Now that we're through the non-conference portion of Michigan's 2018 football season, we've learned two things:
1) The defense is very, very good, but it's not special.
2) This team will go as far as Shea Patterson takes them.
Let's take these one at a time, starting with the defense. Michigan comes out of the non-conference surrendering 276.4 total yards and 15.7 points per game. Those are numbers are on par with Don Brown's first two defenses in Ann Arbor, and are especially outstanding given today's more wide-open offensive version of college football. However, as we saw last season when it couldn't hold leads in the final three games of the season the Wolverines lost, and was put back on its heels at the start of the Notre Dame game this year, preseason comparisons to 1997 were delusions of grandeur.
Nevertheless, it doesn't have to be 1997 special for Michigan to finally end its longest championship drought in program history this season. It just means the Wolverines need to do something consistently that has eluded the program for many years now -- play complementary football.
Every player that started on defense for Alabama in its 2015 and 2016 national title game clashes with Clemson eventually made it onto a NFL roster. In other words, those were some elite units. Still, the Crimson Tide needed to score 45 points to eke out a win in the 2015 national championship game, and scored 31 in the 2016 national title game and still lost. In other words, even elite defenses need complementary football in today's era of wide-open offenses.
This is why Shea Patterson is the most valuable player on this year's team, which many of us suspected might be the case before the season, but the history of the Wolverines under Harbaugh confirms.
So far, Harbaugh is 30-12 (.714 win percentage) at Michigan. While that's pretty good, and clearly an upgrade over the .574 win percentage the Wolverines posted for the decade prior to his arrival, if Michigan had played more complementary football it would've been so much better.
In half of Harbaugh's 12 losses so far, the opponent scored 24 points or less in regulation.
If Michigan had managed to score 25 points in those games, which would've ranked as the 90th best scoring offense in college football last season, Harbaugh's entire resume is transformed. Michigan is 10-2 instead of 9-3 and likely in a New Year's Six Bowl as opposed to the Citrus Bowl in 2015. Michigan finishes the 2016 regular season undefeated, and finally makes it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. Likely ranked #2 in the country behind only Alabama. And 2017 goes from 8-4 to 10-2, and again Michigan is likely New Year's Six bound instead of losing to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Furthermore, Harbaugh's win percentage jumps to an impressive .857. That's Nick Saban-Urban Meyer territory.
"But, Steve," some of you will say, "you can't expect to win all those games. Be more realistic."
You're right, so let's say Harbaugh only wins half those six games. Now he's 33-9 (.787 win percentage).
Let's say Michigan still loses Harbaugh's first game at Utah with a team and coach getting to know each other. Still loses this year's opener at Notre Dame, where the Wolverines are breaking in a new quarterback and have never won a road game. That leaves three of those wins spread out over the 2016 and 2017 seasons -- at Iowa and at Ohio State in 2016, Michigan State and at Wisconsin in 2017. Pick any three of those games, give Michigan 25 points on the scoreboard, and all of a sudden the entire perception of the Harbaugh era changes, haters be damned.
Gone is the embarrassing road losing streak against ranked opponents. Gone is the rivalry game narrative. Gone is the Indianapolis void. Everything changes, and for the much better.
Keep in mind, we're not asking for superhuman here. In fact, in three of those games (Iowa and Ohio State in 2016, Michigan State in 2017) the Wolverines needed to score fewer than 20 points in regulation to win. Hardly an insurmountable task, unless your quarterback play isn't capable of playing complementary football against quality opposition.
Now, though, Harbaugh has his five-star quarterback, and already you can see the improvement:
So here's what this all means: in Shea we trust.