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Key to Michigan’s Success Begins Up Front

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Michigan emerged from non-conference play with an unblemished record, but there's still work to do for the Wolverines.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan survived the non-conference portion of its schedule, improving to 3-0 after a 45-28, come-from-behind victory over Colorado Saturday. Despite the occasional misses and misreads, newly-minted starting quarterback Wilton Speight has acquitted himself well through three games, completing 64% of his passes for 686 yards and eight touchdowns against one interception. The tests for Speight will get tougher as the season progresses, of course, and how Speight handles those tests will go a long way in determining the level of success that Michigan will ultimately achieve. Indeed, most of those most critical of Michigan this season pointed to uncertainty at quarterback as the key to the Wolverines' eventual undoing. But while it's not unreasonable to question an untested, first-year starter at the sport's most important position, quarterback play was never Michigan's only - or even its biggest - question heading into the season. The road to success for Michigan will be paved, figuratively and literally, by its offensive line. And three games into the season, the jury is still out on Michigan's offensive front.

Despite its 3-0 start, Michigan has not escaped criticism, and that is particularly true its offensive line. After a 51-14 week two victory over Central Florida in which the Wolverines barely cracked the century mark on the ground, fans and pundits alike were quick to take notice. But was Michigan's pedestrian rushing attack against the Knights really cause for concern? Or was it a case of Michigan fans, the eternal pessimists that they are, going out of their way to find fault in a 37-point victory? Yes, Michigan had difficulty running against a stacked box, but unlike years past when the Wolverines would have continued to pound the ball off tackle for four quarters, Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines simply took to the air. Michigan's ground game was slightly better against Colorado, accounting for 168 yards, but was still far from dominant. Yet after falling behind early, it's understandable that Michigan would, again, dial up more passing plays.

Airing it out against a Central Florida team selling out against the run and attacking the edges rather than the middle against Colorado's massive, run-stuffing tackles Josh Tupou and Samson Kafovalustout could be construed, and not incorrectly, as Michigan taking what the defense gave them. So in that respect, Michigan's rushing performance the past two weeks might not be a damning as some might see it. But for a team with designs on owning the line of scrimmage, the Wolverines still have some work to do to prove they've turned the corner as a power running team.

One person not concerned about Michigan's running game is Harbaugh himself. And while Harbaugh and Michigan don't have to address their critics, they will have to face bruising, athletic defenses when the season enters its home stretch and the Wolverines travel to East Lansing and Columbus. How the Wolverines deal with those defenses and those teams will ultimately define their season. Penn State and Wisconsin, against whom Michigan opens conference play, may not be in same class as Michigan State and Ohio State, but they will nonetheless present somewhat of a litmus test for Michigan. The game within the game over the next two weeks will center on how successful Michigan is running the ball. Eventually the Wolverines will have to show that they can push people around when they need to.The next two weeks should provide some indication of how close they are of being able to do so.