Top-10 battle provides true test for Wolverines

The last time Michigan beat a team ranked in the AP top 10 came the day after a national presidential debate. A youthful Barack Obama edged out Sen. John McCain, according to poll data released eight years ago to the day.

In short, it’s been a while. No. 4 Michigan faces No. 8 Wisconsin at home Saturday with a chance to snap that drought and prove its bona fides as a playoff contender.

The Wolverines have swept aside the first four opponents on their 2016 schedule with only a small, first-quarter hiccup against Colorado. Head coach Jim Harbaugh says the heightened opportunity this weekend doesn’t change the way his team will prepare for the Badgers and that message has seeped down through the rest of the locker room. It’s impossible to deny, though, no matter how they approach the prelude to this game, a victory against a top-10 team is an important milestone on the path they hope to take to a conference championship and beyond.

“It would be significant,” junior defense lineman Chase Winovich admitted. “It would definitely give us some confidence.”

Winovich was taken aback when a reporter for MLive.com informed him that it had been eight long years since his team knocked off a top-10 opponent. He said that number wasn’t one he knew off the top of his head, but he countered quickly by saying the date that stuck out most to him and his teammates was 2004: the last time the Wolverines won the Big Ten.

Bringing a conference championship back to Michigan has been the stated goal in Ann Arbor for many years, this one being no different. There are several hurdles to clear between late September and a confetti-draped dais in Indianapolis. Most notably, the Wolverines need to exorcise demons against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, both of whom won games at the Big House during Harbaugh’s first season.

Wisconsin’s stiff defense -- the Big Ten’s best in points allowed (11.8 per game) and rushing yards allowed (80.5 per game) -- provides much more than a dress rehearsal for those future games. The Badgers provide a real measuring stick, a physical presence that Michigan will have to beat at least once if it’s going to win a title, and a chance to kick the proverbially tires to see how far the team has come during a long-term rebuild.

“Even when I was a recruit, I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew this was in some sense a project,” Winovich said Monday. “Back to when I was playing scout team freshman year trying to rally other people to give better effort, this is the same thing. This is what I’ve been working for and what we’re trying to help get Michigan to. We’re finally here.”

Harbaugh, like most college football coaches, has a near-religious dedication to the “each day is as important as the next” philosophy. That makes it easy to believe his approach heading into this game is the same as it is each week. His undying and often-professed love for good, clean competition makes it equally easy to believe he’ll be a bit more curious on the weekend to see how his team stacks up to a Wisconsin program that has already knocked off top-10 teams LSU and Michigan State.

“There’s an opportunity to show what you can do up there as a football player,” Harbaugh said when asked about the challenge the Badgers represent. “I’ve always believed that good football players, that’s kind of why they get together for games. Good football players going against each other to show who the best is, that’s the best thing about football.”

Offensive lineman Ben Braden, part of a Michigan running game that may have more to prove than any other group on the field this Saturday, said he’s much more focused on the size of Wisconsin’s defensive line than the size of the number next to their name in the polls. The mental blockade of not beating a top-10 team in the last eight years may not exist, Braden says, but dealing with the physical Badgers is a very real rest.

“We welcome that as a team,” Braden said. “And obviously coach Harbaugh loves tests.”

He’s got a big one this weekend.