Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Coach: Jim Harbaugh (30-12, fourth season).
Rankings: 19th AP/21st Coaches.
OFFENSIVE RATING: 6
Offensive averages / national rank
37.0 / 46
397.3 / 84
187.7 / 60
209.7 / 81
DEFENSIVE RATING: 9
Defensive averages / national rank
15.7 / 24
276.3 / 12
121.7 / 37
154.7 / 16
SPECIALISTS RATING: 7
Special-teams averages / national rank
31.2 / 11
6.0 / 84
40.75 / 27
Why you may need Rolaids
1. Michigan's defense has dudes. Defensive end Rashan Gary is a preseason All-American. On the other side, Chase Winovich has the most career starts among Michigan's defenders. Linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson are both preseason All-Americans, and the Wolverine's four defensive backs have combined to appear in 149 games. Since Don Brown took over as defensive coordinator 2016, Michigan has held nine opponents to less than 200 total yards, and just six times has an opponent thrown for more than 200 yards. Doesn't matter who's starting at quarterback for Nebraska. Either Adrian Martinez or Andrew Bunch will face a monolith on the other side of the ball.
2. He hasn't been asked to do much, especially against Michigan's past two opponents, but quarterback Shea Patterson looks like the quarterback the Wolverines have been missing as their offense has sputtered in recent years. In wins over Western Michigan and SMU, Patterson has completed 74 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception. Even in a loss to Notre Dame, he completed 67 percent of his throws. Can Nebraska's secondary force him into some mistakes?
3. This isn't anybody's idea of a perfect situation, with an 0-2 team going on the road for the first time into the biggest stadium in college football. There's been a lot of talk this week about buy-in, about effort, about commitment. But when the chips are down, can the Huskers back up those words when things get tough and the crowd is against them for the first time? Another slow start, against that nasty defense and an offense that wants to sit on you with its big boys, could be a death blow before the game even gets going.
Why you might chill
1. Nebraska's strength has been its run defense. Michigan wants to run the ball. But the Wolverines will do it from more "traditional" formations than what the Huskers have seen from the spread offenses of Colorado and Troy. Patterson has been very efficient thus far, but the Blackshirts should be the second-best defense he's seen this season, behind Notre Dame. In a 24-17 loss to the Irish, Michigan had 33 carries for just 58 yards. And right now, the Huskers rank six spots higher nationally than the Irish in rushing defense.
2. This staff has coached at Michigan before, and gotten beat 51-17, but bear with me here. Multiple people in Nebraska's program have said that game in 2016, the second of Scott Frost's tenure at Central Florida, let the Knights know they could play with anyone. Why? Frost said that day UCF "outhit" Michigan. The Wolverines didn't crack 100 rushing yards until the fourth quarter against a team that had gone 0-12 the previous season. To be sure, the Wolverines handily won the special teams battle and threw for more than 300 yards. But the seeds were sown for UCF to make strides towards its historic 2017 season. Patience will be needed this season. But progress should be there to measure.
3. Michigan is pretty good, but not invincible. Maybe Adrian Martinez returns fully healthy and knocks out a couple of electric plays. Maybe Frost schemes his way past Don Brown's defense enough to get 24-27 points on the board. And maybe the Huskers stop shooting themselves in the foot long enough to win a close game instead of give one away. The tide has to turn at some point, right?
By the numbers
Nebraska is 2-1 against Michigan since joining the Big Ten, despite being outscored by a total of 10 points in those games. The all-time series is tied 4-4-1, with the Wolverines holding a 49-point advantage.
Michigan's winning percentage over its last 50 Big Ten openers. The Wolverines are 47-3 in league openers since 1968, and have won 11 of their last 12 such games.
The last year a first-year Nebraska coach won his conference opener. Bill Callahan's first team downed Kansas 14-8. Callahan was also the last first-year Husker coach to win his first road game, beating Pitt that same season.
Nick Baumgardner covers Michigan football for the Detroit Free Press.
How close is Shea Patterson to being fully comfortable at the controls of Michigan’s offense? Or, is he already there?
I think he’s already there, which surprises me a bit. I watched basically every snap he took last season at Ole Miss and really wondered how he’d fit in this system with just one offseason of preparation because it’s very different. But in terms of overall control of concept, he’s been top-notch.
Michigan’s offense struggled at Notre Dame in Week 1, but that wasn’t on Patterson. They didn’t ask him to do much and they couldn’t protect him. Through three weeks they’ve been very vanilla offensively and haven’t shown much.
There could be more coming for Big Ten play. But how much? That’s an unknown.
In that same vein, how close is this offense to where the coaching staff wants it, especially with the status Karan Higdon and Chris Evans seemingly up in the air?
Michigan now expects both Higdon and Evans to play Saturday against Nebraska, so that clears up some uncertainty offensively. Overall, though, it still all depends on Michigan’s offensive line.
The Wolverines have had inconsistent offensive line play for years, dating back to the Brady Hoke era. It’s something Harbaugh and his staff haven’t been able to fully repair and there are still question marks in terms of how this group can hold up against quality foes in the Big Ten.
Patterson looks really good. The running backs are capable. The receivers are developing. But the offensive line is still a big question mark.
Are you surprised by the number of penalties through Michigan’s first three games? Is there one thing the team can point to as the cause of the troubles?
Yes and no. Michigan had the second-highest number of penalties last season, so this is nothing new. However, there’s been a lot of flags called on the defense — notably for pass interference — that we didn’t see a year ago. Most of Michigan’s issues last year centered around offensive inefficiency and poor organization.
Most of the penalties through three games have been on the defense. They’ve had two targeting calls, a bunch of pass interference problems and a late hit or two. Michigan’s always been very aggressive defensively, but it probably needs to walk a finer line.
How much, if anything, is there to Scott Frost’s presence on the Nebraska sideline for Michigan fans/players/coaches? Not only because of his “outhit” comment a couple of years ago, but also as the QB of the team that split the 1997 title with Michigan?
I would say that’s probably a fan-driven thing more than anything else. Though there are several players who got reps as freshmen on this defense that were there in 2016 and no doubt remember hearing about that remark after the Central Florida game. So maybe there’s a little something there.
The 1997 stuff, though, is all fan stuff at this point. These players were just babies when that game was played. They know Scott Frost as a really good football coach and probably not much else.
Obviously the level of competition isn’t the same, but what have you thought of Michigan’s response to the season-opening loss to Notre Dame?
No one panicked or lost their mind. So there’s that. They were very businesslike against Western Michigan in a thorough dismantling and, after a few hiccups early, had little trouble dispatching SMU.
But like you said, the competition level there wasn’t great. The response has been pretty typical for Harbaugh teams. They rarely have problems with opponents they’re clearly better than.
It’s the games where the talent level is even or they’re at a slight disadvantage that have given him issues.