We're a company that writes from the perspective of fans, but when I write articles across SB Nation, I typically at least try to be as objective as possible. That's going to be hard when I write about BYU's next opponent.
I was born in Central Ohio, and lived there for 18 years. I got my degree from Ohio State, as did several of my family members. And if there is one thing I was taught by living in Columbus, besides an affinity for square hamburgers, it was to hate Michigan. Actually, we don't even like to say that word where I grew up...it's kinda like Voldemort. The preferred nomenclature is "That School Up North." That, or something that I probably shouldn't type on a BYU blog.
Needless to say, I hope BYU beats Michigan by 40.
But that hate comes from a place of knowledge, and it's more fun to hate on a team when you know a little bit more about them. Here are some things I think you should know about the Michigan Wolverines.
Tell me a little about the history of Michigan football
Never, ever ask a Michigan fan about this, or you'll be there for a week. The TL;DR version is that the Wolverines claim more wins than any other college football program, and until fairly recently, also claimed the best winning percentage of all time (Notre Dame recently passed them, but it's close). Michigan fans hate it when you mention that a huge chunk of those wins came from an era when beating your local YMCA was considered a quality win, and before inventions like the forward pass, or I dunno, penicillin. Because of this, you should probably find a way to mention it at your tailgate.
Ribbing aside, few programs can claim a football pedigree that's peer to Michigan's. They've got three Heisman winners, 42 conference titles, over 70 All-Americans, and 11 national championships, although only one of those happened after 1948, in 1997. Michigan also plays in the biggest college football stadium in the country, The Big House, which seats over 109,000.
Wow, Michigan must have a pretty commanding home field advantage then. I bet that place is loud!
You'd think that! This isn't an Ohio State-homer dig here, by the way. Ann Arbor is an amazing college town (it's better than Columbus, in my opinion), and BYU fans going to this game will love spending time there, will love tailgating, and will enjoy Michigan Stadium, which is full of cool college football history and is a fun place to watch a football game.
But it's not that loud! A big part of this is just the architecture of the stadium. It's really just a big dang hole in the ground, so the sound isn't retained. But it's also partly because of who goes to these games. Michigan's crowds are a little older, a little more wine & cheese types, than some of their Big Ten brethren. This is the kind of stadium where somebody might yell at you for standing up. Plus, Michigan fans haven't exactly had much to cheer about lately.
Wait, a team that has that much history, with a huge stadium and a major conference, and I assume makes lots of money...
Oh yeah, athletic department took in nearly $158 Million dollars last year, only behind Oregon and Texas. They're loaded.
...Right. How can you screw all of that up? Shouldn't Michigan always be good?
Great question! Since Lloyd Carr left after the 2007 season, Michigan has just won a single bowl game, finished in the Top 25 only twice, fired two coaches, and had three losing seasons -- an era basically unheard of in Michigan history.
Part of that can be explained by two coaching hires that didn't work out (Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke), part can be explained by some bad luck with injuries and recruiting misses. But honestly, the biggest single reason may have been Michigan's former athletic director Dave Brandon, who ruled like a cartoonish Montgomery Burns villain. He meddled, he peddled Michigan's tradition and name for #BRANDS points until he was gone, and he had horrible ideas, like say, not playing Ohio State-Michigan every year. He's probably why the Rodriguez hire didn't work. Brandon and Steve Patterson at Texas are proof that even the best programs can fall apart if they have terrible leadership at the top.
Next time you see Tom Holmoe, give him a hug. It's good to have a good athletic director.
Okay, but Dave Brandon is gone, and so is Brady Hoke. I understand Michigan has a new coach now.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Michigan was actually called the HARBAUGHS instead of the Wolverines at this point. Yes, everyone's favorite khaki-clad crazy person is roaming the sidelines for the Wolverines now, looking to rebuild the team in his power-football image. Michigan fans are elated that they've found their savior, in a dude who isn't just an excellent football coach, but a true Michigan Man, one of them, who certainly won't ever leave after a few seasons unlike everywhere else he's ever been, because all of those problems have totally gone away---oh, what's that? The Indianapolis Colts are calling? Oh, I'm sure that's nothing.
Tell me a little about Michigan on offense
Schematically, Michigan wants to wear you down by dominating the line of scrimmage, throwing a bunch of tight ends around and run power rushing, and then pop you with some play action passes. It's not an exceptionally explosive unit, it doesn't take a ton of risks, and right now, it's not exactly blowing anybody away.
De'Veon Smith is getting the most carries out of the backfield right now, and had some nice moments against Oregon State. He's spelled by former five-star recruit (and former USC Trojan) Ty Isaac, who dropped a 76 yard TD run on UNLV, and former five-star recruit Derrick Green, who has been a bit of a non-factor so far this season. Michigan has other backs who could get carries, depending on the situation, and may be not shy about sharing the ball if one back struggles. There's an interesting mixture of power, pass-catching ability and versatility here, if not breakaway speed, but it hasn't quite come together yet.
The best pass catching weapon on Michigan, and really, their best offensive weapon at all, is big tight end Jake Butt (yes, think of your best jokes now, Twitter gets competitive when Butt catches the ball). Butt has great hands, great size (6'6, 248), and can be a mismatch nightmare in the redzone or over the middle.
On the outside, Michigan's Amara Darbo is one of the fastest players on the team and perhaps their best playmaker outside of Butt, but from there, things get inexperienced or unproved pretty quickly. Drake Harris and Grant Perry have shown flashes, particularly as blockers, but the consistency isn't there. In the passing game, it's Butt, Darbo, and then, *shrug emoji*.
Who is throwing those guys the ball?
That would be Jake Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa. Rudock's ceiling as a player is probably lower than some of the other QBs on Michigan's roster, but he was given the keys to the offense in large part because it was thought that he would make fewer mistakes. Turnovers have absolutely crippled Michigan in recent memory.
Well, after three games, Rudock has thrown five interceptions (as many as he threw in all of 2014), against just three touchdowns. He completes a fairly high percentage of his throws (over 64%), but they're not down the field. Rudock's deep ball leaves a lot to be desired, and he's not especially equipped to help Michigan score quickly. Given what BYU was able to do to the passing offenses of Boise State and UCLA, I think it would be unlikely that Rudock would be the reason for Michigan to win this game. This is a matchup BYU can win.
What about on defense?
Michigan's defense is really good. It's still early in the season, but their defensive S&P+ ranking is 12 in the country, meaning that even adjusted for opponent, Michigan is locking teams up better than nearly anybody else. In particular, the Wolverines have been outstanding at preventing explosive plays (6th best in the country), which seems like a good thing when you're going against a Hail Mary-based offense.
You can throw on Michigan a little bit, but running the ball has proven difficult (top 25 S&P+ adjusted rush defense so far), which doesn't bode well for BYU. Michigan's defensive line, with Willie Henry, Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasglow, has been disciplined and consistent in plugging up rushing holes, and their linebackers tackle well. For a BYU offensive line that hasn't set the world on fire with their run blocking this season, this could be a mismatch.
The defensive player with the most upside is probably safety Jabrill Peppers, who could possibly even take a few snaps on offense. Peppers was an all-everything recruit before missing most of last season with injures, but he's also shown flashes of his exceptional athleticism and tackling. Peppers can blow up running plays and fly all over the field. You might be able to beat him once or twice with a creative coverage, but you probably won't all game, which would mean BYU needs to be a little creative in the passing game to account for him.
So is Michigan any good, or what?
Probably. F/+ already has them as the 25th best team in the country, ahead of Nebraska (at 32), or for that matter, BYU (36). This defense is already really good, and since many of the key players on offense are young, it's likely that the team will continue to get better as the entire squad gets more adjusted to Harbaugh's system and young players get more confidence. This isn't a team that's likely to compete for a Big Ten title, and they may very well finish with a worse record than Nebraska, but it should be a good football team.
Is BYU going to beat them?
Before the season, I thought there was almost no chance. Based on how Michigan had recruited, what Harbaugh's specialty was, and how BYU finished last season, I thought the Wolverines would be able to physically dominate BYU completely on the line of scrimmage, negating BYU's advantages with skill position players, and beat them fairly comfortably.
That's still possible now, but I don't think it's likely. The dominant Michigan offensive line that we've all been expecting for the past three seasons just has not materialized yet. Furthermore, BYU's pass rush has looked much better than last season. UCLA was able to run on the Cougars last week, and Michigan will certainly try to do the same, but the Bruins have better playmakers on the outside, and Paul Perkins is a better running back, easily, than anybody currently toting the rock for the Wolverines. I don't think the trenches should be a blowout any more.
Michigan is not as good a team as UCLA, but they're probably still a tough matchup. I'm not sure there is an easy way for BYU to neutralize Jake Butt, and their defense can take away a lot of things BYU likes to do (create explosive passing plays, run with delayed handoffs, etc). There's also a chance that BYU could be a little physically and emotionally beaten up after three physical, difficult, highly emotional games in a row. Do they have the depth to handle a fourth, against a well rested team at home?
I figure this is going to be a low scoring, physical game. I imagine F/+ would have Michigan as a small favorite, and I think I'd have to agree, but BYU can absolutely win this game, and if there's a little more Mangum Magic left in that tank, they certainly will.
They'll have a lot of friends in Ohio rooting for them, at any rate.