When defensive end Kwity Paye considers all he and his teammates have accomplished in his three seasons at Michigan, he’s … not satisfied. Not even close.
“Everybody on this team, since the past four years, we don’t have any rings,” Paye said in a video call with reporters last week. “Even our fifth-years [seniors], we don’t have any rings, bowl games, championships. We don’t have nothing.”
Well, they do have one thing: The Little Brown Jug, the oldest traveling trophy in major college football, last defended by Michigan in 2017 and at stake again against Minnesota in Saturday’s Big Ten opener at TCF Bank Stadium. But the jug has spent 39 of the past 42 years on display in Ann Arbor, so it does little to alleviate the nagging feeling that the Wolverines have underachieved during Jim Harbaugh’s hard-to-quantify tenure at Michigan.
Harbaugh has posted three 10-win seasons in his five seasons, never won fewer than eight, and has kept the No. 18 Wolverines in the AP Top 25 for all but a handful of weeks. But Paye is right — Harbaugh’s Michigan teams have been consistently good, but never more than that.
The Wolverines haven’t won a bowl game since 2015, Harbaugh’s first season, and they haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since 2007, nor won it since 1998. In fact, like the Gophers, they are one of seven teams never to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. They are 2-10 under Harbaugh against teams ranked in the Top 10, and worst of all, 0-5 against Ohio State, extending the Buckeyes’ astonishing 17-2 dominance since 2001.
“We’re all hungry,” Paye said. “I came to the university to be a champion, and I’m yet to be a champion. … This is my last go-round and yeah, I’m trying to get a ring this year.”
So are the Gophers, of course, and if the Wolverines are hungry, the Gophers are starving. Both teams are seeking a breakthrough season, albeit one begun six weeks late, and both are ranked as they meet this year, the first time that’s been true since 2004.
The Wolverines, though, must wonder if the pandemic has already inflicted mortal damage to their plans for 2020.
Paye, whose 6½ sacks as a junior are the most by any returning Wolverine, returned even though he’s already projected to be picked in the upper half of next spring’s NFL draft. Jalen Mayfield, the lone returning starter on the offensive line, received an NCAA waiver to return after initially opting out.
But two senior leaders decided not to return this season — receiver Nico Collins, who caught seven touchdown passes last year, and cornerback Ambry Thomas, Michigan’s top returning player in the secondary.
Those losses, along with 10 players taken in the draft last April, have created plenty of questions about this year’s Michigan team, particularly on offense. Chief among them: can quarterback Joe Milton, a redshirt sophomore who threw only five passes last season, become the star quarterback that Harbaugh has been waiting for?
At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he’s got the size, and he’s got arm strength that amazes teammates.
“One of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen,” said sophomore receiver Giles Jackson. “One time in practice, we had this deep ball, and I was probably 70 yards out, and he just launched it.”
Without Collins, though, Milton doesn’t have many proven targets to throw to, which may lay more of the offensive load on sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet, who scored 11 touchdowns as a freshman.
Milton won the job during fall practices, a fact that caused another quarterback, Dylan McCaffrey, to announce his plans to transfer. Milton has taken charge of the offense, Harbaugh said.
“We’ve had a lot of guys step up in leadership capacities, but definitely Joe Milton has done that,” Harbaugh said on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show last week. “Really like what we’re seeing.”
There’s reason to like the defense a lot more, even though Michigan lost its top three tacklers to the NFL. The pass rush, powered by Paye and junior Aidan Hutchinson at end, should be among the Big Ten’s best, and the secondary, even without Thomas, could be, too.
Dax Hill made 36 tackles as a freshman safety, and after watching him this fall, Harbaugh gushed, “Dax may be our most talented player on the team.”
Defensive coordinator Don Brown upped the ante even more, saying, “I’m not sure he isn’t the best cover guy in the Big Ten, to be honest.”
“Best in the Big Ten” is a title the Wolverines once competed for almost every year. Harbaugh was hired to restore that luster, but these Wolverines will need to develop quickly, particularly on offense, to accomplish it in 2020.