Michigan football fans are not conditioned in their modern state to feel anything good. The sport so many of them live and die with has burned them too often over the past 20 years for many Wolverines fans to feel truly excited as the calendar flips from month to month in the fall.
This September has put these fans in a tough spot. Michigan football is off to a 3-0 start, and if you’ve watched the games or looked at the numbers, you know it’s been a crisp 3-0. The Wolverines have beaten Western Michigan, Washington and Northern Illinois by a combined 107 points, the largest cumulative margin of victory among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Michigan was supposed to win all of these games, but there is winning and then there is covering the spread by nearly 19 points per game. Save for losing star receiver Ronnie Bell to a right knee injury for the year, it would be tough to imagine Jim Harbaugh having a smoother first three weeks of a season.
Yet Michigan fans understand how this goes. Harbaugh was 18-3 in August and September since his takeover of the program in 2015 through last season (though there were no such games for the team in 2020). That was the seventh-best winning percentage in FBS in the season’s opening stretch during those years. The problem was October and November, months in which Harbaugh has gone 30-15 — a nice enough record for most teams but not nearly enough to get Michigan over the Big Ten East hump. Many are understandably circumspect about what lies in store for 2021.
Before we go further, it’s worth doing the necessary Michigan-related hedging. The Wolverines might fall apart and lose three to five games, as they’ve done several times in recent years. They might be great but fall short in their regular-season finale against Ohio State, which is now an annual bit of misery (save for 2020) no matter what’s happened up to that point. In short, Michigan could do what Michigan has done too many times before. These potential outcomes all point to fans shielding their hearts from vulnerability. Why get too serious with a team that has hurt you? But if Michigan fans can stomach it, they should let themselves live a little bit. Three games into 2021, there is no reason Michigan won’t have Harbaugh’s big breakthrough this year.
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In Harbaugh’s first six years, his offenses were good, but not great, and “good” does not win the Wolverines’ division, much less anything beyond that. From 2015 to 2020, Michigan was 19th in FBS in expected points added per game on offense, adjusted for opponent quality. The results varied a bit by year, but its most productive offense by far was in 2016, when Michigan came a J.T. Barrett fourth-down spot away from making the Big Ten Championship. That team produced an adjusted offensive EPA of 15.16 per game. That was the best college offense Harbaugh has ever fielded, save for the 2010 Stanford outfit that had Andrew Luck and various NFL pass-catchers and produced a figure of 20.19.
The Wolverines have been unable to approach their 2016 level over the last four years. But this year, Michigan leads all of FBS in adjusted offensive EPA and is tracking, at this early date, to produce the most efficient offense by EPA of Harbaugh’s career. Adjusted EPA flattens out the results some, since it accounts for the competition level faced, which means the computers aren’t calling fraud on Michigan’s excellent start.
Along the same line, Michigan’s September success looks like a shift upward even when compared only with its previous nonconference schedules. In strictly regular-season, nonconference games in Harbaugh’s first six years, Michigan’s offense was a combined 44th in adjusted EPA per game. This year, Michigan is second. And again, that’s an opponent-adjusted stat, which suggests that Michigan’s leap can’t be chalked up totally to a schedule that lacks a team like Florida or Notre Dame, two recent season-opener foes for Harbaugh’s teams.