If the No. 19 Michigan football team hopes to make the Big Ten Championship — or go even further — it essentially has to win out the rest of the season.
“You can lose one,” said senior left tackle Mason Cole, “but you can’t lose two.”
No two-loss team has ever made the College Football Playoff. And with one loss already on their record, the Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 5-1 overall) face their biggest test yet this weekend on the road at No. 2 Penn State.
A loss removes them from the Playoff discussion, but a win keeps those hopes alive.
It’s Harbaugh’s third year at Michigan, and the team doesn’t want to settle for just another random bowl game in Florida.
Few analysts, fans or media outlets are giving Michigan much of a chance against the Nittany Lions.
The critics rip on the Wolverines’ struggling offense and, more specifically, the errant passing game.
“You try to zone it out, but you definitely hear (the critics),” said sophomore receiver Kekoa Crawford. “Personally, I like that. I like being the underdog, being doubted.”
The doubts kept pouring in after the Wolverines scraped past Indiana in overtime.
Michigan dropped two spots in the rankings and got lined up as an 11-point underdog on the same day. It was “one slap in the face after another,” as redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich described it.
“It’s pivotal for the season because (Penn State) won the Big Ten Championship last year, and they’re a great football team,” Winovich said.
The matchup carries far more weight than it did last year, when the Wolverines embarrassed the Nittany Lions in a 49-10 stomping in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines’ defense bottled up running back Saquon Barkley, holding him to just 59 yards. The secondary shut down Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, sacking him six times and allowing just 130 yards in the air.
Michigan held Penn State to just 191 total offensive yards in 2016, but a lot has changed. Now, the Nittany Lions average 456 yards per game.
“I was kind of surprised that (Penn State) really turned things around,” Winovich said. “During the game, I don’t think we had the highest regard for them. … I’m sure they were embarrassed in their own way. No one likes to lose by that much.”
Penn State was 2-2 at that point last year. It had already lost to Pittsburgh, and yet nobody would’ve predicted what happened next.
The Nittany Lions upset Ohio State and ran all the way to the Big Ten Championship. And after getting snubbed from the Playoff, they put on a show in a Rose Bowl classic against Southern California.
Barkley ran for 194 yards, and McSorley threw for 254.
It was that Rose Bowl performance that sparked an offseason filled with hype about the dynamic Barkley-McSorley duo.
So far in 2017, the two have delivered.
Barkley averages 217 all-purpose yards per game and has scored nine touchdowns. McSorley has thrown for over 1,500 yards with 13 touchdown passes, and he has even run for four scores as well.
Penn State has all the talent it needs to continue winning in the Big Ten. Aside from Ohio State, it’s hard to imagine another Big Ten East team taking the Nittany Lions down.
Michigan believes it can be that team. It believes it can make the Big Ten Championship. And it believes there’s a spot for it in the College Football Playoff.
But if it loses again, there won’t be.