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Michigan Welcomes Maryland – and the Big Ten Season

Michigan enters Big Ten play undefeated and flying high. But how much do we really know about the Wolverines?

Connecticut v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Give Michigan credit. The Wolverines didn’t overlook or play down to the level of their opponents. Michigan did what it should have done during the non-conference portion of its schedule: It overwhelmed its overmatched opponents. How overwhelming was Michigan? All three games were all but decided by halftime, as Michigan took leads of 23-0, 42-0 and 38-0 into the locker room. The second halves were largely handed over the second, third … and fourth string players.

With its strong start, Michigan finds itself ranked in the top five in the nation and at or near the top of a handful of statistical categories. Averaging 55 points a game while giving up less than seven will do that. But how good is Michigan? Or more to the point, what have we learned about this year’s Wolverines?

We’ve learned who Michigan’s starting quarterback will be. One of the biggest stories in Ann Arbor over the offseason was the quarterback competition between Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy. It’s rare that a returning quarterback loses his job, especially one who’s had the type of success that McNamara had last season. But through three games, McCarthy left little doubt about who was the better option for head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines.

And it wasn’t gaudy stat lines, but the eye test that told you that McCarthy was the one. In fact, McCarthy has looked so impressive, that taking nothing away from McNamara, you have to wonder how the quarterback competition could have been “neck and neck” all summer, as it was reported.

Through three games, two of which he started, McCarthy has completed 30 of 34 passes for 473 yards and three touchdowns. Good for a cool 88% completion percentage. McCarthy has looked comfortable in the pocket and confident in his decision-making, but it’s his big arm that has Wolverine fans excited.

But as good as McCarthy has looked, we don’t know yet how he’ll fare against better competition – or when the lights are at their brightest. But to be fair to McCarthy, that’s true of the entire Michigan team.

Like most college football teams, Michigan came into the season with its share questions. Unlike most college football teams, however, most of Michigan’s questions remain unanswered. This is particularly true on defense, where the Wolverines lost seven starters and their defensive coordinator.

Of all of Michigan’s losses, the most damaging is the departure of edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the driving force behind last season’s top-ten defense. Michigan coaches believe they have a number of players capable of doing their part to pick up the slack. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has talked about Michigan’s “No Name Defense” and has touted its depth, including along the defensive line.

In the season opener, that depth was on display, as nine Wolverine defenders combined to record seven sacks. Since then, however, Michigan has tallied just one sack and hasn’t pressured the quarterback to the extent it did last season. Mike Morris and Jaylen Harell have both shown the potential to get to the opposing quarterback, but will they parlay that potential into consistent play? And will they get help?

Michigan’s questions aren’t limited to its defense, though. In addition to McCarthy, running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards have looked good (not that there was much doubt about Corum and Edwards). Ditto for Ronnie Bell and Michigan’s receiving corps. Michigan’s offensive line, however, has performed well for the most part, but has unexpectedly struggled at times, particularly in pass protection.

Much like the defensive line was the driving force behind last season’s defense, the offensive line was the driving force behind last season’s offense. If Michigan hopes to repeat last season’s success, it will need a repeat performance from its offensive line. And to do that, they may need help from some skill position players.

Last season, Hassan Haskins was well known for his power running. He was less well known, but no less accomplished, for his blocking. Haskins was a key factor in Michigan’s pass protection last season. How much will Michigan miss Haskins in that regard?

With the non-conference portion of the schedule in the rear view mirror, these questions will start to be answered. Perhaps as early as this weekend, when the Maryland Terrapins come to Ann Arbor.

Michigan may be more than a two-touchdown favorite against the Terps, but it shouldn’t take Maryland lightly. The Terps are led by a dynamic quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa and have one of the Big Ten’s strongest receiving corps. Rakim Jarrett, Jeshaun Jones, Dontay Demus and newcomer Jacob Copeland will certainly test Michigan’s secondary.

For this, and many other reasons, this weekend will serve as somewhat of a litmus test for the Wolverines. As after completing one of the weakest non-conference schedules in memory, Michigan finally plays a bowl-caliber, power five opponent.

“I don’t know how good we are,” running back Blake Corum said after Michigan’s 55-0 victory over Connecticut last week. “I feel like we ‘re going to be good. But I can’t tell you.”

Nor can anyone else at this point. After this weekend, however, we’ll start to get a better idea.