Michigan football fans are no strangers to waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially when one drops as heavily as the one in Madison a few weeks ago. Pessimism among the Wolverine faithful in the Jim Harbaugh era is currently at an all-time high, and probably rightfully so, leading people to wonder when, or if, they can start feeling confident that this will not be a lost season.
So far this year, Michigan has played two “meh” football games, one absolute trainwreck and one thorough and complete effort against a hapless program. There’s a timeline in an alternate reality where the Wolverines are sitting at 2-2 now if a kick goes through the uprights in the Army game. Luckily, they’re 3-1 with (cue the old bit siren) their goals still ahead of them.
Blowing out Rutgers proved that this program still has a pulse and, when totally prepared and committed to getting the job done on a given week, is able to take care of the task at hand. They showed that they were capable of putting together a great week of practice and that the coaching staff has not lost this team. That is, at least until the next time they get punched in the mouth.
And that’s where Harbaugh and his program still have much to prove. When they are locked in, they can throw haymakers. However, if someone counterpunches and they taste blood in their own mouths, that is usually when things start to go sideways.
The punch back, at least against the best teams on the schedule, has rarely been there.
Enter this week’s game against Iowa, where the Wolverines are home favorites against a team ranked higher than them, but one that should provide similar challenges for them in the trenches on both sides of the football.
You already know what the narratives are. Right now, this is seen as a critical game for the Harbaugh era, unless they win the game. Then it will be just another one against a team that they were favored to beat and was “overrated.” If they lose, people will scream from the mountaintops again that the program is a disaster and that they were in steadier hands under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke.
If Michigan beats Iowa, heck, even if they do so handily, you’d still be right to be pessimistic about the big picture because there are still so many tough games remaining. The rest of October brings a road trip to Illinois (who is not good, but Brandon Peters), what feels like a potential White Out night game at Penn State) and then Notre Dame at the Big House to close out the month.
From there, the Wolverines head to Maryland, have a bye week, then close out the year with a home game against Michigan State, a road trip to Indiana and then The Game against Ohio State in Ann Arbor.
ESPN’s FPI has win percentages set for the rest of Michigan’s schedule:
vs. Iowa: 62.1 percent
at Illinois: 89.6 percent
at Penn State: 22.6 percent
vs. Notre Dame: 36.4 percent
at Maryland: 77.4 percent
vs. Michigan State: 61.7 percent
at Indiana: 74.1 percent
vs. Ohio State: 18.4 percent
ESPN’s FPI projected record: 7.4-4.6
That looks and feels daunting. So if they continue to take care of their business during the week and stay at one-loss, when might it be time to consider this team as legitimate in the conference title picture?
Simply put, the Wolverines have to win these next to weeks and see if they can get hot. Harbaugh said earlier this week that two good showings in a row would be a trend for the team and three would start making it a habit. Iowa and Illinois fall into that range, so we need to see some good habits and two wins over the next two weeks.
However, it does not stop there. If, and only if, those good habits are formed, then going into a hostile environment in Happy Valley and winning becomes the true measuring stick. They lost 42-13 the last time they went there in what likely will be a similar atmosphere, so that is looking as if it could be the truest test of their resolve yet.
If they can find a way to win the next three, we can start having those real conversations again.
Given that Notre Dame is an odd non-conference game at the end of October, they can afford a loss there, though that is not as if it makes it any easier to swallow.
Assuming Michigan takes care of business in the games it is expected to take care of business in, right now this is an 8-4 team. There’s a few swing games there, as Iowa and Michigan State could definitely be losses if things go the wrong way.
Harbaugh rose to prominence as a coach at Stanford in 2007 by beating Pete Carrol’s USC Trojans on the road as 41-point underdogs, who were ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll and No. 1 in the coaches poll at that point of the season. At Michigan, Harbaugh has never won a game in which the Wolverines were not favored to win and have dropped a handful of big games that they were favored in.
The Wolverines will never be as huge an underdog as that Stanford team was, but it certainly feels like Harbaugh will need some throwback magic for this team to actually be legitimate as a conference title contender.
Michigan can earn some goodwill back by beating a team it is not supposed to beat, whether it be by Vegas or by analytics. Regardless of what you think about this weekend’s game, that next major test comes in Happy Valley on Oct. 19.
It might not matter if they wind up losing to Iowa. If that’s the case, everything we just discussed become irrelevant and then we can start having a different conversation.
For now, forget about beating Ohio State. Beat Iowa. Beat Illinois and show you’re capable of a win on the road. Then, surprise everyone and pull one out at Penn State.
Until then, we look for improvement in critical areas — the offense, the lines on both sides of the ball, Don Brown’s often overly-aggressive defense — and to keep piling up wins each week.