ANN ARBOR, Mich. — We didn’t think we’d have to ask this question this early in the Jim Harbaugh Era, but the way the Wolverines are playing, it’s become mighty relevant.
Is Michigan the best team in the Big Ten?
This preseason, many would have found that question ridiculous, what with Ohio State coming off a national title and Michigan State at a similar level. Harbaugh inherited a team that missed a bowl game last season, a team that suffered losses to both conference newcomers, Maryland and Rutgers. It was a team that seemed far from its historic status.
But six weeks into Harbaugh’s first season, the Wolverines are 5-1. They boast the nation’s best defense, a defense that has pitched three consecutive shutouts after Saturday’s 38-0 blowout of Northwestern. The offense is doing well, too, scoring 97 points in the last three games. Jake Rudock is providing a veteran presence that should be even more helpful now that conference play has begun. De'Veon Smith has provided a go-to back in a running game that seems to have finally figured things out after a few seasons of mediocrity. And resume-wise, Michigan’s lone loss is not a hurtful one, coming on the road at Utah, a team currently ranked No. 5 in the AP poll.
Saturday was perhaps the Wolverines’ best effort yet, a complete domination of a previously undefeated Northwestern team, a team that arguably shared the title of best defense with Michigan. The Cats were the Big Ten’s best rushing team, averaging nearly 250 yards a game on the ground. The Wolverines held them to 38.
There was a kick-return touchdown, an interception-return touchdown. You name it, Michigan did it terrifically Saturday afternoon.
“I’m just really pleased with our team,” Harbaugh said after the game. “All three phases had great success today: special teams, starting with the kickoff return for the touchdown; defense, tremendous shutout; offense played really, really good football.
“The fellas really came out ballin’.”
Yes, the fellas did come out ballin’. And it’s the fact that the conference’s two giants haven’t been ballin’ through six weeks that has opened the door for Michigan to contend for the title of the league’s best squad.
Ohio State hasn’t dominated opponents the way many expected they would. Panic has arisen on multiple occasions due to the Buckeyes’ supposed offensive woes. Now, Ohio State has scored 121 points in its last three games and remains undefeated, showing that perhaps those worries were premature, but there’s no doubt that there have been times when what was supposed to be the best offense in the world has struggled.
Michigan State, meanwhile, hasn’t looked much like a College Football Playoff contender after a huge Week 2 win over Oregon. Connor Cook was predicted by many to be one of the country’s best quarterbacks. He’s been fairly average. And wins over Air Force, Central Michigan and Purdue have raised eyebrows thanks to less-than-dominant defensive performances. The win over Purdue was particularly concerning, as Michigan State nearly blew a 21-0 halftime lead and escaped with a 24-21 win.
Michigan, though, has dominated its opponents since a season-opening loss at Utah. Three shutout wins over BYU, Maryland and Northwestern have been the kind of wins that suggest the Wolverines are a cut above many of the country’s teams.
Harbaugh attributed his players’ success to a strong work-ethic.
“They’re doing a heck of a job. I’ve said it many times, seems like every week: This team likes to work,” he said. “They enjoy each other’s company, whether it’s meetings, whether it’s practice, whether it’s film study, lifting, et cetera. They like to work and get after it, and that’s all you can ask as a coach.”
Can Michigan prove it's better than these other teams? Well, it’ll get a shot next week, as Michigan State visits the Big House in what should be a monumental showdown. If you go strictly on the eye test, you’d have to figure Michigan would be favored. And that should say it all.
We’ll have to wait until the regular season’s final week to see how Michigan stacks up with Ohio State. Until then, though, it’d be hard to argue that any team in the Big Ten has looked as good or more impressive than the Wolverines.
When Harbaugh was introduced as the head coach, he said: “There are no turnarounds at Michigan.” It seemed at the time like bravado and loyalty to tradition rather than reality.
Now it kind of seems like he just meant that the turnaround would be so fast, you wouldn’t even be able to tell it was there.