When then-No. 7 Michigan State fell to Nebraska on a last-minute touchdown, Michigan fans cheered. Sure, having the Wolverines’ in-state rival lose is exciting, but the loss brings a new level of excitement to Ann Arbor.
Now, if Michigan and Ohio State both win their next two games, the Nov. 28 installment of “The Game” will have more on the line than bragging rights: The winner will earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship.
“I’m sure they’re aware of that,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “If not, we’ll make them aware of it. I’m sure they are.”
At 7-2, the 15th-ranked Wolverines sit tied for second in the Big Ten East. The team tied with them, Michigan State, would beat them in the head-to-head tiebreaker, but the Spartans still have to travel to Columbus and must win to stay alive.
If they lose, Michigan gets new life.
“It would mean a tremendous amount,” said junior defensive end Taco Charlton. “We came here to win a Big Ten championship and hopefully win a national championship, so the fact that we’re going in that direction, things are getting that way, that it can still happen … that’s what we want.”
To get there, though, Michigan has to do its part by beating Indiana and Penn State on the road. But if the Wolverines did, they would have a chance to win their first Big Ten title in 11 years, likely playing No. 7 Iowa for a berth in the Rose Bowl. The statistics website FiveThirtyEight.com has given Michigan a 13-percent chance of winning the Big Ten, an eight-percent chance of making the College Football Playoff and a one-percent chance of winning the National Championship.
But until further notice, that’s all a pipe dream. Players and coaches have been adamant that the focus this week is on Indiana, despite the Hoosiers’ five-game losing streak. The Wolverines will be favored in both games but are sticking to the one-game-at-a-time approach that has worked so far.
“Guys know, and they know what needs to happen for us to get to the championship,” said senior linebacker Joe Bolden. “Most of our guys are smart enough to figure it out, but Coach Harbaugh, it’s black and white with him. He’ll let you know if you’re in the race or not.”
Added Charlton: “The thing that’s been in the back of our heads is that we have to win first to control our own destiny, so if we don’t win it doesn’t matter what the other team does. It’s up to us to make sure we keep winning week in and week out and, at the end of the day, hopefully we’re in the championship.”
To be in the race, however, Michigan will need Ohio State to beat Michigan State. The Buckeyes would enter the game undefeated, but a Wolverine win would give them a head-to-head tiebreaker.
That creates a moral dilemma for the Wolverines, who were trained by fans, coaches and family alike to root against Ohio State.
“Rooting for Ohio State is a very bad, I would say, not a very good phrase,” Bolden said. “Obviously, we want to get to the Big Ten Championship, and for them to win that game (against MSU) here in a couple weeks would be awesome, but at the same time, I don’t really care what happens there. All we care about is Saturday. We can’t get there without continuously winning.”
But as the weeks wear on and Michigan keeps winning, the possibility of a Big Ten championship berth remains, and “The Game” can gain a whole new meaning.
“It’d be interesting,” Bolden said. “It’d be very interesting and a heck of a day. That last Saturday of November would be a heck of a day.”