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Michigan football: Reasons for and against a Big Ten three-peat

The Michigan Wolverines are chasing the coveted three-peat.



Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh
Oct 1, 2022; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh directs his team before the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan football heads into the 2023 season, entering territories not seen for decades, as pre-season favorites to win the Big Ten title. With Ohio State’s domination of the conference for the better part of two decades, it has been a long time since Michigan, or any other team has been an off-season favorite. Even before this past season, when Michigan was defending Big Ten champs for the first time since 2005, almost every national media outlet picked the Buckeyes to regain their footing atop the conference hill. Even the Big Ten media had picked Michigan to finish second at Big Ten media days.

Now after proving everyone wrong a season ago and walking out of Ohio Stadium as the victors, Michigan football has tightened its grasp on the Big Ten crown. So how do their chances look for the coveted three-peat in 2023? Here are three reasons why Michigan will win the Big Ten in 2023 and three things that could stop them from winning a third straight conference title for the first time since 1990-’92.

Three reasons why Michigan will win

1. Experience

It’s no secret that Michigan will be one of the most experienced teams in the country in 2023. At this point, the Wolverines will return a whopping 81% of their total production from a season ago, which is the 5th most in the nation, according to ESPN. This includes 84% of offensive production (4th in the country) and 78% of defensive production (16th in the country). In 2023, Michigan will only face two teams ranked inside the top 40 for returning production, Rutgers (23rd) and Nebraska (39th), two teams that combined 4-14 in conference play last season. The Wolverines’ biggest threats for the east division crown, Ohio State (49th), Penn State (56th), and Maryland (65th), all return significantly less production.

Michigan not only returns the most production in the Big Ten, but a large portion of it comes at key positions, most notably quarterback. With the departures of many long-tenured quarterbacks from most of the Big Ten, experience at the position could be a crucial determining factor in crowning a champion. Of teams with a winning record in 2022, only Michigan and Maryland return their starting quarterback.

Not to mention, that will be coupled with Michigan football returning four guys with starting experience along the offensive line, Blake Corum’s return and a whopping 99% of rushing production from last season. The defense, too, is loaded with guys who played massive roles on last season’s top-ranked unit, including Michigan’s top five tacklers from 2022 (Junior Colson, Micheal Barrett Jr., Rod Moore, Mike Sainristril, Kris Jenkins). Adding insult to injury, the Wolverines bring back what could likely be their best defender and a top cornerback in the entire country, sophomore Will Johnson.

2. Winning Culture

Team culture is one of the most underrated aspects of college sports, not just football. Is everyone on the roster buying into the team? A football team is like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link, and all it takes is one link to fail to cost a team a game. A winning culture is also vital; guys who have “been there and done that” in the biggest games on the biggest stages.

The Wolverines’ roster is currently loaded with guys who’ve played in one or two Big Ten title games and college football playoffs. Current upperclassmen can say they’ve won games at Ohio Stadium, Happy Valley, Kinnick Stadium, Camp Randall and Memorial Stadium, a murderer’s row of Big Ten football venues.

That winning mentality becomes contagious when a program gets rolling and goes on the type of streak the Wolverines are currently enjoying (25-3 overall the past two seasons). Guys go into the biggest games of the year expecting to win. Sometimes this can lead to overconfidence or cockiness and a team’s downfall.

Still, with the proper leadership, coaching, and preparation, that conviction in success can help carry teams through adversity. Players and coaches who don’t believe in themselves pucker at the biggest moments. While we used to see this yearly with the Wolverines against Ohio State, they’ve now turned the tables and the Buckeyes were the team that flinched with the game, and conference title, on the line a season ago.

3. ‘The Game’ is in Ann Arbor

Speaking of Ohio State, the Wolverines get the Buckeyes at ‘The Big House’ for the first time as defending conference champions since 2005. This will also be the first time they’ve faced off in Ann Arbor since Hassan Haskins rushed for five touchdowns in Michigan’s fifteen-point victory in 2021.

While Michigan did have to go down to Columbus last season and still won the conference, it should be substantially easier to catch Ohio State at home. Besides the fact that the Wolverines won at ‘The Shoe’ for the first time since 2000 and that Ohio State has only lost four total home games in the past 10 seasons, Michigan football has always played much better at home. With fans present, Jim Harbaugh has led the Wolverines to a 45-5 record at Michigan Stadium. Comparatively, he has twice as many road losses (10) in nearly half as many games (33).

Now, this is not to say that Ryan Day can’t lead Ohio State into Ann Arbor with a first-year starting quarterback and win. That’s precisely what happened in 2019. Still, is Kyle McCord the same as Justin Fields? Is JT Tuimoloau equal to Chase Young? Is Denzel Burke (or Ole Miss transfer Davison Igbinosun) as good as Jeff Okudah? We shall see.

One thing is certain, if Michigan wants to win the Big Ten, they need to beat the Buckeyes. The last time Michigan won an outright Big Ten title while losing to Ohio State was 1982 (they were co-champions with losses to Ohio State in 1998 and 2004). So don’t expect to see the Wolverines go to Lucas Oil Stadium following a loss the week before.

Three reasons why Michigan won’t

1. Complacency

Let me start by saying I don’t think Michigan football will become complacent in 2023 after back-to-back twelve-plus-win seasons. Not only with the amount of experienced leadership the Wolverines return but after Michigan’s very disappointing showing in the college football playoff, I expect this group to be focused and hungry to achieve their ultimate goal. It is something that the leaders of this team will need to be mindful of all season to avoid any slippage in the earlier parts of the season.

Michigan opens the season with three non-conference cupcakes before facing just one Big Ten team that finished above .500 before November. This means the Wolverines must prepare weekly for a challenging game, as they will have a target on their backs for each game during the season. Coaches like PJ Fleck or Matt Rhule would love nothing more than to earn a signature home victory over a likely top-three Wolverine squad. Subsequently, Michigan will most likely play its four toughest games (at Michigan State, at Penn State, at Maryland vs. Ohio State) in the final six weeks of the season. It won’t be an easy finish to the season. Can the Wolverines stay hungry enough to get through it unscathed?

2. A considerably more difficult road schedule

I can admit that Michigan didn’t have the most difficult schedule last year on their way to a perfect 12-0 regular season. They still played some outstanding teams, including those that finished 4th (Ohio State) and 7th (Penn State) in the final AP poll, but overall they saw their fair share of mediocre teams and only had to play four road games. This year they have five such games, and it’s a noticeably more difficult stretch. While yes, the Wolverines did have to travel to Kinnick Stadium and Ohio Stadium, places they hadn’t won at since 2005 and 2000, respectively, their remaining road opponents (Indiana and Rutgers) won a combined three Big Ten games.

This season, Michigan has five road games (Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan State, Penn State, Maryland), including playing back-to-back road games twice. Michigan football will have to defend two rivalry trophies in hostile environments. Even more difficult is the fact that every single road contest will be a strong candidate to be a night game, and at least two or three very likely will be. How does a probable top-10 matchup, in a night game, amongst a ‘white-out’ in Happy Valley sound?

3. Injuries

Everyone hates to talk about it, but unfortunately, injuries are just a part of the game, and there’s not much you can do to avoid or minimize them. This is why depth is critical, and luckily Michigan has recruited and developed very well and has adequate guys backing up every spot. That said, the only overly realistic way I see Michigan not winning the Big Ten again is due to critical injuries.

A fully (or even mostly) healthy Wolverine squad should be favored to win every game on their schedule. Even in Michigan’s two biggest toss-ups this season, Ohio State and Penn State, the Wolverines will match up against new starting quarterbacks from both teams. Notably, the Wolverines are also a combined 4-0 against them the past two seasons.

Michigan football was bit by the injury bug in 2022, with multiple key guys missing multiple games and three preseason-expected starters that missed all or most of the entire season. Ultimately, injuries very likely cost Michigan a playoff win, as I think that game against TCU goes much differently with a fully healthy team.

Ultimately, Michigan’s ability to stay healthy and keep their play-makers on the field for the biggest games will be the primary deciding factor in their chances at winning the Big Ten title.

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