COLLEGE PARK — There is nothing about Saturday’s Michigan football game that, when the season ends, will qualify as particularly memorable.
A two-loss Wolverines played a Maryland team that likely won’t qualify for a bowl. Michigan won, 38-7, in a game it was supposed to win by something like that score. The outcome was never in doubt. A healthy percentage of the fans in College Park wore maize and blue, and then went home happy.
Really, the only way this could have qualified as memorable would be if the Wolverines had lost.
Michigan is out of contention for the College Football Playoff and the Big Ten. If you read this paper, or any other outlet covering the Wolverines, you’ve read about 50 variants of that sentence in the last two weeks. There are four weeks left in the regular season and one way to make the season, unequivocally, a success. Josh Uche laid it out pretty well.
“We thinking about Michigan State right now,” the senior linebacker said after Saturday’s game. “We thinking about both of them (Michigan State and Ohio State) right now, honestly. That’s something, being a Michigan Man, you always thinking about.
“That game-planning starts later today.”
It’s pretty easy at this point. Win those two games and the narrative around this program shifts. No longer is Jim Harbaugh the coach who can’t beat his rivals. No longer is Michigan the program that can’t get over the hump. No longer is anyone going into 2020 with apprehension.
Lose both — or go one-for-two — and it’s the same thing as ever.
These will always be the games that define success for the program.
Last year, when Michigan went to East Lansing and beat Michigan State, 21-7, Harbaugh teared up in the locker room. That’s how much it meant to him.
Now imagine what it would mean to win both rivalry games.
Michigan will be prohibitive favorites against the Spartans, a program currently in disarray. Mark Dantonio’s team has scored 17 points in its last three games and holds a 4-4 record. Rumors have abounded about Dantonio’s job status. The Wolverines’ defense is one of the best in the country. The math works itself out pretty well.
As much as this matchup has a tendency to go haywire, Michigan may have a chance to put a nail in Dantonio’s coffin. It’s hard to imagine the Wolverines won’t be eager to take it, especially coming off a bye.
“This week, we just gotta get ready, take care of our bodies,” said junior wideout Nico Collins. “We got off and we just get ready for Michigan State the following week.”
Ohio State is a tougher ask, and it’ll come after a road trip to Indiana that doubles as a trap game. That doesn’t make it impossible to win. Nor does it diminish its importance.
Even though the Buckeyes haven’t taken the step back people envisioned under new coach Ryan Day, that opportunity is still there. Two years ago in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines pushed them to the brink despite a notable talent gap in one of the best coaching performances of the Harbaugh era.
There’s no reason that can’t happen again. And there’s no reason Michigan — which has gotten better as the season has gone on, particularly over the last 10 quarters — can’t finish the job this time.
Impossible as that seemed in late September, when Josh Gattis’ offense was on the brink of implosion, the Wolverines have turned things around.
The offense has found an identity, mixing in Harbaugh and offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s plays with Gattis’ looks. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson is healthy after struggling through the early part of the season. The 31 points the Wolverines’ offense scored against the Terrapins felt almost lazy a week after they dropped 45 on Notre Dame.
“I think collectively as a group, we’re playing at our highest level,” Patterson said. “There was a couple three-and-outs on the offensive side of the ball, and we kind of want to stay away from that to put our defense in better positions. But as a group right now, we’re kind of hitting our stride.”
As for the defense, it ranks third in SP+, with few lingering questions. It’s par for the course under Don Brown.
That could all fall apart when things get real, especially against Ohio State. Last year, the Wolverines came into Columbus and looked unprepared with a Playoff berth on the line.
If that happens this year, it won’t be viewed as the same kind of disaster, because this Michigan team will be playing only for itself. The season will be a relative footnote. Everyone’s eyes will turn towards 2020.
But if Michigan can pull it off? If it can beat Michigan State and Ohio State twice in three weeks, notch Harbaugh’s first win against the Buckeyes and polish off a 10-win season that looked dead to rights after three games?
Well, then, who cares about the Playoff, or the Big Ten? Who cares about what Harbaugh hasn’t done or what the program hasn’t been? This season is the best of the Harbaugh era anyway.
That’s the chance in front of the Wolverines right now. Our memory of this season will depend on whether they take it.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.