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What we learned from Michigan’s non-conference schedule

Early strengths and and a weakness have been identified.

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

The preseason is over and the Michigan Wolverines are 3-0 for the fourth time under head coach Jim Harbaugh. The No. 4 ranked Wolverines were dominant during the non-conference portion of their schedule by outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 166-17.

Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn, hardly represent a formidable triumvirate of top tier opponents —hell, using the term “competition” feels gratuitous — but the Wolverines did exactly what they were supposed to over the course of these three games: win, dominate and improve. And name a starting quarterback, for what it’s worth.

With the non-conference schedule completed and J.J. McCarthy securely at the helm, it is time for the Wolverines to turn their attention to the Big Ten schedule and to defend the Big Ten crown. Ask any champion tasked with a defense of their title, staying on top is harder than reaching the summit — heavy lies the crown.

The great John Wooden, who once won seven consecutive — and 10 overall — NCAA Championships recognized the difficulty of repeating: “Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.” Over the course of the first three games of the season, we have learned Michigan has weaknesses and character-defining strengths that could propel it to equal heights as 2021, or even further.

As with any team, the Wolverines have displayed deficiencies during the opening quarter of the season and none have been more glaring than along the offensive line. The defending Joe Moore Award-winning group has yet to find a reliable chemistry in pass protection, and this has only been exacerbated by several players rotating in and out due to injury.

Furthermore, the group has struggled with pressure stunts and sheer focus at times, allowing their technique to become sloppy and careless. Right tackle and first-year starter Trente Jones and right guard Zak Zinter have each had costly mental mistakes that led to sacks.

Perhaps these perceived shortcomings are magnified because Michigan fans are expecting perfection and projecting ahead. Obviously, these are knit-picks from three overwhelmingly positive performances being extrapolated out into future hypotheticals by a fan base well-versed in pain: “If Jones gets beat by this random UConn guy, what happens against Ohio State?”

Harbaugh said it himself in 2015: “Fans have a constitutional right to expect success and have high expectations.” While I’m not quite sure that made it into the Bill of Rights, Michigan fans should expect the highest level, but let’s examine that weakness before anyone writes Team 143 off in September.

The offensive line needs a chance to get healthy. Currently, starting left guard Trevor Keegan is a little banged up, as is reserve utility lineman Karsen Barnhart, who could become the starter at right tackle before it’s all said and done. The uncertainty and inconsistency is reminiscent of last year when Keegan was in a positional battle with Chuck Filiaga well into the season and Zinter, among others, were frequently injured in the first half of the year.

Against Rutgers, the Wolverines averaged 2.9 rush yards per attempt facing the second-worst rushing defense in the conference before gelling and developing into the cohesive dominant group we saw against Ohio State. Again, this year, it will take time.

As for the strengths, it’s simple: balance and bodies on both sides of the ball. The Michigan offense is just as dangerous running the ball as they are throwing it, and defensively they have shown a propensity at stopping both. The depth on both sides has proven an embarrassment of riches and possibilities. Can you imagine 22 personnel (two tight ends, two running backs) featuring A.J. Henning and Donovan Edwards in the backfield mutating into a five-wide look with a potential mismatch at each position? I digress.

Across the defensive line, a star is yet to emerge, but a galaxy of contenders have stated their claim. Jaylen Harrell, Mike Morris, Mazi Smith, Kris Jenkins, Mason Graham, Braiden McGregor, Rayshaun Benny, Taylor Upshaw, Derrick Moore, and Eyabi Okie have all flashed in the first three games. That’s 10 players, and I am still leaving some out.

While depth and balance are required of a champion, what about the character that Wooden alluded to? In Michigan running back Blake Corum’s press conference Saturday night, Corum spoke with wisdom befitting a high character program regarding the outlook of this team.

“I don’t know how good we are. I feel like we look good, but we haven’t faced no adversity yet. I feel like we’re going to be great.”

Team 143 isn’t buying any of their own stuff as Harbaugh puts it, or ingesting any rat poison, as Nick Saban calls it.

This team welcomes adversity and understands they cannot understand their identity and potential until they do. Every team is good on their good days, but being good on your bad days is what defines a champion. Especially a repeat champion.

Adversity will hit, as it always does. It could be against Maryland, it could be against Michigan State again (God be with us), but this team has cultivated a character capable of enduring what it takes to claim and keep the crown of the Big Ten.

Write the team off at your own risk, but be assured, just like last year, they won’t write back.