The 2015 college football season was marked by the dawn of the Jim Harbaugh era at the University of Michigan, but only now will we discover if all of the offseason buzz was warranted.
While I’m not suggesting that Harbaugh’s first season as the head coach in Ann Arbor will be a failure if his team isn’t vying for a Big Ten title, given the high expectations that coincided with his arrival, the Wolverines need to at least show some significant progress has been made.
Michigan has quietly gone about its business in the past two weeks, taking care of overmatched Oregon State and UNLV squads at home following the disappointing opening loss at Utah. While neither of these wins aid the argument that Michigan is “back,” they do prove that the Wolverines possess the poise to bounce back and take care of the games they’re supposed to win. This is to be expected under a coach with the resume of Harbaugh’s, but, nevertheless, it is a positive sign that Michigan is headed in the right direction under new leadership.
The real tests, however, are still on the horizon.
This week, the Wolverines will have an opportunity to reclaim some of the respect they lost against the Utes in their first big home game of the season against BYU. While the Cougars are not the same caliber of team they were with quarterback Taysom Hill, who was lost to a season-ending foot injury in the team’s season opener, they are still ranked 22nd in the nation. After beating Nebraska and Boise State and losing by just one point on the road to the ninth-ranked UCLA Bruins, the Cougars serve as a solid measuring stick for Michigan, at the least.
Winning at home against a ranked team, even if they are coming off a murderous stretch with a freshman QB, would be the first headline earned on the field by Michigan — something this team needs in order to prove it’s more than a product of the media’s hype. A win over BYU would also be a crucial engine starter for Michigan before they embark on a treacherous string of conference games.
After their battle with the Cougars, Michigan will take on Maryland, 17th-ranked Northwestern, 2nd-ranked Michigan State and Minnesota. While the Terps have looked worse than expected thus far, that game is at night on the road and could be a trap if the Wolverines are looking ahead to their match-ups with the rising Wildcats and rival Spartans. The road trip to Minnesota, another 8:00 p.m. kickoff, could make the difference between a trip to one of the better bowl games or a lousy one.
While some will say Michigan’s season will be a success even if they do barely manage to make a bowl game, six or seven wins in a top-heavy Big Ten doesn’t justify all of the Harbaugh hype. Sure, these aren’t Harbaugh’s players, but ex-head coach Brady Hoke didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare after signing consecutive top-ten recruiting classes in 2012-13 and another ranked 20th nationally in 2014, either. The old saying is Rome wasn’t built in a day, but after months of speculation about the rebirth of Michigan, the construction crew is under a tighter deadline than they are on most other projects.
With the Wolverines’ biggest rivals currently sitting on top of the national rankings, Michigan has still managed to assert itself into the discussion thanks to the impressive credentials of its new coach and storied history. However, if we’re really going to believe the Wolverines are primed for great things in the near future, it’s time for them to prove it on the field.