The 2022 college football season is halfway over and the Michigan Wolverines are one of a handful of teams that remain undefeated. This season — more than any other in recent memory — appears to be wide open for any of the unblemished to make a run at the College Football Playoff.
As fall foliage takes hold across the country, as sure as the seasons change, the classic criticism of, “They haven’t played anyone” resurfaces for its yearly run from every opposing fan base.
It’s easy. Ohio State’s best win is against Notre Dame, which lost to Marshall in South Bend. Even “Touchdown Jesus” can’t forgive that. Almost weekly, Alabama is finding itself in close games with inferior opponents and the uncertain health of quarterback Bryce Young does not help its future outlook.
Georgia was pushed to the brink by a Missouri team that has not beaten a Power 5 opponent, and Clemson tight ropes excellence and irrelevance on every DJ Uiagalelei pass.
For Michigan, it’s equally easy. The Wolverines’ non-conference schedule consisted of three glorified spring games against opposition that might struggle against the KA fraternity in an intramural game. Maryland is a frisky underdog, but just as the turtle is slow, Maryland is mediocre and a one-touchdown win margin is not impressive to most. Iowa is always a solid road win but despite a 20-0 lead after three quarters, the final score of 27-14 wasn’t quite “sexy” enough for the masses.
Furthermore, with the national sentiment of Iowa’s offensive ineptitude outweighing its stellar defense (ask anyone what they think of Iowa this season and I guarantee their first response will be, “Their offense sucks,” and not, “Their defense is elite”), allowing 13 points to the Hawkeyes became a bigger story than Michigan being the only team to score more than 10 points against Iowa.
Even this past weekend against Indiana, despite overcoming the team witnessing beloved coach Mike Hart suffering a medical emergency on the sidelines, outscoring the Hoosiers 21-0 and out-gaining them 263-29 in the second half, and winning by three touchdowns, the Wolverines fell in the AP Poll.
Much like most of the college football elite, we learned on Saturday that Michigan is in desperate need of a statement victory, from start to finish, on both sides of the ball. A win against a high-level opponent the Wolverines can hang their hat on. A win where Team 143 can quote Dr. Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters: “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!”
For two of Jim Harbaugh’s best Michigan teams in 2016 and 2018, Wisconsin and Penn State represented those benchmark victories for the Wolverines. Last year, Michigan’s signature victory didn’t come until the Ohio State game, although that win has been a victim of revisionist history from those in Columbus citing a “historically bad defense,” despite the fact the Buckeyes only allowed 61 rushing yards and 16 points points per game from Week 3 to Week 11.
Penn State represents that level of opponent and opportunity for Michigan. The Nittany Lions are ranked 10th in the country and feature a physical defense led by first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, and an experienced quarterback in Sean Clifford who feels like he has been completing passes in Happy Valley since the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
The Nittany Lions are viewing Michigan in an identical fashion. This is an opportunity for Penn State to secure a signature win because the wins over Purdue and Auburn hold similar weight to Michigan’s victories over Maryland and Iowa.
Since Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor in 2015, Michigan and Penn State have traded blowouts (2016, 2017, 2018), nail-biters (2019, 2021), 2015’s back and forth affair, and one awful game in 2020 that should be stricken from the record books due to spare the seeing.
When fans are in attendance in the Big House, however, Harbaugh has almost been as dominant against the Nittany Lions as he has been against MAC opponent Western Michigan. The Wolverines have outscored Penn State 91-17 (2016, 2018) in two meetings at Michigan Stadium in front of fans, compared to the 96-17 margin Michigan has posted against Western Michigan (2018, 2021).
Saturday is a great opportunity for the Wolverines to prove their merit across several different fronts. Running back Blake Corum can strengthen his Heisman campaign, while quarterback J.J. McCarthy can prove he has a deep ball to stretch a defense vertically.
The Michigan defense can prove their “no stars” mentality is applicable to big game situations and they alone can carry the team. And Harbaugh can take the first real steps in proving last year truly was, “Just the beginning.”
The only number that matters right now is not the ranking before the team name, but the zero after it in the loss column. The only thing that matters in the end is winning, even if you don’t play anybody.