Before the start of the 2012 season, it was generally accepted that there were four tough games that Michigan would have to overcome if they wanted to have a successful season: the opener against Alabama, the non-conference conclusion against Notre Dame, the showdown with the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, and the closer in Columbus. All of these are road games.
The "must-win" games are obviously Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota, since they are all divisional foes. The matchup against Michigan State was particularly headlined because the winner might very well be the team which represents the Legends Division.
Some things have changed since these predictions and projections were made. Nearly every Big Ten lost at least one non-conference matchup: Nebraska to UCLA, Iowa to Central Michigan, etc. Michigan, MSU, and Purdue all lost to Notre Dame. Only Minnesota, Northwestern, and Ohio State escaped their non-conference schedules unscathed.
With the Buckeyes ineligible, there was serious talk that the Big Ten Championship might come down to a Northwestern-Purdue matchup. Since then, the only teams currently undefeated in conference games are Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, and Ohio State--and two of those teams can't even compete for the title.
Despite its non-conference woes, getting crushed by Alabama, escaping Air Force, giving up a turnover to UMass, and giving up several to Notre Dame, Michigan showed very well last Saturday against Purdue in the conference opener, trampling over the Boilermakers, 44-13.
The Wolverines are now back in the talks where everyone thought they should be before the season, despite losing two games many people expected them to lose. The momentary apocalyptic panicking has ceased, the depression curbed, the ghosts departed.
But the month of October may prove to be a grinder for Michigan if they don't handle every contest with the same poise and determination as they did Purdue. Michigan State is obviously going to be a marquee matchup, but Illinois is a take-care-of-business type of game, with the Illini as inept on both sides of the ball as they seem to be. Even Nebraska--a game to which I would normally say "Let's cross that bridge when we come to it"--is not invincible, as both UCLA and Ohio State showed.
Michigan isn't either, but they have as good a chance to win the league as anyone--maybe even better. The losses to Alabama and Notre Dame, while humbling, also served to sharpen the sword. The game against Purdue, which many predicted could be a Big Ten Championship preview in much the same vein as Michigan State vs. Wisconsin was in 2011, was lopsided and satisfying.
It's obvious that Michigan's toughest opponents are in the same division, and while Ohio State is no pushover from the Leaders, the Buckeyes ineligibility and subsequent defeats of Nebraska and Michigan State make the Michigan contest significantly less critical than usual.
If Michigan is undefeated in their conference record by the time they go to Columbus, the bid to Indianapolis will have already been secured. Every other divisional opponent has already suffered at least one conference loss, and even if the Wolverines theoretically lost to Ohio State, they would have beaten everyone else anyway.
That starts with putting away Illinois, which is Michigan's homecoming game. The Illini defense has failed to live up to expectations, giving up a total of 118 points in the last three games. Their offense isn't much better. In the Wisconsin game alone, Illinois only converted 5 of 16 third downs (Wisconsin converted 2 of 10). Their offensive line is also suspect, giving up 21 sacks so far, the worst of any Big Ten team.
Although Michigan State's 17-16 loss to Ohio State was of great help to Michigan, in terms of conference standing, don't expect the Spartans to make the same errors they did against the Buckeyes when they visit Ann Arbor. Mark Dantonio will make sure his team plays a perfect game. As much as we Michigan fans may delight in MSU's passing struggles now, when they face Michigan, they will somehow magically catch all their passes.
Fortunately, with the contest held at home, a defense that looks to be steadily improving, and having two passing threats ourselves, the Wolverines should have the edge. As motivated as the Spartans should be with their head coach's snarling hatred for Michigan, the Maize and Blue should be doubly motivated. Michigan State will be tough, but they are beatable.
Nebraska is one of the few games I personally still have pegged as a Michigan loss, but the recent debacles against UCLA and Ohio State may be worth giving this one another look. The notorious "blackshirts" (Nebraska's moniker for their defense) are slightly less notorious this year. The Huskers gave up 438 total yards to Ohio State last Saturday. That, combined with giving up 653 to UCLA, adds up to 1,091 yards surrendered in both losses.
Maybe that was just Urban Meyer trying to piss off Bo Pelini, who is a former Buckeye himself, at homecoming. (Ohio State frequently did the same thing to Glen Mason, another Buckeye, when he was at Minnesota.) Or maybe Nebraska's defense is just that bad.
In any event, the next three games may be the toughest conference test for Michigan, but it's one that they not only can win, it's one that they should. If the Maize and Blue are serious about meeting their expectation of winning the Big Ten championship, despite falling out of the discussion for the national one, they'll have to win out in October.
Consider the games that follow in November: Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, and Ohio State. Aside from the throwdown in Columbus as a finale, that's about as much of a "cool down" run as the Wolverines could hope for. October is clearly the tougher month.
A loss to any of the next three opponents (Illinois, Michigan State, Nebraska) means that Michigan will not only be hard pressed to win out to earn the title bid, but also to even get to a respectable bowl game. Two losses puts the Wolverines at 8-4, three at 7-5. A trip to Indianapolis would become very unlikely in either scenario.
The win over Purdue put a lot of fears at ease, as well it should. But Michigan will have to go hard and fast for the next three Saturdays before they can enjoy the smooth ride of less challenging opponents. Then we can watch The Game purely for its own sake, in all its inherent and glorious intensity, but without the stress of losing the trip to the championship. Playing Ohio State will mean only one thing: beating the Buckeyes. And that will be enough.