Wilton Speight’s improvement could have a huge impact on the College Football Playoff.
With their methodical 32-23 dispatching of rival Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, the Wolverines look like one of the best bets in the nation to reach the Playoff.
Sure, a trip to Columbus to end the regular season remains a gigantic test. Win that one and there’s still the Big Ten title game. For now, let’s project that Michigan does win those games and gets an invitation to the Playoff.
How would the Wolverines stack up against the best teams in the nation? Well, a lot of that could depend on Speight.
Second-ranked Michigan (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) clearly has a wonderful defense, one that can help the Wolverines compete against high-powered offenses like Clemson, Alabama and Washington. Offensively, Michigan can run the football with a sturdy, experienced offensive line and a bevy of tailbacks.
But against the very best defenses, Jim Harbaugh might need to cut back on the rotation at running back involve Jabrill Peppers even more than he already is.
So the biggest question in a game against Ohio State, and then against a team like Washington or Alabama, would be can Michigan find some balance from — or even rely upon — the passing game.
For much of this season, Speight has been, well, fine. The junior quarterback has made some good throws, avoided mistakes … and handed the ball off a lot.
Then came Michigan’s bye week in mid-October following a 78-0 blowout of Rutgers. With the extra week off, Speight had a very nice game against Illinois, throwing 2 touchdowns and 11 yards per attempt.
He followed that up with another strong game Saturday against the Spartans. He did make one big mistake — not recognizing that Michigan State’s Darian Hicks had diagnosed the wheel route and throwing his only interception in the game. He also didn’t throw a touchdown in the game.
But Speight’s best plays Saturday don’t show up in a box score. It wasn’t just that Speight threw for more than 150 yards in the first half and 244 for the game. He made a couple of great throws in the face of some serious pressure. He avoided Spartans on three or four plays that could have easily been sacks.
The Wolverines have found explosive plays in the running game with a variety of play calls, and Jake Butt is one of the best tight ends in the country. The game Amara Darboh had Saturday, racking up 165 yards on 8 catches, is the type of contest Michigan might need in January.
If Speight can get the ball down the field to Darboh and Jehu Chesson, it can open room for Butt on shorter routes and make it easier to run the ball. If Michigan does run into a team that can match its talent, girth and experience up front, then the Wolverines will need Speight to do more than he needed to earlier this season.
He’s going to need to do some of the things he’s started to do these past two weeks.
Michigan State made a big statement early against Michigan with a 12-play, 75-yard opening drive that chewed up nearly half of the first quarter. It was easily the best opening salvo any team has managed against this Michigan defense.
Wisconsin went nine plays in its first drive against the Wolverines, but still ended up punting. Colorado scored a touchdown, but only needed to go 49 yards. The Spartans went right at the vaunted Michigan defense, and LJ Scott had more rushing yards in the first 18 minutes (96) than anyone has had all season against the Wolverines.
Speight and the Wolverines offense answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive of their own, and then continued to move the ball against the Spartans. They scored on all five drives in the first half, and quickly turned a 7-0 deficit into a 27-10 halftime advantage.
Michigan’s defense is championship worthy. Speight and the offense have put up plenty of points against inferior competition, and did enough against Wisconsin.
Jake Rudock improved over the course of the 2015 season, and by the end of it Michigan had one of the best passing offenses in the nation.
Speight appears to be following a similar path, and that could be a really big deal for the Wolverines when they get to the really big games at the end of the schedule.