted eight times, missed two field goals and lost the turnover battle.

Why did Michigan overlook the Buffaloes? The next two games on the schedule were Penn State and Wisconsin.

The Wolverines shook off the rust the next week and pummeled eventual Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl-bound Penn State, 49-10. Following that, Michigan also beat Wisconsin 14-7 in a throwback Big Ten battle.

Michigan finished the season 10-2 (J.T. was short).

Colorado would go on to reach the Pac-12 title game and finish with 10 wins for the first time since 2001.

2017 Purdue (Michigan favored by 13.5); Michigan wins 28-10

Michigan opened the season with a bang by beating the Florida Gators at Jerry World in a game where the defense only allowed three points. Wilton Speight gifted them the other 14 on back-to-back drives, but the Wolverines prevailed 33-17.

The next two games saw an unimpressive Michigan squad beat Cincinnati 36-14 and Air Force 29-13. Still feeling the lethargy of these two performances, the Wolverines headed to West Lafayette to face Purdue as Big Ten play began.

Starting quarterback Wilton Speight got knocked out of the game in the first quarter and John O’Korn took over, quickly leading Michigan down for a touchdown. However, Michigan’s seven other first half drives accounted for 52 yards, one interception and zero points. The Wolverines trailed 10-7 at recess.

Michigan’s first two drives of the second half carried the same tune — ending in a punt and a fumble. Finally, halfway through the third quarter, the Wolverines found their mojo and strung together three straight touchdown drives to secure victory.

Michigan again lost the turnover battle and won this game because of the strength of the defense.

The Wolverines were hoping to coast into their bye week and then prepare for Michigan State in two weeks. However, Michigan was unable to shake this funk, lost the monsoon game to the Spartans 14-10 and finished the season 8-4.

The Boilermakers went on to finish the season 6-6 and secured a victory in the Foster Farms Bowl over Rich Rodriguez and Arizona.

2018 Northwestern (Michigan favored by 13); Michigan wins 20-17

After dropping the season opener in South Bend to Notre Dame, Michigan reeled off three straight victories in dominant fashion over Western Michigan, SMU and Nebraska. Next up was a trip to Evanston to take on a struggling Northwestern team.

The Wildcats were 1-2 and coming off a loss to Akron. However, head coach Pat Fitzgerald had his team fired up. Northwestern quickly jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, while the Wolverines had only generated 21 yards of offense on their first three drives.

The Wolverines trailed 17-7 at halftime and 17-13 at the end of the third quarter. Michigan would not take the lead until four minutes left in the fourth quarter and that was just enough to cling to the win.

Michigan punted on 7-of-12 possessions and turned the ball over on downs on another. Unlike the previous two games mentioned, this one was gritty throughout and never saw the Wolverines fully reach their groove.

The next week, after trailing in the first quarter, Michigan beat Maryland 42-21 and then could address the cause of their lingering inattentiveness: the Revenge Tour.

The following week, Michigan began the gauntlet of Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State. The Wolverines won all three games before falling flat on their faces against the Buckeyes, again finishing the season 10-2.

This performance sparked Northwestern to win seven of their next eight, finish 8-4, improbably reach the Big Ten Championship and defeat Utah in the Holiday Bowl.

2019 Army (Michigan favored by 22); Michigan wins 24-21 in Double OT

Army needed only 15 passing yards to push Michigan to the brink of an upset. The Wolverines overcame 7-0 and 14-7 deficits during the game and needed the Black Knights to miss a 50-yard field goal just to reach overtime.

In the second overtime, it again took the defense standing on their head and forcing a fumble to escape with victory.

Much like 2017, Michigan was looking to cruise into their bye week before facing an important Big Ten test. This time in the form of the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison.

While Michigan survived to reach their bye week undefeated, the Badgers boat raced the Wolverines in embarrassing fashion and did not let their foot off the gas until they were safely up by five touchdowns.

Michigan would regroup and finish the season 9-3, but, unfortunately, this included another blowout loss in the game that matters the most.

Army would likewise finish out a disappointing season at 5-8 including a blowout loss to Navy.


Answers will be provided on Saturday; let’s see if Michigan can ride the lightning.