It has been 24 years since Michigan’s last National Championship and 17 years since their last Big 10 Championship. For years, the number one rivalry in all of sports was Michigan and Ohio State, and now that is a one-sided blood bath. They went from Mike Hart referring to Michigan State as “little brother” to praying every year they could find a way to beat them. Michigan used to be a perennial powerhouse, and now they are a consistent third tier program. Almost every year since Lloyd Carr stepped down has looked exactly the same, they come in, smash on the little guys at the beginning of the season and crumble against any real competition later in the season. Harbaugh was supposed to be the answer and he has fallen drastically short of that! With that said, Michigan has started this 2021 season in a very similar fashion to recent years. They have started the season 3-0 and have looked pretty good doing so. As Michigan fans, we are again faced with the same question as we have been every year since 2004: is Michigan for real this season or are they fake… again?
The Run Game
Let’s start this off by talking about the most promising aspect of this Michigan team, the run game. Michigan has a storied tradition of producing some of the best running backs in college. We have been able to watch guys like Tyrone Wheatley, Mike Hart, and Anthony Thomas but those days have long since been gone. Michigan has had nothing more than an average running game since the days of Mike Hart. This has been a two-fold issue, Michigan’s line has not been that good and they have not had an elite running back. This off-season Michigan went out and hired Mike Hart as the running backs coach, who is coming off a couple very good seasons in Indiana at the same position. This year could finally be different!
Michigan comes in this season with three good running backs and one of them could become elite if he is not already. Michigan brings back their lead back from 2020 Hassan Haskins. In a shortened season last year Haskins ended with 61 carries for 375 yards for an average of 6.1 yards per carry and six touchdowns. Michigan has high hopes for him this season. Haskins has lived up to that hope and been very good this season, totaling 49 carries for 281 yards and four touchdowns in three games. The amazing thing this season is he has not been Michigan’s best running back, that would be Blake Corum. Corum may finally give Michigan their first elite back since Hart. Corum only had 26 carries in 2020, but this season in three games he has 48 carries for 407 yards and seven touchdowns. That is an average of 8.5 yards per game! The best part is Corum is still young entering only his sophomore season. This kid is dynamic and reminds me a lot of Mike Hart with speed. Corum is 5’8” and 200 pounds but this kid is fast, running an unofficial 40 time of a high 4.4. This was always the knock on Hart, that he did not have break away speed. Corum has great vision and can be a power runner but also has the allusiveness to make people miss. Once he hits the hole, he has the speed to run away from most defenders. The third running back in this backfield is freshman Donovan Edwards. Edwards has looked very good in his limited usage this season. This season, short of an injury, he will be a back-up running back who will see most of his playing time in garbage time. Edwards looks like he has the potential to be an elite back in the future. This season he has only 15 carries and 117 yards with two touchdowns. He is another strong powerful but fast running back.
The other aspect of the run game is the offensive line. Michigan’s offensive line has also been below average for several years now. This Michigan line has been much improved to this point. Now all this information is keeping in mind that the competition has not been top tier, but Michigan did have a very good showing against Washington. So far this season Michigan has only given up six sacks and they have averaged 350.3 yards per game on the ground. This is the best offensive line I have seen in Michigan in years. There top-rated lineman is Stueber at right tackle who is currently projected to be a third or fourth round pick, but this line is playing very well together. I am excited to see Zak Zinter and how he plays this season. He is only a sophomore this year and has the potential to be a very good guard on the right side for the next couple years. Michigan has the components to finally put together a legitimate threat in the run game!
Michigan has always been known for being a run first program with game managers at quarter back, aside for the short-lived Rich Rod experiment. This year is no exception to that schematic. As many other aspects of Michigan’s program over the past few years, Michigan has not had an elite quarterback or even a good one. McNamara is coming into his junior year after taking over the starting role last season. McNamara is a game manager style quarterback who has a high football IQ and is a good quarterback that is not elite at any physical aspect. Waiting in the wings is J.J. McCarthy. This kid has all the hype and is physically gifted like no quarterback that Michigan has had in a while. He made that clear against Western Michigan with his across field bullet that led to his first career touchdown. McCarthy is the quarterback of the future and I see him taking over as the starter next season. McNamara has started this season with not a lot of pressure due to the success of the run game. So far this season McNamara has thrown for 371 yards and three touchdowns. He has completed 64% of his passes and has not thrown an interception, yet. One of the questions surrounding Michigan’s passing attack is, can McNamara lead the passing attack and handle the load against a good team where they cannot rely on their running game?
The biggest question mark in the passing attack is “who will step up in the wide receiving core?” Ronnie Bell came back for his senior season with plans to have a big season and help Michigan compete. The issue was that it was not in the cards for him this season as he went down in week one with a season ending knee injury. This was a huge blow for Michigan. Outside of Bell, Michigan does not have wide-out or tight end with more than 15 receptions in a season. Michigan does have a very talented wide receiver core, but they are just completely unproven. With Ronnie Bell being out, someone, if not multiple guys, have to step up to help McNamara, as a quarterback is only part of the equation in the passing attack. With all the talent they have I am expecting Cornelius Johnson to be the guy who steps up and takes over as the number one receiver.
Michigan’s defense, in recent years, has looked great against weaker teams but has been gashed against ranked opponents. This has been Michigan’s MO for the last 17 years. Through three games this season Michigan’s defense has been average. They have given up an average of 289 yards per game and 11.3 points per game. They have been averaging five penalties a game for an average of 48.7 yards per game. They have only produced five sacks and two turnovers on the season so far. This number has got to improve for them to beat the better teams they will face this season. Michigan’s defense is led by returning senior Aiden Hutchinson. Hutchinson comes into this season as a projected first round pick. They also returned Josh Ross and Brad Hawkins. Rosh is the other leader on that defense playing at the MIKE linebacker and Hawkins leads the secondary at strong safety. Vincent Gray has played very well so far this season and is second on the team for passes defended. Michigan’s defense has yet to play an elite offense or even a very good one, but those games are coming quickly, and we will find out if this defense will break the mold of not being competitive in the big games. Michigan brought in Mike MacDonald to be their defensive coordinator this off-season and so far, I really like what he has been doing. One of the big knocks on Michigan’s defense in years past is they did not adjust to what their opponent’s offense would do. MacDonald seems to have addressed that issue. An example of this was the game against Western Michigan. In the first quarter Western was able to go down the field in their first two possessions. They scored on their first possession and Michigan was able to stop them on the second possession but not till they gained 51 yards. Following that possession MacDonald made adjustments with the defense and Michigan and did not give up a drive over 20 yards until the third quarter. This is going to be a very important aspect in Michigan’s defense if they wish to be successful against the higher ranked teams.
They Will Compete!
As a Michigan fan I came into this year not expecting anything spectacular and I am ready for them to make a change at head coach. This year has started out the same as so many other years, but this year is different! Harbaugh has finally decided to take a step back and not micromanage his coaching staff and is allowing guys like MacDonald and Gattis to run their side of the ball how they want. As fans, we are finally able to witness things like in-game adjustments, something that has been missing since Harbaugh took over. This team has a borderline elite running game and I see them being able to be effective in the run game against every opponent they face. Although they are not elite on defense they are playing well as a unit and I love what MacDonald is doing to this point. The real wild card for me this season is Cade McNamara. If Cade can continue to manage the games as well as he has and take some of the pressure off the run game in the big games, this team will finally win their first Big 10 title. Now I am no fool, this is not because Michigan is a National Championship contender. They are nowhere near Alabama’s level, but the Big 10 is down a little this year. OSU is struggling and Wisconsin has not looked good yet. Penn State looks like they are going to be a very tough game and the surprise this year is MSU. Michigan will not have an easy run at winning the Big 10, and it will only happen if they continue to improve, but they finally have the pieces to make a run this year. Michigan is not National Championship “for real” but they will compete for the Big 10 title for the first time under Jim Harbaugh!