What They're Saying Before Michigan Football Plays Nebraska
Michigan Wolverines football is set to take on Nebraska Saturday night in Lincoln. Here is a look around the country at what they're saying before the showdown.
Nebraska is well-situated to scare the hell out of a Michigan team that is facing its own sort of redemptive pressure.
After nearly making the CFP in both 2016 and 2018, Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines reached 9-2 and 10th in the AP poll late in 2019 before everything went awry. They lost their last two games of the season by a combined 48 points, then stumbled through a 2-4 campaign in 2020. Harbaugh refreshed his defensive coaching staff and installed a new starting quarterback, Cade McNamara.
It was a semi-desperate stab at course correction, and it seems to have worked. Michigan is 5-0 and up to ninth in the AP poll, eighth in SP+ and fifth in FPI, which gives it a 34% chance of reaching the CFP. But the challenges are just beginning. The Wolverines must navigate through road trips to Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State before welcoming to Ann Arbor an Ohio State team they've beaten just once in 17 tries. Both the expectations and the anxiety associated with them are back. Saturday night represents a stiff test from a team that knows plenty about anxiety.
I can’t wait to watch this game because I feel like it will reveal a lot about two teams that seem to be in the midst of massive upswings. Michigan’s improvement is obvious because of its record, but there are lingering questions about how good the Wolverines really are. At this point, that is mostly thanks to Wisconsin being so disappointing thus far. But if the Wolverines keep winning, we can probably stop asking those questions.
After the Cornhuskers lost to Illinois in Week Zero, I didn’t think this game would tell us anything about Michigan. But Nebraska’s improvement through the season is undeniable. In close losses against Oklahoma and Michigan State — two teams with a combined record of 10-0 — the Cornhuskers’ defense allowed an average of 5.4 yards a play and the Cornhuskers’ offense averaged 5.5 yards a play. Everything seemed to come together Saturday in a 56-7 win against Northwestern. The Wildcats are having a down year — at this point, we have to assume that’s because it’s an odd-numbered year — but domination is domination. That’s not something we’ve seen from Nebraska in Big Ten play during the Scott Frost era.
Our Bruce Feldman pointed out this week that Frost and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh seem to be playing their way off the hot seat, and it’s quite possible each does. But Michigan’s schedule still includes Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, and Harbaugh likely will be judged more on what happens against the Wolverines’ Big Ten East rivals. Nebraska’s schedule still includes Ohio State and Iowa, but the bar for Frost isn’t necessarily as high.
The winner this week will earn a well-deserved momentum push for the second half, and we should have a better idea of exactly how much each team has improved.
Michigan has its own chopping challenge at Nebraska, and must remain level-headed. At the end of the third quarter during the rout at Wisconsin, the Wolverines felt so good, they joined in the Badger crowd’s famous “jump around” dance. Jim Harbaugh squashed the implication quickly and insisted his team was not adopting the slogan “Keep Hoppin’.”
Careful, folks. Larger tests await the Wolverines, Spartans and all the unbeatens. If you think Texas-San Antonio is just gonna roll through the daunting Conference USA West division, or Iowa is just gonna roll through the wimpy Big Ten West division, hey, you might be right!
Major trust issues, but we're working on it
Michigan's passing game. After struggling last season, the Michigan defense has quickly reverted back to near-elite form, allowing just 13 points per game and rising to eighth in defensive SP+. But after the Wolverines slid to just 42nd in offensive SP+, could they make plays when they needed to with minimal QB experience?
Thanks to defense, a strong run game and strong starts, Michigan has, like Alabama, Georgia and BYU, not yet trailed this season. We probably won't know what we need to know until the Wolverines are behind.
Quarterback Cade McNamara did have a solid day against Wisconsin on Saturday (considering the level of defensive competition), going 17-for-28 for 197 yards and two scores. But the Wolverines were just 6-for-16 on third downs when he was behind center, 4-for-13 on third-and-4 or more.
Filtering out garbage time, Michigan's passing success rate on passing downs (second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more) is just 22 percent, 120th in FBS. The Wolverines did a solid job of turning third-and-medium and third-and-long into fourth-and-manageable against Wisconsin and attempted five fourth-down conversions, succeeding on three. But while you can find some positive signs here, it's hard to feel like this question has been answered definitively.
Is Michigan the best team Nebraska has faced this year?
Will Michigan be the best team Nebraska has faced this season? That's really debatable at this point, but I'd still give the edge to Oklahoma.
Even though the Sooners have struggled at times this season, I think they are a more complete team than Michigan. OU has a very good defense with top NFL talent just like Michigan. I also think Spencer Rattler is a better QB than Cade McNamara and the Sooners have comparable talent at running back to the Wolverines.
I'm looking to take advantage of perception here. Michigan is 5-0 and ranked in the top 10, while Nebraska is 3-3 and lost to Illinois. You're naive if you don't think these factors are having an impact on the point spread. Now, while I'm picking the Cornhuskers to pull off the outright upset, I'm not nearly as confident in that as I am the Huskers covering the spread. I find it difficult to trust Michigan's offense to cover as road favorites against a team that can score points. Nebraska can score points.
Prediction: Nebraska (+3)
Former Ravens assistant and current Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has seen more than his share of dynamic running quarterbacks from his time around Lamar Jackson. Expect him and the Wolverines to be able to contain Adrian Martinez, but the NU defense also will slow down the UM running attack.
Michigan 16, Nebraska 14
Pick: Nebraska +3.5
Some will consider this a trap game for the Wolverines, heading on the road, in prime time, coming off their best performance of the season with the bye week looming. A so-called "trap-game" typically entails an unmatched team on one side, though, and Nebraska has shown the last four weeks or so that it is far better than its early showing against Illinois. The improved rush defense from the Cornhuskers will force Michigan to make some plays again through the air, but the advantage in the trenches should be the difference here, where the Wolverines have the edge on both sides of the ball.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Nebraska 24
Nebraska is 3-3, but we know its defense is very good. And with a few personnel changes last week, the offense exploded last week against Northwestern. The time is ripe for Scott Frost to finally win a big game … I just don’t trust that the Huskers can beat a top-10 team with their penchant for self-inflicted wounds.
Michigan 27, Nebraska 23
Pick: Michigan -3.5
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