This should come as no surprise.
As Saturday’s 42-13 blowout loss demonstrated, the Wolverines are not in the same league as No. 2 Penn State. And they never were.
Though Michigan’s 4-0 start planted seeds of optimism that the Wolverines could be better than what they were projected to be, it’s time for the harvest and the crops haven’t grown.
Michigan is no longer in the Associated Press Top-25 poll. That’s a long fall from grace for what was once considered the seventh-best team in the country.
Maybe that ranking made sense at the time. It doesn’t now.
To put it in perspective, Penn State was ranked No. 7 at the end of last season. That came after a year in which the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten and would have won the Rose Bowl over Southern California if not a last-second field goal.
Of the five opponents Michigan has defeated this season, not one currently owns a winning record. The best of the five — then-No. 17 Florida — might have been blown out 33-17 in the season opener, but seven weeks later, the Gators are just 3-3.
Saturday night, while sitting in the visiting media room, fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn tried to take a positive spin on the outlook of the Wolverines’ season.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” he said. “We’re gonna need some help now to accomplish all of our goals but … it’s up to us to make a decision to make this season what we want it to be.”
Before the year began, Michigan insisted that its goals centered on winning a Big Ten championship and contending for the College Football Playoff. Even though the Wolverines lost the majority of their starters on both offense and defense, they asserted that they were still capable of putting together that kind of season.
But maybe those shouldn’t have been the goals for a Michigan team with so much roster turnover. Even those Wolverines — the team with the most players selected in the NFL Draft last April — blew out the mediocre competition before falling short when faced with more challenging opposition courtesy of Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State at the end of the year.
At the start of this season, Michigan may have surpassed some of its expectations, thanks in large part to its No. 1 overall defense. Maybe before season-ending injuries to redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight and freshman receiver Tarik Black, its offense would have had a better shot of doing the same.
But at this point, with contests against No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 6 Ohio State still to come at the end of the year, an 8-4 season seems to be the most likely outcome for the Wolverines.
After the game, O’Korn was asked what message Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had for his team given that strong possibility.
“The fake love’s gone,” he recalled. “There’s no bandwagon. It’s us.”
Fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray backed him up, maintaining the belief that Michigan’s goal is to win out.
As important as a confident mentality is, so is a firm grip of reality.
Just two weeks ago, the Wolverines said the same after an unexpected loss to Michigan State. They argued that one loss wouldn’t change the course of their season. But it essentially did.
Coming into the year, it was expected that Michigan would have to beat either Penn State, Wisconsin or Ohio State in order to prevent a step backward for the program. Not many people accounted for an additional loss, especially to a Spartan team coming off a 3-9 season.
Now, with two losses already, it would be bold to predict that the Wolverines will finish with fewer than four.
For Harbaugh, it would be the most losses of his tenure. After the game, he insisted that the Wolverines’ problems can be solved.
“We’re gonna do better. We’re gonna regroup, come back,” he said. “ … We solve it with our team, and nobody can help us but us. We put our best people on it — our players and our coaches.”
When asked if they can be solved this season, his answer was a blunt: “Yes.”
I’m not so sure. Most of Michigan’s problems have to do with their youth and inexperience, important factors that somehow disappeared from the public consciousness after victories over teams that now look headed straight for nowhere.
Even those wins, from turnovers and penalties to bad decisions and halftime deficits, showed that the Wolverines have a lot of room to grow. Those games should have been the warning signs.
While the experiences will be helpful for the future, that future involves buying a 2018 calendar.
That should come as no surprise.