The loss to Nebraska was disappointing, but will it define Michigan's season? We'll find out against Minnesota.
Let's suspend all the negative talk about Michigan suddenly being on the verge of an unsuccessful season.
Yes, the Wolverines' loss to Nebraska means that the race for the Legends Division first-place spot will soon reach critical mass in the coming weeks. Yes, Nebraska has the head-to-head tie-breaker with Michigan, should both teams have tied conference records at the end of the season. Yes, if Michigan loses another game, they will likely be unable to secure the Legends Division crown and will probably be regulated to a secondary bowl where they'll get whipped by a surprisingly good SEC team.
Worst, Denard Robinson's injury predicament and Russell Bellomy's struggles as a capable backup mean that teams we should beat suddenly become legitimate threats.
Okay, I know that sounds rather negative, but it's important to at least acknowledge the facts of our situation before we can get to the positive stuff. Here's the good news: Michigan has a much easier remaining schedule than Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have to go to Spartan Stadium and battle an anxious Michigan State team that is fighting for bowl eligiblity and, after going to four straight bowl games under Mark Dantonio, will fight hard.
Michigan is facing Minnesota, a team that is also fighting for bowl eligibilty, but the Gophers have not gone to a bowl game since 2009. Expectations between the Spartans and the Gophers are clearly on two different levels. The Spartans have gotten used to bowl eligibility. The Gophers are trying to get into the mix.
While the Gophers have been surprising in their dramatic turnaround, it hasn't been that dramatic. Minnesota has gone from being an uncompetitive 3-9 team that lost unthinkable games to South Dakota State and New Mexico State to being a competitive 5-win team that takes care of its non-conference cupcakes. Sometimes going from terrible to mediocre seems like a blessing, as Michigan fans will remember when thinking about Michigan's defense in recent years.
Nevertheless, the Wolverines soundly trounced the Gophers in 2011, shutting them out 58-0, but that rout was partly due to Minnesota's dynamic quarterback, MarQueis Gray, sitting out with turf toe.
This year, Minnesota hosts Michigan with neither Gray nor Max Shortell, the backup who weathered the 2011 game in the Big House, at quarterback. Instead leading the Gophers is true freshman Philip Nelson, a Wisconsin native who played high school in Minnesota and was the first in-state recruit who committed to Jerry Kill and his staff. Given Nelson's status as the state's best quarterback (sort of like Michigan's Shane Morris), he was big news at the time.
Thanks to moderate success against Wisconsin and Purdue (which was hugely unexpected for Minnesota fans), Nelson has local Minneapolis-St. Paul papers raving about his poise and leadership, which reminds many of Adam Weber, a Gopher quarterback who is currently playing backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A Minneosta Star-Tribune article recently compared Nelson to Robert Griffin III.
Michigan fans are stunned that Minnesota currently has the same overall record (5-3) that the Wolverines do. However, Michigan's losses came to No. 1-ranked Alabama, No. 5-ranked Notre Dame, and Nebraska. Minnesota's came from Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin, decent teams but hardly national powerhouses.
Both teams are at a turning point in their seasons. Michigan must rebound quickly and effectively and take control of the next three games (and possibly even Ohio State) if they wish to control their destiny. Minnesota needs only one more win to get to a bowl game. Even if the Gophers lose to Michigan at home, they'll still have Illinois on the schedule, and the Illini are looking more dazed and confused that the Gophers did in 2011.
Given the nature of Denard Robinson's perplexing injury against Nebraska, and how poorly Russell Bellomy responded (even for a redshirt freshman), it's difficult to hold any certainty over the remainder of Michigan's schedule. They could easily win out. Or they could easily lose every game.
A win over Minnesota wouldn't hurt. In fact, it would help. It would go further than any Wolverine may care to admit. It is, let's not forget, a rivalry game, with a trophy and everything. It's not just a conference match-up; it's a divisional match-up, one that Michigan is more than capable of securing.
Sure, the Gophers haven't challenged Michigan in the series for over sixty years, but there have been games Michigan has lost. To regain confidence and that ever-important momentum, the Wolverines need to take care of business. They need to show that the loss to Nebraska, as much as it was a disappointment, will not become a common occurrence, and Michigan will not implode just because their quarterback goes down.
If Michigan beats Minnesota and Nebraska loses to Michigan State, the Wolverines are right back in it--the advantage is theirs again, and Russell Bellomy doesn't feel so terrible about his big stage debut. He got very little help from the senior veterans when he needed it. That's who most needs to make an impact in the coming weeks: the veterans.
2012 is their season. Team 133 is their team. Now they need to go out and show it.