COLLEGE PARK — Michigan hit a low under former coach Brady Hoke last season, going 5-7 and missing a bowl game for the first time since 2009.
Despite pulling in touted recruiting classes, Michigan's win total dropped in each of his four seasons. And though his fate might have already been sealed when Maryland traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, last November and left the Big House with a 23-16 victory, Hoke's hapless clock management against the Terps provided a lasting image of the end of his tenure.
What a difference a year — and a coach — makes.
No. 22 Michigan enters Saturday's Big Ten Conference opener against Maryland at Byrd Stadium the winners of three straight with a suffocating defense and a bruising offense. The Wolverines' lone loss is a one-score defeat on opening night to a Utah team that dismantled last season's runner-up Oregon on the road last week. Michigan is coming off a 31-0 dismantling of early-season darling BYU.
The majority of the personnel is the same group that Hoke had last season, save for Iowa transfer Jake Rudock at quarterback. The main difference wears khakis and is an explosive personality on the sideline. That's coach Jim Harbaugh.
"He's a good coach, there's no doubt about it," coach Randy Edsall said Tuesday. "His track record proves that wherever he's been."
Harbaugh and his staff have molded a group that underachieved under Hoke and turned it from a curious afterthought in this season's Big Ten race into a team that could play spoiler for another contender or snatch a Big Ten East division title for itself.
Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback who played for legendary Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler before playing for four teams in the NFL, including the Baltimore Ravens, has worked from the ground up with his team and instilled a hard-nosed mentality.
It's worked before. He led University of San Diego (Football Championship Subdivision) to two conference titles before turning Stanford from a one-win team to a 12-win team. And then he reached three NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl in four years leading the San Francisco 49ers.
"Jim has done a really great job," Edsall said. "[Jim] and his staff has done a really good job. You can see that. But also I think those guys are a year older too, which makes a difference. That experience is invaluable."
Michigan has returned to the power running attack that helped elevate the Wolverines to national prominence under Schembechler and his successor, Lloyd Carr. Michigan has rushed for more than 200 yards per game this season, and the Wolverines will get a crack at a Maryland defense that allowed 304 yards on the ground to West Virginia a week ago.
Michigan also boasts a stout defense that ranks first in the Big Ten in total defense, first in pass defense and second in rushing defense. It's a tall challenge for a Terps offense that looked hapless against West Virginia.
"We definitely are cognizant of the fact Michigan is very good defensively," center Evan Mulrooney said Wednesday. "We are very excited about the challenge that is presented to us this weekend. This is definitely the best defensive line we've seen thus far. They're really big, really strong, really athletic. They're smart. They're just really good football players."
Despite the talent and stats, it's clear that Harbaugh's fingerprints are on nearly every aspect of the Michigan program. The players are largely the same. They're a year older and have seen the program hit a low under Hoke. They just have a talented coach who has pushed them to new heights so far this season.
"I remember Brady saying he thought he was going to have a really good team coming back last year," Edsall said.
The Terps have noticed the difference between this season and last season's edition of Michigan. There's mostly the same numbers on the field and the names on the scouting reports match up with the same key players in last year's meeting. The biggest factor, though, wears khakis and a headset.
"They look like a better team than last year, at least on film," running back Brandon Ross said. "They probably will have a chip on their shoulder after last year. After they got a new head coach, he probably has them thinking differently. I think it'll be a different game, but I think they'll come in here ready."