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Upcoming ‘unimportant’ games are incredibly important for Michigan football

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Michigan needs its fire and its confidence back. The only way to do that is to execute at a high level with thorough results.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan football lost another big game in embarrassing fashion last weekend and it has fan morale at an all-time low in the Jim Harbaugh era. Undisciplined play and unpreparedness plague this program when the lights shine the brightest and the narrative around them is that they can bully the weaker teams, but get bullied when they get pushed around.

Two of the next three weeks feature matchups with teams that the Wolverines are expected to handle with relative ease, though nothing around these parts is relatively easy right now.

This Saturday, the Wolverines welcome the hapless Rutgers Scarlet Knights to town as 27.5-point favorites before No. 14-ranked Iowa comes to Ann Arbor on Oct. 5 for homecoming, followed by a trip to Illinois to take on former quarterback Brandon Peters and the Illini.

There’s a decent chance that Michigan goes out and wins all of these games. Fans will say it does not matter, and at the end of the day it probably doesn’t. But this in reality is as critical a stretch for Michigan football as the one that follows it.

The Wolverines, who now seek to slow things down and take it one week at a time, have three weeks to not only find an identity, but be thorough and decisive in how they prepare and approach these games and how they ultimately play in them.

There isn’t much of an excuse to not go out there and blow the barn doors off of Rutgers on Saturday. Start fast, play clean, and don’t worry about sending messages to anyone but yourselves. This batch of Wolverines needs to be able to see what it can do and be capable of if they play a clean football game and execute at a high level. It starts at the top in even the most basic of drills they run this week.

Most importantly, this is a seemingly fractured group that has to find a way to inspire hope in their own building. Forget social media. Forget the national pundits. Find a way to get that fire back and at least give yourselves a chance.

Part of this team’s problem feels like they know what the external pressures are and they’re trying to make up ground on Ohio State all at once as opposed to focusing on the task at hand. When something goes wrong, there’s a “here we go again” vibe that may not be quantifiable, but is deflating nonetheless, especially offensively. And the players who either continue to make mistakes or who’s effort might be in question must be held accountable for that because the margin for error the rest of this season is essentially gone.

So while many will sit there and say whatever they do to Rutgers, Iowa and Illinois does not matter, I’ll be watching for decisiveness and an edge. After Michigan lost at Notre Dame last year, that was a mentally tough group that pulled itself together and ripped off 10 wins in a row before a humbling and historic defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes and in the Peach Bowl against Florida. This is a group that has been through a lot since 2016 and fought back from a fair amount of it, but are currently suffering from Battered Wolverine Syndrome.

Iowa plays Middle Tennessee State this week and will likely stay inside the top 15 ahead of next week’s matchup, creating another big game the Wolverines will find themselves in. I’d argue Saturday night be a bigger test for them. Not because of who they’re playing, but to see if there’s any resolve or if this is just going to be a season that bottoms out while they go through the motions.

Those are the expectations for the next three weeks. If they are able to go out and win the next three and show there’s some fight, and then go into a hostile environment at Penn State on Oct. 19 and win, which they probably are not capable of currently, then maybe we can start taking stock of their chances to get rolling ahead of a matchup with Notre Dame on Oct. 26.

Until that happens, you’re probably right to feel like a lot of hope might be lost. But don’t sit here and tell me these upcoming games don’t matter. You’re going to learn even more than you already know if they come out and struggle against the likes of Rutgers and Illinois or lose to Iowa at home.

Michigan’s only chance to get its swagger back is if they can put it together one day at a time. One practice at a time. One game at a time. Looking ahead and trying to accelerate this growth process is what has them in the spot they are in already.

It’s fine to blame the coaches in that building. They totally deserve it, and right now are wearing it. We will have to see how that message is received by the players.

Football does not feel fun for the Wolverines right now. A few laughers and big wins could go a long way in at least giving themselves a sliver of a chance.