By: Rajan Nanavati
Labor Day weekend might as well have been a decade ago for the Maize and Blue faithful.
After the first weekend in September, the questions became louder and more frequent: is University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh on the hot seat? How is it that, after three-plus seasons, he still couldn’t find an offense that could actually put enough points on the board to win? If a NFL team were to come calling later this winter, should the students and alumni of Michigan be sad to see him go?
But as we head into the last weekend in October, the entire outlook of the season has changed – and thankfully, for the better. Harbaugh’s Wolverines didn’t just beat the University of Wisconsin, who was previously seen as the #1 contender to dethrone the hated Ohio State Buckeyes – they thoroughly beat them down in a game that became a signature win for Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor. With one win like that, as far-fetched as it would’ve seemed less than two months ago, people started using “Michigan” and “College Football Playoffs” in the same sentence.
Of course, the pragmatic ‘wait-and-see’ fans cautioned that the win against the Badgers would be meaningless if the Wolverines lost to the hated Michigan State Spartans. After all, Harbaugh was 1-2 in the three times they played.
But after an emphatic win over their cross-state rivals, there’s a level of optimism around the southeastern part of the state that hasn’t been seen since the days of Lloyd Carr. Nobody is going to mistake this offense for the one being run by Lincoln Riley down in Oklahoma, but the Wolverines have beaten their last three opponents – all Big 10 teams – by an average of 17.6 points.
Transfer Shea Patterson has provided a level of stability and playmaking at quarterback that Harbaugh has lacked since he arrived. Running back Karan Higdon is currently sixth in the nation in rushing yards (831) after putting up 143 yards rushing against the nation’s top-ranked run defense. And then, of course, there’s always Michigan’s defense, which remains the cornerstone of the program.
With Ohio State’s loss on Saturday to Purdue University, the Wolverines are actually sitting atop the Big Ten East standings. The question for Harbaugh and company now becomes: how do they handle going from the hunters to the hunted? Even with a schedule that features two of the lesser teams in the Big 10, Michigan would be wise to learn from Ohio State’s mistake, as far as not overlooking any divisional opponent.
Then again, before they get to those “lesser” opponents, Michigan has to not let the success get to their head, because they’ll have their hands full when Penn State comes to the Big House after Michigan’s bye this weekend. It shouldn’t be hard for Harbaugh to motivate his team, in light of their 42-13 loss to the Nittany Lions last year, but it’ll be his job to keep their focus this week when the rest of the nation is applauding how well this Michigan team has been playing.
After all, it’s a mostly unfamiliar – and maybe even more unforeseen – set of circumstances, given how things started out this year.