The two most important weeks of the season have arrived for the Wolverines.
With its final two games of the year coming up against No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 13 Ohio State, the Michigan football team (5-2 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) has one last chance to make a push into contention for the Big Ten Championship.
But in order to pull off the feat, Michigan will have to play spoiler. The Wolverines have embraced that role wholeheartedly.
“I think we’ve taken on the role of the villain a little bit,” said fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler. “People have been doubting us, saying we haven’t beaten a team with a winning record this year — that’s kind of the big one that’s going around right now.
“The next two games are big ones, Wisconsin and Ohio State. So if we can come out on top, then the villain wins, and that’s kind of a fun role to play.”
It certainly won’t be easy. The Badgers are currently undefeated atop the Big Ten West standings, and the Buckeyes have only one conference loss to lead the Big Ten East faction.
“We’ve got two big weeks, but we’re going to take it one week at a time,” said sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary. “… This whole week in practice is going to be getting after each other and making sure everything is perfect. We got an opportunity in front of us, and we don’t want to let it go.”
If Michigan manages to win both contests, a 10-2 season is within reach. That record, along with tiebreakers over the two highest-ranked teams in the conference, might be enough to guarantee a spot in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. That's been the Wolverines’ goal all along.
“Our goal is still to go to the Big Ten championship, and that’s still a possibility,” said junior receiver Grant Perry. “So we’re just gonna do what we can, and just win.”
A few weeks ago, the picture looked entirely different for Michigan.
After a blowout loss to then-No. 2 Penn State, coupled with an unexpected loss to then-unranked Michigan State two weeks before, the Wolverines were pushed out of consideration for the College Football Playoff.
Their season could have gone off the rails, but Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh made sure it didn’t.
“We talked about staying together as a family, as a team, especially after a couple of tough losses,” Kugler said. “And that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
The goal since then has been to win out. And Michigan is three games in and two games away from accomplishing that goal.
Meanwhile, the rest of the top competitors in the Big Ten have been knocking each other down a peg. Ohio State lost to Penn State, which then lost to Michigan State, which then lost to Ohio State. Now, the Nittany Lions and Spartans have two conference losses, just like Michigan — though the former two own those tiebreakers. The Buckeyes might only have one, but if the Wolverines beat them, the entire pool would be in for a chaotic finish.
Still, as Kugler noted, Michigan has been unable to shake off its doubters.
“I mean, obviously we’re not getting a lot of love in the playoff polls,” he said. “… But we’re a very tight-knit group. We know what we’re capable of, and we’re just excited for the chance.”
As far as the Wolverines are concerned, Wisconsin is just the next team on the schedule on their road to a possible Big Ten Championship berth. But stopping other teams along the way has become a new part of their goal.
“It’s just kind of fun to ruin seasons,” Kugler said. “… It’s just kind of fun to go into a hostile environment like Wisconsin and come away with a victory. There’s nothing better than that.”