Michigan won’t make the College Football Playoff this year. It hasn’t been statistically eliminated from the Big Ten, but for now, its chances of a conference title reside on technicalities and blind hope.
Those were the goals the Wolverines harbored before the season started, the goals they kept clinging onto after Wisconsin blitzed them in Madison last month.
“We know that we’re gonna see them again in my hometown, for the Big Ten championship,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Cam McGrone a week after that loss. “I don’t really mind hearing it, cause I know when we see them again, we’re gonna smack ‘em in the mouth.”
Barring an unforeseen charge by Michigan and multiple slip-ups from Ohio State and Penn State, that’s not going to happen.
“Win our next game,” Jim Harbaugh said this week when asked what would make a successful season. “That’s our goal.”
There’s not much else to say at this point. There is no big-picture goal because all of those evaporated into the State College night last Saturday. As far as front-facing public declarations go, brash statements have been beaten out of the Wolverines.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to salvage for the season. The gulf between 7-5 and 10-2 is still wide, both in terms of public perception and of what this season will mean to those inside Schembechler Hall. Michigan, in many ways, is playing only for itself at this point. That’s not nothing.
Much as everything with this program centers around Harbaugh’s record on the road against ranked teams — the record that ultimately brought down his team this year — he still has the opportunity to notch wins against Michigan’s rivals. He has yet to beat Ohio State in four tries. He lost in his first matchup against Notre Dame last year. He has yet to beat Michigan State at home, with a lackluster 2-2 record against the Spartans.
That adds up to a 2-7 record against Michigan’s biggest rivals, despite the Wolverines being favored in six of those nine games. As far as reversing narratives go, there’s still a pretty big one staring Harbaugh, and Michigan, in the face.
Much as the Wolverines have disappointed this year, all three of those games are at home. Winning all of them is a tall order, especially with Ohio State looking like one of the best teams in the country. Notre Dame and the Buckeyes are both top-10 teams. But beat them and nobody will go into the offseason feeling apprehensive about Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator, and nobody will feel anything but good about 2020. Do that and Michigan can claw its way to a New Year’s Six bowl, giving way to unfounded optimism around the program.
If the Wolverines take moral victories against those three teams, they’ll have their worst season since 2014, when they went 5-7, missed a bowl game and fired Brady Hoke. That’s what these next six weeks mean.
No equivocating. Not if Michigan wants to be considered a top-tier program.
“Do you define struggling as, are you winning the games? If you look at it in terms of winning, yeah, I guess our record doesn’t really reflect everything that goes into it,” said Carlo Kemp when asked about struggles against top-10 teams this week. “… But we fought (against Penn State). We fought our way all the way back to present ourselves with an opportunity to win the game. And the score of the game and the records of those ranked matchups that you’re talking about, they don’t reflect that. And it’s a curse and it’s a blessing. It doesn’t reflect everything that goes into those games and the preparation and how they’ve been on your mind since the last time you played them or the last time you lost to them.
“Sometimes, they don't go your way. But you don’t document the fight or the good plays and the positives of those games. The only thing that gets reported is the score and the record.”
It might be wrong to say that Michigan struggled at Penn State when it had a chance to tie the game at the 3-yard line and force overtime. But there is no doubt that Michigan has struggled to win these kinds of games. Fair or not, that’s what matters in the end.
Most of Michigan’s players and coaches fell into Harbaugh’s rhetoric — “win our next game” — when asked about bigger-picture goals this week. It fell to senior quarterback Shea Patterson to expand on that.
“We have an opportunity,” Patterson said. “We have a decision to make. Our goal is to win every game the rest of the season. I love this team. We’re all so close, and we trust each other, and we love playing together. I don’t think there is any other goal than to just win.”
Do that, and this season will feel a whole lot different at the end of November than it does right now.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.