While most preseason projections pegged Ohio State and Iowa as presumptive Big Ten title frontrunners, Michigan’s first two weeks of the season were arguably better than both. Behind a punishing defense, the Wolverines are talented enough to bring the conference title back to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2004.
With three linebackers removed from last year’s defensive unit, there was a question whether a defense that served as the catalyst of a five-win uptick in Jim Harbaugh’s inaugural campaign would be as talented, as disciplined, and as suffocating the second time around.
Two weeks into the regular season, however, the Wolverines’ crushing 4-3 base scheme has not only answered the bell, it’s eclipsed expectations.
Michigan can boast the No. 1 overall defense, the No. 1 run defense and the No. 1 pass rush in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus, despite three contributors on the defensive line combining for just 61 snaps. Playing without cornerback Jourdan Lewis, the highest-graded cornerback of 2015, the Wolverines’ secondary ranks No. 3 nationally in coverage. Opponents have made it inside the Michigan red zone once in two hours of game time this season — and didn’t come away with points.
Hawaii and Central Florida, Michigan’s first two opponents, combined for 17 points and 31 first downs. A 63-3 season-opening victory was so out of hand, Harbaugh played 18 true freshmen and 33 of his 79 players (41.8 percent) made their collegiate debuts. As Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich put it after the 60-point loss: “If I was a Michigan fan, I’d be excited.”
On paper, the Wolverines reloaded more smoothly than every other elite defense. Michigan returned six players who have at least six starts under their belts, and is the only top-five defense, as graded by Pro Football Focus, to not have a player selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Alabama, for example, had four players taken in the second round alone, and was tasked with replacing four defensive linemen. In fact, the Wolverines had one defensive player drafted at all — meaning that, while players certainly must step in and fill the gaps left by departed seniors, the core of the group remains in Ann Arbor.
Jabrill Peppers, perhaps the most versatile player in the country, could be in the running for the Heisman; he is Phil Steele’s No. 1 draft-eligible strong safety, even though he plays a little bit of everything. It took him less than 10 minutes into the season before he literally jumped over a player on a punt return. Peppers allowed just 32 receptions a season ago when he lined up as a slot cornerback in coverage, making him the best in the country at the position. Now, opponents can plan on him being involved in essentially every package, all over the field.
Rush defense, then, is critical to Michigan’s success this season, considering the Big Ten Conference leads all conferences in rush attempts (1,128), rush net yards (5,692) and leads all Power-5 conferences in yards per rush (5.05). This is precisely why the fact that the Wolverines top rush-defense grade by Pro Football Focus is worth acknowledging. Michigan’s ability to maintain what it has shown through the opening two weeks once the Wolverines enter the meat-and-potatoes portion of their conference schedule will decide the outcome of the season.
If anything, red flags surrounding the offensive side of the ball were the primary reason why Michigan wasn’t flagged by many as a national title contender this season. However, that same offense has yet to commit a penalty while combining for 114 points, the most for the program through two games since 1914. With an improved defense, Harbaugh has Michigan looking better than advertised in 2016.