With College Football Playoff aspirations intact, avoiding a loss to Penn State this Saturday is key. Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

The margin for error in college football is slim.

One bad game is all a program gets if it wants to reach the final stage: the College Football Playoff. But two bad games? That’s fatal.

Zero teams have ever been chosen by the playoff selection committee with more than one loss. Granted, 20 out of 32 playoff berths have been one-loss teams, so one game can’t end a season, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

The Michigan football team towed this line last season. After a heartbreaking 37-33 loss to then-No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing, the Wolverines had to win out to reach the highest echelon of college football honors. They managed to do so, stunning then-No. 2 Ohio State in Ann Arbor and annihilating then-No. 15 Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game.

For the first time ever, Michigan reached the College Football Playoff. And overnight, that became the standard.

“Even though we saw success last season, we don’t want to take any steps back,” senior quarterback Cade McNamara told reporters at Big Ten Media Days in July.

Now, the Wolverines are attempting to blaze a path to reach that level — whether that’s realistic or not — for the second-straight season. Michigan could slip at any point from here on out, but really, there are only two games that stand between Valhalla and vitriol for the Wolverines.

The first challenge kicks off at noon this Saturday.

Michigan takes on No. 10 Penn State in what’s been labeled as a “big test” by the Wolverines; But that’s putting it lightly. The Nittany Lions might as well be the only test for a while.

The Wolverines’ remaining opponents, aside from the two elites, are a combined 4-8 in the Big Ten and 13-11 overall. There’s obviously a danger of overlooking Michigan State, a rival that can best Michigan no matter the talent gap, and something to be said for trap games against weaker opponents. But, on paper, Penn State is almost certainly the game that will define the Wolverines’ season all the way up until Ohio State.

If Michigan wants to reach the goals it’s set for itself, it almost has to win on Saturday. But really, the key is more about avoiding the loss than securing a victory.

See, if Michigan wins, it stays alive. The margin for error is there, just like it was last year when the Wolverines lost to the Spartans. More than likely, the Wolverines need to beat every team up until the Buckeyes. Obviously, a win in Columbus is far better for Michigan’s postseason chances than a loss, but nothing is off the table no matter which way The Game goes in a hostile horseshoe.

A win on Saturday gives the Wolverines some breathing room.

Now, say, Michigan loses Saturday. The Wolverines — without a doubt —  need to win out to keep any hope of back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances alive, and they’ll need to do so convincingly. They have to beat Ohio State, hope Penn State drops another game, or at least loses to the Buckeyes in their matchup, and pray that the tiebreaker happens to go their way. That way they can beat up on whatever poor Big Ten West team is sacrificed to the East this year.

The path is far harder, and it’s far less in Michigan’s control.

And Saturday’s matchup won’t be easy for the Wolverines; the Nittany Lions are a dangerous opponent with strong weapons, great coaching and a history of success as a program. 

“They’re good all the time,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “They always win a lot of games. Running the ball, throwing the ball, defending the run, defending the pass. They’re really good on special teams and have good specialists, talented players and are well-coached. … Just always good football. Always expect a real big game when you’re playing Penn State.”

“Big” is one way to describe it, but it doesn’t carry the full gravity of Saturday’s matchup. On Monday, sophomore safety Rod Moore may have put it the best way Michigan fans will understand it:

“We expect it to have the same amount of hold that Ohio State has.”

That’s the size. Those are the implications. Though this game may not define the Wolverines’ season, per se, it will undoubtedly shape it.

And whichever mold it casts will be a hard one to break.

Managing Sports Editor Nicholas Stoll can be reached at nkstoll@umich.edu and on Twitter @nkstoll