Michigan desperately, achingly, wants to be back. Back from where? Hard to tell. Back to what? Yet to be determined.
But this is it, right? It’s real this time, r-r-right?
Fans’ trepidation is understandable. The Wolverines have been “back” an estimated 39 times since 1997, and yet in that 21-year stretch, they’ve finished with fewer than three losses precisely three times. Now comes the latest gauntlet, recently downgraded to a gaunt gauntlet, but a critical stretch nevertheless.
I’m not saying the next three games against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State represent the biggest stretch since Jim Harbaugh arrived four years ago. (Yes I am.) I’m saying they need to go 4-0 (minimum!) in the three games, or politely excuse themselves from Big Ten championship contention for the 14th consecutive year.
This is the Wolverines’ latest shot at legitimacy, and all they have to do is win Saturday night against Wisconsin by 25-30 points, then win the next game, the next game, the next game, the next game and the next game. And then the Big Ten title game. And then not lose to Alabama by five touchdowns in the playoff.
Depending upon how you define “rivalry” games, or “fourth-down overtime spot” games, or “muffed punt” games, the Wolverines haven’t won a single, moderately important game since Harbaugh got here. Well actually, one. They beat Michigan State in 2016 when the Spartans were in the midst of a nostalgic 3-9 throwback season.
By the way, it’s a brilliant strategy by Michigan State to retreat from competitive fervor whenever there’s a chance Michigan might win, thus devaluing the outcome. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s so effective, Ohio State also utilizes it. Michigan’s only victory over the Buckeyes in the past 14 attempts came against interim Luke Fickell, unless you count the overtime victory two years ago, which is perfectly acceptable.
Michigan State appears to be pulling the stunt again, losing by 10 at home to Northwestern with an impressive array of 1-yard smashes. I know Mark Dantni (missing his O) loves to save up offensive plays for the Michigan game. I didn’t realize he and coordinator Dave “Pop” Warner were saving up every single play, not even allowing the Wolverines to scout basic blocking techniques.
First though, the Badgers come to Ann Arbor, and they’ve also downgraded for no apparent reason. They’re no longer the snarling fourth-ranked team from the preseason, but a squad that allowed winless Nebraska to stumble into 518 yards and lost to BYU as a 23-point favorite.
Whether Wisconsin (4-1) and Michigan State (3-2) are formidable or not, I feel comfortable saying this three-game stretch is even bigger than the famous Wisconsin-Ohio State-South Carolina gauntlet to end last season, when the Wolverines somehow neglected to win any.
This is an opportunity they cannot decline again. As it stands, they’re 5-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big Ten and 0-1 in real games. Ever since that loss to Notre Dame, pundits have loudly wondered when Michigan would beat a tough opponent, while UM fans have slowly worked up the courage to be arrogant again. Harbaugh might point out he’s 2-1 against Penn State, 1-1 against Wisconsin and a staggering 4-0 against Maryland, but even he realizes it’s time.
You know it’s a big one because Michigan is welcoming ESPN’s College GameDay crew. As always, the highlight will be when Lee Corso dons a mascot head, although based on Michigan’s firm anti-mascot stance, Corso will be legally required to pick the Badgers. It might not matter, according to my ill-informed sources, because a cardboard cut-out of Corso is used whenever the temperature dips below 40. Desmond Howard and Kirk Herbstreit also will be on the GameDay set, and I still contend Michigan-Ohio State won’t truly be revived until those two brawl, which should happen Nov. 24 in Columbus.
Until then, nervous Michigan fans are hoping this is finally when delusion turns to delirium, without the use of special mushrooms. Delusion, as you know, is the lifeblood of college football.
Last week, Texas announced it’s “back” for the 27th time in the past decade by beating Oklahoma. Notre Dame disappears and returns so often, Fighting Irish fans are never sure whether to give Brian Kelly a new contract or stick “For Sale” signs in his yard.
Speaking of delusion, Dantonio said his offense’s goal is still to run the ball 40 times for 1.2 yards per carry. He also said Michigan State (updated team slogan: #dryheave) should be 5-0 right now, a common delusionary tactic around here. Michigan fans insist Harbaugh is 43-2 (not 33-12), reluctantly conceding only the 42-13 losses to Ohio State and Penn State.
Don’t let anybody fool you, these Badgers are still a challenge, even if they have no secondary, no pass rush and few fancy playmakers. They do have Jonathan Taylor, who leads the nation in rushing, and an offensive line capable of bench-pressing a school bus. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook doesn’t have the acclaim of Shea Patterson, but he still could make it quite the donnybrook.
Per its standard big-game strategy, Michigan plans to jump out to a quick deficit, commit a couple gaffes, then adjust its top-ranked defense and force punts on 12 consecutive possessions. I swear, it’s gonna work this time! Pick: Michigan 27-13
Michigan State at Penn State: The Spartans fell behind the Nittany Lions last season, then dialed up one of their patented rainstorms and slopped to victory. They’ll have to fire up their running game here, although it’s unclear if LJ Scott will be available. He’s been injured and recently picked up three more traffic citations, bringing his total to an NCAA-record 10. For punishment, Dantonio should force Scott to run behind the battered Michigan State offensive line all day long. Pick: Penn State 31-10
Minnesota at Ohio State: The Buckeyes enter their own three-game gauntlet, ahem, against Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska. Ohio State is 6-0 overall, 3-0 since Urban Meyer got his cell phone back. From what I understand, the Buckeyes will spend the second half game-planning for Michigan. Pick: Ohio State 55-13
Nebraska at Northwestern: This is a lopsided matchup in at least one respect. The “N” on Northwestern’s helmet stands for “Northwestern,” while the “N” on Nebraska’s helmet stands for “Knowledge.” It’s an old joke, but do I look like I care? When the Wildcats put their minds to it, they can beat anyone (not really). Pick: Northwestern 34-24
Missouri at Alabama: They’re so ridiculously dominant at Alabama, Nick Saban is running out of things to complain about. This week, he griped that the student section was sparse during the beating of Louisiana-Lafayette. As punishment, students will be required to check in three hours before the game and take turns filling Gatorade cups for the players. Pick: Alabama 52-21