Michigan football mailbag: Are the Big Ten teams as good as their rankings?

·8 min read

Six up, six down.

The 2021 Michigan football team declared itself an underdog during fall camp and harnessed that mindset en route to a 6-0 start to the season and a number six national ranking. The only thing separating coach Jim Harbaugh’s club from a massive rivalry game with undefeated Michigan State is another underdog from Evanston, Illinois. Oddsmakers peg the Northwestern Wildcats are a 23-point underdog in Saturday's matchup.

This week, players said they plan to continue thinking of themselves as underdogs to avoid upsetting the proverbial apple cart. The mindset Harbaugh and his new staff have cultivated wound up producing the program’s best start since 2016. So why change anything now?

Let’s jump into this week’s mailbag.

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What is your take on this? If you look at who the ranked Big Ten teams played, only one has played anyone with a winning record so far. That puts a big question in my mind as to the validation of the rankings. Like to hear your feedback. — Patrick S.

Thanks for the question, Patrick. The numbers aren’t quite that drastic regarding strength of schedule for the Big Ten teams ranked in the latest USA Today coaches poll, but your point is a fair one.

No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Michigan, No. 7 Michigan State, No. 8 Penn State and No. 11 Iowa have combined to play seven games against opponents who were ranked at the time. Most of those opponents have seen their seasons turn south and subsequently dropped out of the Top 25. Here’s a look at the games:

Sept. 4

•No. 19 Penn State defeats No. 12 Wisconsin on the road. The Badgers are now 3-3 and unranked.

•No. 18 Iowa defeats No. 17 Indiana at home. The Hoosiers are now 2-4 and unranked.

Sept. 11

•No. 12 Oregon defeats No. 3 Ohio State on the road. The Ducks are now 5-1 and ranked 10th.

•No. 10 Iowa defeats No. 9 Iowa State on the road. The Cyclones are now 4-2 and unranked.

Sept. 18

Unranked Michigan State defeats No. 24 Miami on the road. The Hurricanes are now 2-4 and unranked.

•No. 10 Penn State defeats No. 22 Auburn at home. The Tigers are now 5-2 and still ranked 22nd.

Oct. 9

No. 3 Iowa defeats No. 4 Penn State at home. The Nittany Lions are now 5-1 and ranked 8th.

Oregon and Auburn are the only non-Big Ten opponents on that list who are still ranked entering Week 8, inviting questions about A) whether the standout Big Ten teams have been tested this season and B) whether they’re actually any good.

In the span of four calendar weeks from Oct. 30 to Nov. 27, Michigan faces its three toughest opponents of the season in Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State — two of which are on the road. Clarity about the pecking order in the Big Ten will be decided by the conclusion of Thanksgiving weekend, but queries about the league’s ability to stack up with schools from the SEC and Big 12 will linger until some of those matchups are scheduled during bowl season.

In general, Michigan has been pretty fortunate on the injury front outside of Ronnie Bell. This is especially true in the secondary, where the Wolverines use the same players every week. Who is next in line at cornerback or safety if injuries strike down the stretch? — Larry G.

Hey Larry, thanks for chiming in this week with a great question. It’s true, the Wolverines have benefitted from a remarkably clean bill of health through the first six games of the season. Prior to wide receiver Roman Wilson missing the trip to Nebraska, Bell was the only starter on either side of the ball to miss a full game.

In the secondary, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and defensive passing game coordinator Steve Clinkscale are relying on the same group of six players against Big Ten opponents: CB Vincent Gray (291 snaps), CB Gemon Green (291), CB DJ Turner (113), NB Daxton Hill (342), FS R.J. Moten (272) and SS Brad Hawkins (344). The only rotation is at perimeter corner, where Turner alternates between spelling Gray and Green for about 19 snaps per week. Aside from those six players, no other defensive back on the roster has more than 41 snaps all season.

It’s a double-edged sword for Michigan. On one hand, the consistency among the core six undoubtedly helped accelerate the learning curve for Macdonald’s defense and accentuate their chemistry on the field. On the other hand, the Wolverines haven’t found much game time to develop any of the younger players behind them should injuries occur.

Fort Lauderdale (Florida) St. Thomas Aquinas cornerback Ja'Den McBurrows
Fort Lauderdale (Florida) St. Thomas Aquinas cornerback Ja'Den McBurrows

“You’ve got to throw other guys in that mix so they learn to be comfortable with other people as well,” Clinkscale said earlier this week. “Because you never know what happens in a game, so you always try to prepare for a different circumstance. ... Sometimes taking one guy out and putting somebody else in also helps the chemistry because no the guys that are used to one person making a lot of the checks and calls, he’s not in there anymore, and somebody else has to do that. And that’s how you develop safeties. That’s how you develop nickels and corners. You teach them the game, teach them how to work with one another.”

Clinkscale mentioned freshman corner Ja’Den McBurrows as the player most likely to step in for one of the starters. McBurrows is a former three-star recruit who held a scholarship offer from Alabama. He’s logged 13 total snaps this season against Northern Illinois (7) and Wisconsin (6).

“I think that McBurrows is definitely coming along,” Clinkscale said. “He makes a lot of plays in practice, and I just want to continue to build him up and continue to help him do well on and off the field. A lot of times with freshmen, if you start to get a little success, you know, you kind of slack in certain areas. So he’s doing a really good job of trying to just keep everything working in a positive light. He’s doing a good job taking notes, trying to learn, executing his assignments and continually getting better and better. He’s the one that stands out.”

I read about the creation of the George Jewett Trophy ahead of this week’s game against Northwestern. Do you get the sense Michigan’s coaches and players have an appreciation for what Jewett accomplished? He’s not a figure discussed very often and lettered in football more than 120 years ago. — Charlotte M.

Thank you for sending in a question, Charlotte.

Michigan and Northwestern decided to create the George Jewett Trophy in honor of George Jewett II, the first Black football player to letter at both institutions. Jewett played for the Wolverines in 1890 and 1892 while also studying medicine in Ann Arbor. He completed his medical degree at Northwestern, where he played two more seasons.

Players and coaches were asked about the trophy during interviews this week and gave thoughtful answers regarding its significance. It’s clear Harbaugh and his staff spent time discussing Jewett, his background and what he means to both schools.

Nobody provided a more intelligent and nuanced response than running backs coach Mike Hart. Rather than paraphrase it and risk dulling the message, I’m going to share the quote in its entirety.

“I think it’s one of those things where people are like, ‘Who is he?’” Hart said. “And I think when you really look at who he is and what he did at the time period that he did it, it’s really, really impressive. I went and looked it up. And you think about the time: The Civil War ended in 1865, right? Plessy vs. Ferguson was 1896. When you look at the dynamics in America at that time, what he had to go through when he played here...

“I’m from Syracuse, New York, so I grew up knowing about Floyd Little, Jim Brown, Ernie Davis. So I understand what they had to go through in the 1950s and 1960s. All my family is from Birmingham, Alabama. My grandpa moved here when he was 16 to go to school. And just those personal stories from my grandpa and what he had to go through, again, that’s in the 1950s and 1960s.

“So (in regard to Jewett) you’re talking about a time in America when a lot of people didn’t go to college in the first place, not even (just) black people, right? He came to school at Michigan as a black man in the 1890s. I’m sure he went through a lot. And med school? That is really, really impressive. I saw a stat that said there wasn’t another black person that lettered at Michigan football for another 40 years. So what he did is amazing. It’s a great honor for him.

“Personally, it means a lot to me. I’m excited about this for where my family is from and what they went through early on and the history that I know about the running backs who were in that area in Syracuse. So it means a lot. And I think it should not be overlooked. It’s not being overlooked. And it’s really, really impressive. I just think in my mind of what he had to go through week in and week out in the games he played in, when there were fans there and what was said to him, and the man he is. And to go to med school, I mean, there’s no greater honor. And I’m glad that we get to play for it.”

Contact Michael Cohen at mcohen@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13. Send questions for his next U-M mailbag.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football: Are Big Ten teams as good as their rankings?

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