Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, October 2, 2016 at 9:10 PM
Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines were the toast of the general public all summer long and after their 14-7 win over Wisconsin on Saturday, that’s not likely to change. The Wolverines appear set to be undefeated going into their regular season finale with Ohio State. But a question lingers—is this Michigan team really ready to live up to lofty expectations?
Those lofty expectations have Michigan priced as a relatively short 10-1 shot to win the national championship. That’s fourth-best in the country and hasn’t changed much from preseason, when the Wolverines were the most heavily bet team in Las Vegas. Since Michigan hasn’t lost on the field, it’s understandable that the number isn’t moving. But they are losing week-to-week against the spread, a clear indicator that the market might be getting ahead of itself when it comes to the Wolverines.
Michigan’s 14-7 win over Wisconsin came as an (-11.5) favorite. An earlier 45-28 home win over Colorado came with the Wolverines giving (-18), and it’s worth remembering that Michigan had to come on strong in the second half just to make the game close to the number. The Wolverines’ 51-14 win over Central Florida was a push at (-37).
The ATS winners have been a 63-3 rout of Hawaii against a (-38) number and a 49-10 blowout of Penn State with the line at (-16). In those situations, Hawaii was coming off a short week and traveling from Australia. Penn State was playing with a linebacker corps depleted by injuries.
Moreover, watching the Wolverines play on Saturday against the Badgers exposed serious questions about Michigan’s offense. Wisconsin was missing it’s best defensive player, linebacker Vince Biegel, yet Harbaugh’s team couldn’t run the football. They averaged less than three yards a carry. The passing game similarly struggled to produce big plays, getting 6.8 yards-per-attempt.
It’s easy to dismiss this as the product of good defense from Wisconsin, and there’s no denying the Badgers have a solid unit. But while Wisconsin is good, they’re more about size than speed. The fact Michigan was unable to exploit that on the outside raises concerns.
Because if the Wolverines couldn’t make big plays against the Badgers, are they really going to do so against Ohio State? Or Alabama or anyone else Michigan would have to defeat in the College Football Playoff and make that 10-1 ticket cash in?
It’s not that Michigan isn’t a good football team or even that the offense isn’t good. The Wolverines have gone Over on the totals line four times in five games, and it isn’t because of any flaw on defense—they only give up 12 points per game. And for all their problems making big plays on Saturday, quarterback Wilton Speight still found Amara Darboah on a 46-yard fly down the left sideline to win the game in the fourth quarter.
The issue is whether Michigan is really ready to compete with teams like Ohio State and Alabama and whether they’re a legitimate national title contender. Two coming road games, Michigan State and Iowa, don’t look as imposing as they did when the season began. Michigan will continue to be a solid favorite until they go to Columbus in the season finale. If Harbaugh’s team is ready to meet expectations, they’ll start covering some of those big pointspreads in the weeks between now and then.