When the season began for the 2021 edition of the Michigan Wolverines, expectations were certainly at an all-time low.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh had accepted a reduction in salary and set forth to repair his reputation as the leader of the Wolverines program.
Having struggled against his rivals, supporters of the Wolverines wrestled with having successful seasons, but also having to deal with that nagging feeling of being unfilled, due to not being able to consistently defeat Michigan State and Ohio State.
Looking back, the decision by defensive end Aidan Hutchinson to return, instead of entering the NFL Draft, could end up propelling the program into an entirely new direction.
The events that transpired on Saturday -- a dominant 42-27 win over the Buckeyes -- have set up Harbaugh and Co. to reach new heights.
Here are three reasons why the Wolverines can not only secure a berth in the College Football Playoff, but end up the season as the top football program in the country.
Mike Macdonald's defense is led by Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo
In a single afternoon, Hutchinson vaulted himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive end recorded three sacks against the Buckeyes.
He now is the holder of Michigan’s single-season sack record with 13 total on the season.
“It was crazy. I can’t really put it into words. I really just wanted to beat my dad," he said. "I went a little farther. It’s so cool, and it’s a moment that I can’t wait to share with my dad.”
Ojabo has shot up mock draft boards the past few weeks, and has also reached double-digit sacks this season.
With two members of the defense possessing freakish athleticism, stellar technique and bullish power, opposing offensive linemen will have their hands full protecting their quarterbacks.
Many have openly stated that Alabama's 2021 offensive line may be the worst in head coach Nick Saban's entire run at the school.
If the secondary can continue to take strides in getting better, the Wolverines could just wind up victorious at the end of the season.
Offensive line can become more dominant
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Harbaugh noted over the weekend that legendary NFL head coach and broadcaster John Madden reached out to him to express how dominant the offensive line's performance was against Ohio State.
In fact, Madden told Harbaugh it was one of the most dominant performances he had ever witnessed by an offensive line unit.
Led by running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, Michigan's offensive attack can control games via the ground game.
“I told myself, ‘I’m not going down, we’ve got to win this ballgame.' And I just kept telling myself that," Haskins said, following the victory at Michigan Stadium.
In tough playoff matchups, if Michigan is able to control the clock, its defense will have enough to battle talented offensive attacks.
If the Wolverines were able to eventually face off against Georgia, it would be quite the battle to witness Michigan's offensive line battle one of the top defenses and pass rushes in the nation.
Tight ends can give quarterback Cade McNamara confidence
Junior tight ends Erick All and Luke Schoonmaker have been able to become security blankets for when McNamara needs to complete a play over the middle.
In years prior, All struggled with being reliable in the passing game.
This season, he has worked diligently to become one of the preferred targets of the Wolverines' starting quarterback.
“The way he approaches things, because of his intensity, he gets better at everything incrementally,” Michigan tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh said. "His habits are so good in terms of, he runs routes, the speed in which he practices, the extra work that he puts in, the desire to be really good.”
At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, All has also emerged as a forceful run blocker in Josh Gattis' offense.
Michigan's offense has been quite solid in the red zone all season, and Schoonmaker provides the team with another red-zone target to utilize outside of the running backs.
“Schoonie was a big factor converting in the red zone,” Harbaugh said, following the victory over Indiana. “That was a plus. A big tight end like that, like you saw Erick All (against Michigan State). That can be a big factor in the red zone.”