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Michigan is a different team entering the CFP this season

Reality finally meets expectation for Team 143.

Big Ten Championship - Purdue v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Last season was magical for the Michigan Wolverines. In August, the program was being mocked nationally for extending head coach Jim Harbaugh following a 2-4 season, and by December, pundits were taking a number to line up and glad hand the AP Coach of the Year.

Michigan went from unranked to the College Football Playoff; Big Ten East obscurity to conference superiority. In a few short months, the Wolverines — led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson — upset the established order in college football and earned the right to face Georgia in the CFP.

It was the most important Michigan football season in 24 years, but the Wolverines still fell short in their quest to ascend the throne of college football.

Following the 34-11 defeat to the Bulldogs and a plethora of NFL departures, Michigan was expected to come back down to Earth in 2022. ESPN’s FPI predictor gave the Wolverines just under a 10% chance to win the Big Ten East, and CBS called Michigan the most overrated team in the conference. To be fair, they had a legitimate case.

“Last season, Michigan rode a combination of two brilliant coordinators, a workhorse running back and one of the best defensive end combinations we’ve seen in years to the playoff. Only one problem: Every one of those pieces is gone. The Wolverines should have another good season behind a handful of solid returners, but compete for the Big Ten? Finish top 10 in the country? It’s a bridge too far,” wrote CBS contributors Shehan Jeyarajah and Barrett Sallee.

The arguments for regression were vast and warranted. Honestly, how can a team sustain success with that many personnel losses? Fortunately, Harbaugh was not focused on sustaining anything. He and the program as a whole were focused on more.

Fueled by a “nobody still believes in us” attitude, Michigan was motivated to prove last year was not a fluke or a one-off feel good season.

Thirteen wins and another Big Ten Championship later, Michigan is once again proving everybody wrong. But this time, the Wolverines feel different. The bones are there from Team 142, but Team 143 feels like the next evolution.

Here are three reasons why this year’s team feels different than last.

Michigan embraced McCarthyism

While no one was berated for suspected communist sympathies, McCarthyism — nor the acceptance of sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy as the starter for the Wolverines — quickly spread throughout the program after a near flawless performance in Week 2 against Hawaii.

A few recent Iowa commits may still be resistant to the idea, but the fact remains McCarthy is a better quarterback than 2021 starter Cade McNamara.

McCarthy effectively raises the ceiling for this team to heights McNamara could simply never reach. The true sophomore not only brings a dynamic rushing element, but has also rounded into form as a deep ball passer and is a more natural playmaker outside of structure. Couple that with superior ball security, what was the argument for McNamara again?

Against TCU, McCarthy brings an element of creativity to perfectly balance an offense founded upon establishing the run. But now if teams load the box, McCarthy can exploit vulnerable one-on-one matchups with his arm or legs.

The value of upgrading the most important position in sports cannot be properly quantified. If a team’s highest goal is to win their conference, McNamara is the guy for the job. They’ll love him in Iowa City. But if a team’s goal is to win a national championship, McCarthy was always the choice for this team.

D-Line Depth

Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo were a generationally productive rushing duo that combined for 97 tackles, 25 sacks, 28 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles. This tandem, especially Hutchinson, served as a catalyst for everything the Wolverines did defensively last season. But this reliance on stars was also Michigan’s undoing against Georgia.

Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken designed his entire scheme around Hutchinson, knowing if he could keep this single defender in conflict, the Bulldogs would have success.

They neutralized Hutchinson, never punted in the first half and built a 27-3 halftime lead before cruising to victory. Michigan would always welcome stars of Hutchinson’s and Ojabo’s caliber, but the depth this year gives them an even greater advantage in the CFP.

This year, it is a week to week guess who is going to be the most productive defensive lineman. Across edges and defensive tackles, eight different players have two sacks or more. Last year, it was only three with Taylor Upshaw rounding out the trio with 2.5 sacks.

On the interior, Mazi Smith, Kris Jenkins, Mason Graham and Rayshaun Benny anchor an almost impenetrable wall and generate consistent pressure. The outside rotation of Mike Morris, Jaylen Harrell, Eyabi Okie, Braiden McGregor, Upshaw and Derrick Moore bring a diverse skill set that can set an edge or collapse a pocket if called upon.

Even without Michigan’s best edge rusher (Morris) against Ohio State, the drop-off was mitigated because the Wolverines have so many bodies to rotate into the lineup.

Teams can scheme around individual stars, but they cannot scheme around entire teams.

Expectation is Reality

Team 143 is exactly where they expected to be when the season started. The Wolverines established four clear goals before the season and have accomplished three:

  1. Beat Michigan State
  2. Beat Ohio State
  3. Win the Big Ten Championship
  4. Win the National Championship

Obviously, they wanted to win every game in between, but those were the four primary objectives for 2022. Reality is meeting expectations for the Wolverines this year, while conversely in 2021, the team did not expect to compete for a national championship.

Entering the season, Harbaugh spoke at length about beating Michigan State, Ohio State and winning the Big Ten Championship. There was no mention of a national championship because that just seemed outside the realm of realistic possibilities for a team fresh off a season more disappointing than the Star Wars sequels.

When Michigan beat Ohio State last year, that was the No. 1 goal of that season. Beating Ohio State ended a 10-year drought and propelled the Wolverines to a three-hour Big Ten Championship coronation ceremony masquerading as an athletic contest against Iowa.

The Wolverines bulldozed the Hawkeyes and embarked on an awards season run, basking in the moment of what they had accomplished. Team 142 had accomplished their two biggest goals of the season and rode off to Miami in the sunset. So when Michigan ultimately played Georgia in the Orange Bowl, it was happy to be there because it never expected to be there.

The Wolverines were on a honeymoon high last season that came crashing down. Team 142 sparked a revolution and was ultimately consumed by the flames of its own success.

Now, forged from the ashes and failures of last year, Team 143 heads to Phoenix, after rising like one, ready to take the crown.