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Michigan has certainly looked the part of a College Football Playoff contender through three weeks, but the competition it’s faced hasn’t exactly been up to snuff. While Western Michigan might have been the best of the three opponents thus far considering it just took down ACC team Pitt, Washington and NIU are both 1-2 on the year with the former being the most likely to regain some momentum this season.
But it’s not just that the Wolverines are winning, it’s how they’re winning.
Right now, Michigan is rated No. 6 in the ESPN SP+, which is a predictive tempo and opponent-adjusted advanced analytics model created by Bill Connelly. In this model, Michigan has the 12th-best offense and eighth-ranked defense to go along with the second-best special teams unit. Though Ohio State is still ranked ahead of the maize and blue, its struggles are apparent, and that’s led Connelly to an interesting conclusion: the Big Ten will get two teams into the College Football Playoff this year, and the Buckeyes won’t be one of them. ($)
That leaves the door wide open for Michigan, which Connelly spent most of his time talking about.
Back in the early days of Jim Harbaugh’s time at Michigan, his Wolverines wouldn’t just beat overmatched opponents, they would make examples of them. They allowed 14 points in a five-game stretch of blowouts early in 2015. They humiliated Hawaii, Rutgers and Maryland by a combined 200-6 in 2016. They’ve still seen some blowout wins since, but the edge, the outright willingness to offend, was not quite the same.
On Saturday, we got the clearest impression yet that Harbaugh’s 2021 Wolverines have regained their edge. That they blew out an outmanned Northern Illinois team wasn’t in itself very telling; the lack of mercy they showed, however — even while emptying the bench — might have been. Up 28-3 late in the first half, Cade McNamara went deep to Cornelius Johnson for an 87-yard score. Running backs Blake Corum and blue-chipper Donovan Edwards scored on romps of 51 and 58 yards, respectively, in the third quarter. The Wolverines scored touchdowns on their first nine possessions, and after driving 72 yards for a field goal in the first quarter, NIU gained just 61 yards over its next eight drives. Final score: UM 63, NIU 10.
Michigan is 3-0 and has rocketed up to sixth in SP+. From a numbers perspective, the Wolverines have been unassailable. Corum and receiver A.J. Henning give them both versatility and genuine speed on the edge. Hassan Haskins remains a powerful option in the backfield, and Edwards (15 carries for 117 yards this year) might command more playing time soon. That McNamara went 8-for-11 passing for 191 yards on Saturday might have assuaged at least some of the “what happens when they actually have to pass?” concerns that swelled through two games, and Johnson’s long touchdown dropped hints as to who will step forward in the receiving corps with leader Ronnie Bell out for the season.
Of the 15 power-conference teams with at least a 4% chance of going 11-1 or better, per SP+, five reside in the Big Ten. Even if Alabama and Georgia win out in the regular season and gobble up two of the four spots in the College Football Playoff — which is obviously far from guaranteed — the oddity of the early season and the sheer depth of options within the Big Ten could mean that it has a chance at scoring both of the other two spots.
Of course, should Michigan attain such a goal, it would likely have to win out or come close. Wisconsin already has a loss, but if it was to win out then the Week 5 matchup wouldn’t be a disaster if the Wolverines couldn’t win in Madison. Additionally, Penn State continues to impress, as does Michigan State.
Naturally, the only way to know for sure is to play the games, and Big Ten play begins on Saturday when Michigan football hosts Rutgers at 3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC.