The Wolverine

September 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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SEPTEMBER 2021 THE WOLVERINE 65 M ichigan's season-opening kickoff is finally right around the corner and, of course, an- ticipation about how the Wolverines will perform in 2021 is peaking. Ques- tions are flying around concerning whether Michigan will bounce back after a dispiriting 2-4 COVID-short- ened campaign in 2020 or if another underwhelming year will mean the end of the Jim Harbaugh era. And everyone asking these questions is hoping to learn the answers as soon as possible. So naturally, all eyes are focused on Michigan's week-two matchup with Washington. No offense, Western Michigan. Michigan's marquee, non-confer- ence, prime-time showdown with Washington should be U-M's first true test of the season. The Huskies were 3-1 in Jimmy Lake's first season as head coach, and they would have represented the Pac-12 North in the conference championship game if they did not have to bow out due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Huskies should be a quality pack again this season. They are No. 20 in the preseason Associated Press poll, and the advanced metrics project that they will be even better. SP+ — an opponent- and tempo-adjusted look at the most sustainable and predictive aspects of college football created by ESPN's Bill Connelly — has them at No. 13. The Sagarin ratings list them at No. 16. As a result, some have picked the Washington contest to be Michigan's most important or anticipated of the season, including this author in The Wolverine's 2021 football preview. Yes, even more important or anticipated than Ohio State, which just sounds wrong off the tongue. But the notion was that the Washington outcome could set the stage for the rest of the season. Win, and the Wolverine regain their confidence and victories. Lose, and everything collapses. However, upon further review, this may not be the correct line of thinking. In fact, in recent history, U-M's most- anticipated early game has often not foretold what would happen that year. In each season from 2009-20, Michi- gan has faced at least one Power Five opponent in its first three contests. Yet Michigan's first matchup with a Power Five opponent in each of those years revealed what to expect for the Wolverines the rest of that season only five out of 12 times. More often than not, Michigan's initial barometer for the season has fooled the fans and pundits. In 2009, Michigan upset No. 18 Notre Dame with a last-second touch- down in week two, and for a single afternoon, then-true freshman Tate Forcier was the savior for Michigan football and the prince of college foot- ball. The Wolverines finished the year 5-7. The following season, Denard Robinson dazzled as Michigan's prolific dual-threat quarterback with record-breaking efforts in wins against UConn and at Notre Dame the first two weeks. The Wolverines stumbled to 7-6. In 2013, Devin Gardner followed in Robinson's footsteps with an excellent performance in a rivalry win against the No. 14 Fighting Irish. And again, the Wolverines sputtered to a 7-6 re- cord. This misdirection has continued un- der Harbaugh as well — both ways. In 2015, Michigan suffered a road loss to Utah in the first contest of Harbaugh's tenure. However, the Wolverines steamrolled most of their competition the rest of the way, including three straight shutouts, with the exceptions of one of the flukiest losses of all time to Michigan State and running into a juggernaut in Ohio State. The Wolver- ines concluded with a 10-3 mark and just outside the top 10. A similar thing also happened in 2018. Michigan's offense struggled in a season-opening defeat at No. 12 Notre Dame, and there was much discussion about whether U-M was faltering again after a disappointing 2017. Yet the Wolverines then rattled off 10 straight wins, including three straight against ranked opponents by a combined score of 101-27, and were the favorites to win the Big Ten and clinch a berth in the College Football Playoff before "crossing routes" hit in a loss to Ohio State. Michigan has also had its mirages under Harbaugh, too. In 2017, Michi- gan's comfortable win against No. 17 Florida at the Dallas Cowboys' "Jerry World" quickly turned out to not be of much substance; both the Wolver- ines and Gators underachieved that year. Last season, the Wolverines opened with a resounding 49-24 road win at No. 21 Minnesota, but it was then quickly revealed that neither program was very good. U-M eked out just one more win, and the Gophers finished below .500. It is easy and understandable to overreact to an early-season test. There is an impulse to dissect what has hap- pened and what it means for the fu- ture. But one early game, an extremely small sample size, often does not illus- trate what a team is about and what it will be. It may be an off game. Or the opponent is not as good as most think. Or Michigan's personnel will improve with each week as the team jells. And a win or loss against Washington has no impact on the Big Ten. So let's refrain from overreacting to week two when Washington comes to Ann Arbor. Instead, save it for week five when the Wolverines travel to Madison. ❏ INSIDE THE NUMBERS   DREW HALLETT Will Washington Set Tone For 2021? Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett. U-M has both surprised after losses in its most-anticipated early season games and underachieved after impressive openers under head coach Jim Harbaugh. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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