The Road to Back

You see Michigan's name? I sure do! Right there, see? "Michigan." They were in their cell at lights out! Stands to reason they'd still be here this morning! I want them found! Not tomorrow, not after breakfast! NOW!
Is there another 4-1 team in the country getting as much media hype as Michigan right now?

One tough road loss to what's turning out to be a pretty good Utah team, and four convincing wins against a tougher than average schedule (relative to the rest of the Big Ten) and now we're sitting here in mid-October asking ourselves "Is Michigan back"?

After a better than expected start to the Harbaugh era, all of the sudden Michigan has found itself in a familiar position...the hunted. Not that they haven't been getting everyone's best shot for years, but now the feeling has changed. It changed the day Jim Harbaugh was hired and it hasn't waned since. You see it on can feel it. There's an energy around the Michigan program that hasn't been there in years. On December 30, 2014, Michigan emerged from the fog of ineptitude to land at the top of everyone's radar. And we've gone from an offseason of "wait and see" to "this wasn't supposed to work so quickly".
While Ohio State seems to be going through a post-national championship hangover -- a lot like what we saw from Florida State last year -- and Michigan State is just not the team we expected (the once dominant Michigan State defense has been incredibly mediocre so far this season), Michigan has begun to dominate its opponents, and has been the best team in the Big Ten.
True, much of the media attention Michigan is getting is due in very large part to everyone pointing to the struggles of Ohio State and Michigan State, two of the nation's top-ranked teams, and just happening to notice Michigan lurking further down the polls with one close loss to a perceived playoff-caliber team and one of the best defenses on the country.

Five games into the season, it's still too early to project the exact trajectory of Michigan or Ohio State. As usual, until The Game is played in late-November, no one knows just how well these two teams stack up against each other. I have no doubt the Buckeyes will shake off this national title hangover and turn it on soon. Or maybe not?

This is where I could wander on for about 1000 words on the uselessness of preseason polls, but I'll spare you that diatribe. Suffice it to say, if they didn't exist, I'd be fine with that. Michigan back?

My inner-skeptic compels me to say no. But if Michigan is on it's way to being back, this is certainly how it would feel. But they're not there yet. 

Back doesn't mean beating Maryland 28-0. It helps, but "back" is something much larger. When Michigan truly is "back", there won't be a question mark. It'll be forgone. "Back" means trophies, beating your rivals, competing for championships and sustaining a culture of winning and success...the things in years passed that made Michigan...Michigan.

But make no mistake, these next two games at home against two talented ranked teams...including a big-time showdown with Michigan State...will go a long way in figuring out just how "back" Michigan really is or how far along they really are.

But even right now, at 4-1, there are advanced polls that use algorithms that take a number of factors into account that the human polls do not, that actually rank Michigan among the top teams in the country. The F/+ rankings system via Football Outsiders puts Michigan at 7th in the country...ahead of Ohio State (13th) and Michigan State (19th).

Now, I don't know what a lot of this stuff is or if it actually means anything...but it's out there. But the one thing I do know is having a good offense, a good defense and good special teams are absolutely essential to being a championship team. There's no question Michigan has two of those...and the other might be just good enough.

If Michigan can pull off these next two games, the outlook and potential upside for year one under Jim Harbaugh changes completely...and Michigan will be one big step closer to "back"

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