Let's go back 15 years to November 2006; a simpler time, predating Apple's release of the first iPhone by 11 months and the onset of the Great Recession by about a year and a half.
The University of San Diego was nearing completion of its best season in program history. The FCS Toreros, under head coach Jim Harbaugh, finished 11-1 — the same record the 2021 Michigan Wolverines carry into the Big Ten Championship Game.
Just two weeks before San Diego ended its landmark season with a rout of Monmouth in the Gridiron Classic, Michigan lost the Game of the Century to rival Ohio State. Those few weeks sent Harbaugh and Michigan football on paths that eventually intersected, and reach a pivotal crossroads this week in Indianapolis.
The 42-39 Game of the Century — a contest that unequivocally lived up to its billing — marked an unofficial beginning of a period of angst plaguing Michigan. The Wolverines have not won a conference title since splitting the 2004 crown with Iowa, the opponent it faces on Saturday.
Ohio State remained a consistent barrier between great Michigan teams, most of which have been in Harbaugh's remarkably underrated tenure, and the Big Ten championship.
With the Wolverines securing their first defeat of the Buckeyes under Harbaugh last week, Michigan has freed itself of one albatross. It can escape two more ending its Big Ten title drought — as well as Harbaugh's, which dates back to the 2006 Pioneer Football League championship at San Diego — and earning the first College Football Playoff berth in program history.
5 Reasons Why Michigan Will Win the Big Ten Championship Game
1. A defensive mismatch
Under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, Michigan has stifled virtually all comers. Just two Wolverines opponents scored more than 18 points against them: one was Michigan State, the only team to defeat Michigan this season; and the other was Ohio State, which at 29 points was still held three scores below its season average.
Michigan State may have found success against the Wolverines' defense, but Iowa doesn't have a Heisman Trophy-caliber running back like Kenneth Walker III. On the contrary, the Hawkeyes found ways to win 10 games and reach Indianapolis in spite of their offense.
Last week against Nebraska, for example, Iowa did not score an offensive touchdown until the final four minutes. While running back Tyler Goodson is a rock-solid workhorse with more than 1,100 yards, Iowa lacks the diversity in its offense to counter Michigan's bevy of defensive playmakers.
2. Sacked lunch
Standouts on the loaded Michigan defense include the dynamic pass-rushing duo of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The two have combined for 24 of Michigan's 33 sacks, which ranks No. 33 nationally.
Iowa, meanwhile, has given up 31 sacks on the year and ranks in the bottom third nationally of that category. Some of that can be attributed to scheme, with Iowa favoring a more traditional offensive look under coordinator Brian Ferentz, but the Wolverines' success bringing pressure should concern a team with questions at quarterback.
Spencer Petras' four-interception game in the loss to Purdue and subsequent struggles against Wisconsin and Northwestern opened the door for Alex Padilla, but Padilla's lackluster play against Nebraska casts uncertainty on the position's status headed into Indianapolis.
3. Offensive line play
Iowa has flourished this season in spite of its offensive woes thanks to a stellar defense. The Hawkeyes rank just behind the Wolverines, tied for ninth in FBS, for scoring defense, a byproduct of their uncanny turnover-creation.
With 22 picks, Iowa leads the nation by a comfortable margin. Riley Moss and Dane Belton combine for nine, effectively closing the trap set with dominant play up front from Zach VanValkenburg, Lukas Van Ness and John Waggoner.
But the Michigan offensive line is built to hold up against a war of attrition with veteran leaders Ryan Hayes, Andrew Stueber and Andrew Vastardis paving the way for Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum.
4. Ball control
Few teams in FBS have committed fewer turnovers than Michigan. The Wolverines are tied for sixth with just nine total, a byproduct of Cade McNamara (and J.J. McCarthy) giving Michigan its best quarterback play of the Harbaugh era.
McNamara has been steady, completing better than 64 percent of his pass attempts with just three interceptions. His numbers aren't eye-popping, but are perfectly complementary to Michigan's multifaceted rushing attack.
Should the Wolverines strike early, they'll be able to lean on the ground game to avoid putting the ball in the air for Iowa's outstanding defensive backs to make game-breaking plays.
5. Peaking at the right time
Since losing to Michigan State on Oct. 30, Michigan has played some of its best football. The Wolverines' defense has been overwhelming, and the offense completely imposed its will on Ohio State in a manner no Michigan team has in recent memory.
Harbaugh's tenure in Ann Arbor has been a gold mine for talking heads in search of easy hot takes, but the culmination of consistently good teams is nearing a crescendo with a truly great Michigan side just win away from the College Football Playoff.
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