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What’s the Key for Michigan in a Season of Great Expectations?

To say that expectations are high for Michigan this year would be putting it mildly. Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines enter the 2023 season in a position in which they haven’t been in quite some time: One with legitimate championship aspirations.

Despite having nine players selected in last April’s NFL draft, Michigan returns such an abundance of talent –proven talent in key positions – that this year’s team could be Harbaugh’s best in his nine seasons in Ann Arbor. And for a team coming off back-to-back Big Ten championships and college football playoff appearances, that’s saying something.

Preseason favorites to win the Big Ten and ranked second nationally to Georgia in most preseason polls, some have gone so far as to label this year as a “Championship or Bust” season for Harbaugh and the Wolverines. And while that may be a bit extreme, the Wolverines are on the short list of title contenders – both in the Big Ten and nationally.

All of this attention and all of these accolades have put Michigan in another position in which it’s not accustomed: That of the favorite. That of the hunted rather than the hunter. The Wolverines, having played the last two seasons with a sizable chip on their shoulder, play this season with a sizable target on their back.

How will they respond?

Harbaugh and his players insist that there’s no complacency in the program. Insist that the team is not taking anything for granted and is working as hard as ever. “This team is as focused and as hard working as any team I’ve ever been around,” Harbaugh told reporters over the summer. “There is no sense of entitlement.”

Michigan’s All-American running back Blake Corum echoed his coach’s sentiments. “There is no entitlement with this team,” Corum told reporters at this summer’s Big Ten Media Days. “We’ve been working our butts off this summer. The camaraderie and brotherly love that we have for each other right now is crazy. We’re looking forward to this season, but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, either. We have definite goals in mind and we know the kind of work we need to do to achieve those goals.”

If the Wolverines aren’t complacent, it’s partially because despite all of the success that Michigan has experienced over the past two seasons, each season has ended in disappointment. That disappointment is driving the Wolverines.

Both quarterback J.J. McCarthy and Corum have talked about the “unfinished business” that’s motivating Michigan this off season.

“We have a lot of goals,” McCarthy told reporters. “But it’s to bring a national championship to Ann Arbor. That’s the ultimate goal.” McCarthy added that the pain from Michigan’s loss to TCU in last season’s college football playoffs drives him and his teammates. “We were just so close,” McCarthy said.

“Part of me coming back (rather than declaring for the NFL draft),” Corum said, “was that I felt we had unfinished business. We have a team that is very special right now. A lot of guys came back. J.J. has another year under his belt. Team-wise, we’re great. But we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re working hard every day.”

Working hard, if not talking as much.

Two summers ago, Harbaugh made news when he said Michigan’s goal was to, “Beat Ohio State or die trying.” Last year, the Michigan coach said that despite a successful 2021 campaign, Michigan wasn’t satisfied. “We had a great season, but we didn’t accomplish all of our goals,” Harbaugh said. “This year we want the same things. We want to beat Ohio State and Michigan State in the same season. To return here (Indianapolis, the site of the Big Ten championship game).”

There weren’t any catchy sound bites from this year’s Big Ten Media Days, but don’t read too much into that, says Corum. “I think the guys know that we don’t have to say anything. We know what it is. Talk is cheap. Right now, we’re just focused on camp and then we’re going to go from there. We will attack each and every day and try to get better. We’re putting the work in.”

They had better be, because the rest of the Big Ten will be gunning for Michigan this year. Particularly the team south of the border.

Ohio State is also loaded this season. What’s more, the Buckeyes aren’t accustomed to losing to Michigan. Having done so in consecutive seasons, Ryan Day’s troops will be sufficiently motivated to end that streak. Michigan had better be every bit as motivated to keep it going.

And that just might be the key to Michigan’s season. Not whether it finds an effective pass rush or a cornerback to lock down the starting spot opposite Will Johnson – but how the Wolverines deal with being the favorite. That, more than anything, might ultimately determine whether Michigan extends its run atop the Big Ten – and maybe more.