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How Michigan can make a disappointing 2019 season hurt a little bit less

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Michigan can still make something good come out of this season, but we’re having this conversation earlier than we should be.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan football is 5-2 with both of those losses coming in Big Ten play. Barring an unforeseen set of circumstances that would equate to me getting struck by lightning where I sit while typing this out, the chances of winning the Big Ten East and going to Indianapolis are essentially over.

Sweet, I’m still here! Let’s continue.

The Wolverines went 0-2 in their two biggest road challenges of the year, albeit in different types of efforts. The result is the same, however, and their performances in both games have sunk their chances of fulfilling preseason expectations of competing for and winning a Big Ten Championship.

No matter which way you slice that, the fact that those goals are dead in the water halfway through October is perhaps the most disappointing part of all of this.

It is what it is now and Michigan has no choice but to move forward — both as a football team and a fanbase that’s frustrated. In the here and now, we have to take things for what they are and not as we would like them to be.

The tough road tests are over for the most part (things always get weird when you go to Indiana), but the opportunity to build off of a decent second half showing in Happy Valley last weekend exists. Up next is Notre Dame, another top ten team. Those types of matchups have haunted the Wolverines and while a win this weekend won’t do much to offset the past, at least they can salvage a bit of goodwill and drive a stake into the Irish’s playoff chances.

It’s sad that the Wolverines are essentially relegated to playing spoiler the rest of the year, but for a team building a callus and an edge, perhaps that’s something to get up for. Two of these final five games also have the Wolverines playing their two chief rivals in Michigan State and Ohio State. Those programs are trending in opposite directions, but there’s still a decent amount on the line there, as well.

For the Spartans, it might be all about burying the Mark Dantonio era with one final loss to Michigan. Harbaugh has never beaten Dantonio at home and there’s nothing that fuels MSU quite like that matchup. Seeing as this season has gone completely sideways for them up in East Lansing, all that’s left to do is try and beat Michigan, which they do doubt will be ready to do.

Both of those teams on Nov. 16 in Ann Arbor will be out of the hunt for the Big Ten East title, but this one is as important for Michigan as it gets. Things might not be ideal in Ann Arbor right now, but taking care of business in your own backyard is always something to play for. You always want to be on the right side of that one.

The Ohio State game is trickier. All one can really hope for is that Michigan improves enough over the next four games to give the Buckeyes a fight and hope that the football gods take over with some dumb luck that usually goes against them. The season would hurt a heck of a lot less if they find a way to pull off an upset of what might be the best Ohio State team that Michigan will have seen in Harbaugh’s five years.

The Wolverines still have to go on the road and play Maryland and Indiana, the latter of which always seems to give them some problems. That’s a scary game if they do not come out and play their best football and stay away from mistakes.

The magic number for this year seems to be 9-3. Anything less than that probably warrants a serious look at the direction of this program from administration, because it honestly does not get any easier from here. The Wolverines will lose a decent amount of talent on the offensive side of the ball and play a front-loaded schedule next season, so to find a way to inspire confidence and keep improving on offense under Josh Gattis is what we should be keeping an eye on.

Basically, the TL;DR of it all is that unless they can find a way to beat Ohio State and get that monkey off their back, there’s really no other way to label this season as other than a massive disappointment. Not a failure, but definitely a disappointment.

Michigan’s problems through almost five years of the Harbaugh era are self-inflicted mixed in with some bad luck. The 2015 Michigan State game and 2016 Ohio State game come to mind, but even there began the team’s inability to ice away a football game. Those are things that have not improved through five years.

There’s a lot of bad habits that happen when the lights are the brightest, like putting yourself in a 76-3 hole in the first quarter of games on the road against ranked opponents. Or a conservative approach that digs that hole and forces you to be aggressive later on, usually to improved results.

There’s been enough talent recruited and competent-enough coaching that puts the Wolverines in position to get over the hump in these big games, even against Ohio State. But critical errors that include undisciplined play and incredibly silly coaching decisions are the biggest thing holding them back.

Not that they “do it the right way when others cheat” or that it “takes time to build a program.”

Michigan let two chances slip away to win the Big Ten in Columbus in both 2016 and 2018. They had the better team going into both of those games and they couldn’t find a way to get it done. They have to wear that. Harbaugh has to wear that. The apologist portion of this fanbase has to realize that.

Harbaugh is a good coach, but has not proven to be the great one that we thought. At the time, it was and still is the right hire for them to have made in 2015. But it is a lot harder to take a program from good to great than it is to take them out of mediocrity to being competitive. That’s the second gear that Harbaugh has not been able to find for the last three football seasons.

Michigan as an institution is getting its money’s worth out of Harbaugh with the exposure and revenue that the football program brings in and as long as they stay competitive and competently-coached (meaning you’re not losing to teams you’re not supposed to), there’s little reason to believe that athletic director Warde Manuel would consider a coaching change unless Harbaugh walks away on his own. That’s important to keep in mind moving forward.

And if that continues to be the case, we’ll temper our expectations accordingly.

Michigan needs that paradigm-shifting moment in the worst way. Something that tips the cosmic scales back in their direction. It shouldn’t be this hard at Michigan, but it has been.

Now that the pressure of the Big Ten title hunt is off of them, maybe they start to cut it loose a bit. The foundation for what comes next starts now and salvaging what’s left of the 2019 season and ending on a positive note, including getting to and winning a solid bowl game, is the biggest priority.