On paper, Michigan has improved in its first three games with its new coaching staff.
The rushing attack has gone from anemic to assertive in box scores. The turnover margin has trended steadily in the right direction. That's to be expected, though, against the lower level of competition the Wolverines faced after losing to Utah to open the college football season. This week, Michigan faces its first ranked opponent under head coach Jim Harbaugh and its first real indicator of how much the team has grown since he took over.
“I think this will be a great test for our team,” Harbaugh said. “Very excited about the competition this week and what’s in store. It’ll be a great gauge for where our team is at right now.”
No new coach knows exactly what to expect from his team during the first game of the season. Against a strong Utah team, which is 3-0 with a trip to Oregon looming this Saturday, many of the problems that burned Michigan last season emerged again. The team ran for 72 yards against a physical defense and quarterback Jake Rudock threw three interceptions, including a pick-six, in what ended up being a one-score game.
Harbaugh and his staff have had a chance over the past two weeks to diagnose those problems and find solutions. Against an Oregon State team predicted to finish last in the Pac-12 North and 0-3 UNLV, those problems disappeared. The Wolverines averaged 241 yards per game on the ground and allowed only one touchdown in each game. Has Michigan actually taken a significant step forward?
"I definitely think so. That Utah game wasn’t our defense," senior linebacker James Ross said. "That wasn’t the team we were in camp with. I don’t know what happened, but it wasn’t where we should have been. I think we’ve taken tremendous strides since that game."
The defense is certainly more confident. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis said Monday that there was no reason to think his secondary couldn’t be the best in the nation. Ross agreed, saying "it would be criminal" to believe anything less. They will be tested Saturday by BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum and a crew of large, aggressive Cougars wide receivers.
The BYU defense is also large and aggressive. The Cougars are tied for the national lead in interceptions this season with seven. They don’t look particularly daunting in other statistical categories, but that’s largely because they have faced as difficult of a September schedule as any team in college football with a home game against then-No. 20 Boise State sandwiched between trips to Nebraska and No. 9 UCLA.
Harbaugh believes BYU is the toughest front his team has faced to date, and could keep that distinction for most of the season. He praised his offensive linemen Monday for their efforts against UNLV, which ranks 118th nationally in rushing yards allowed.
"They’re playing more physical and they’re finishing," he said. "They’re really making an effort to finish right now, all five of those guys."
A stronger test against the Cougars defense will give Michigan’s offensive line a chance to acquit itself.
Saturday is a swing game for Michigan -- the type that can take expectations for a seven- or eight-win season and brighten them, or send them in the other direction toward anxiety about making a bowl game. The Wolverines are 2-1, as expected, after three weeks of the season. As September draws to a close, this week’s meeting at the Big House should reveal more about the new coaching staff’s impact than any other day to this point in the Harbaugh era.