Ben Bredeson situated himself at the center of a media scrum Monday afternoon, an expressionless look plastered to his face beneath a low-riding trucker hat.

The first question was as simple as it was predictable: What are your goals for the rest of season? Implicit in the question was that the goals Michigan carried into the season — win the Big Ten and make the College Football Playoff, at a minimum — are bust, evaporated in the familiar pitfall of road losses to ranked teams.

Bredeson, a captain and one of Michigan’s unofficial senior spokesmen, stared into the surrounding cameras and provided the diplomatic answer.

“We’re just taking it week by week,” Bredeson said. “We can’t control anything other than our own play so just focusing on that is the next step.”

Minutes later, defensive tackle Carlo Kemp — another one of those captains and spokesmen — echoed Bredeson. “Yes, we lost, but you gotta remember, this wasn’t our last game of the year,” Kemp said “This isn’t, ‘Alright, we’re done, let’s start packing up.’ ”

Neither will say it, because that would undermine the significance of the season’s final five games, but both know their senior seasons will end without achieving their ultimate goals. 

Bredeson chose the Wolverines despite offers from Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Kemp could have gone to Notre Dame or Wisconsin, calling Michigan an opportunity to play “top-caliber football” when he committed. Yet, both will finish their collegiate careers without an appearance in the Big Ten championship game or College Football Playoff, unless Kemp successfully petitions for a retroactive redshirt.

Those goals — repeated ad nauseam through the offseason — are so entrenched in the Wolverines’ self-identity that redshirt freshman linebacker Cam McGrone promised a Big Ten championship game rematch with Wisconsin after last month’s 35-14 loss in Madison. “I know when we see them again, we’re going to smack them in the mouth,” McGrone said at the time.

That same week, VIPER Khaleke Hudson — another senior captain often paraded in front of the media — was more cautious, but still delivered a message of confidence rooted in controlling their own destiny. “We still are able to reach our goals that we had for the whole season,” Hudson said.

Not anymore.

Now, the only mention of expectations is to dismiss them. “Win our next game, that’s our goal,” Jim Harbaugh said, when asked how he defines a successful season.

“Expectations, those are just outcomes,” Kemp said. “And you start focusing on expectations, like ‘we were supposed to do this, we were supposed to do that’ — none of that really matters.” 

The message stands in direct contrast to everything that was said all offseason, through Wisconsin’s rout and up to Saturday night’s 28-21 loss to Penn State.

That loss, featuring a spirited fight back from a 21-0 deficit, proved Michigan with its latest reason for optimism. Built into that optimism is that whatever the Wolverines do over the next five weeks carries into next year — for everyone except the seniors.

It’s why Bredeson, Kemp and the rest of those seniors have turned to using their experience to help keep Michigan’s underclassmen grounded.

“Worrying about Big Ten championship, National Championship, really the only thing you can control is the next game,” Bredeson said. “So just trying to help them see that and see there’s still a lot of great things that we can attain this season.”

Asked whether that’s hard to grapple with as a senior, when winning those championships was the goal he brought to Michigan, Bredeson called it “part of being a teammate” and reaffirmed his focus on this week’s game against Notre Dame.

“You can’t let two losses take your season,” Bredeson said.

Take your season, no. Take your goals, well, that’s unavoidable.

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