The Michigan Wolverines, led by coach Jim Harbaugh, have the chance to shake up the college football landscape over the next several weeks.
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ANN ARBOR — A three-week stretch of appetizers is over for Michigan.
Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland were gobbled up, as the Wolverines loaded up on victories and confidence. Now they’ll put that loot on display in a main-course feast of No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 8 Ohio State in back-to-back weeks and find out if it’s all just fool’s gold.
Nineteenth-ranked Michigan (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) is the only team in the country that plays two top-10 foes the final two weeks of the season, presenting an opportunity for UM to change the narrative of its year.
“We’re a lot more confident,” senior linebacker and co-captain Mike McCray said. “We went through a little bit of adversity, and we know we can fight through that adversity. Since [the Penn State loss Oct. 21], we’re closer together as a team. We go out every game, have fun together, and compete.”
In the past three games, Michigan has outscored opponents 103-34, infusing the team with momentum that’s been missing all season. And it’s the offense that has supplied the goods. Brandon Peters has completed 61 percent of his passes, keeping defenses honest and creating an opening for the run game. He also has zero turnovers since taking over at quarterback.
“We took it upon ourselves to give ourselves the identity of being a running team,” senior center Patrick Kugler said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that. We’ve established ourselves in the run game, and it’s really opened up the passing game.”
But Peters hasn’t faced a hostile environment like Camp Randall Stadium, and he hasn’t stared across the line of scrimmage at the Wisconsin defense. The Badgers rank first in total defense, first in rush defense, and a measly seventh in pass defense.
“Very physical team,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Talented players and very tough schemes to prepare for.”
A path to the Big Ten championship game exists for Michigan, but it’s littered with more potholes than the Anthony Wayne Trail — Penn State and Michigan State both have to lose again, which seems unlikely with Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland left on their schedules.
The Wolverines wouldn’t quibble over a first-place tie in the East Division, even if it meant staying home from Indianapolis. It would mean they beat Wisconsin and Ohio State, signaling that Michigan should be taken seriously as a conference contender.
“We’ve taken the role of a villain,” Kugler said. “People have been doubting us, saying we haven’t beaten a team with a winning record this year. The next two games are two big ones — Wisconsin and Ohio State. If we can come out on top in both of those, the villain wins. That’s a fun role to play. It’s fun to ruin people’s seasons.”
Harbaugh described Saturday’s 35-10 win at Maryland as perhaps the best game Michigan’s played all season. It was a peculiar judgment, considering the Wolverines were outgained significantly in the second half and because of the game’s general lack of rhythm.
If UM proves the past three weeks were the beginning of a late-season sea change, it must raise the bar on the “best game of the year” conversation. Wisconsin, after all, is primed to crash the College Football Playoff.
If the trends Michigan developed against the Big Ten’s bottom feeders are legit, the eyes of the nation will see the result in college football’s game of the week. And it will unfold over four quarters, not one half like last week’s rugged road to 60 minutes.
“It’s going to be a hostile environment, so we just have to keep these things in mind — stay focused and be confident,” sophomore cornerback David Long said. “You need your confidence going into away games, especially going to Wisconsin.”
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