Prior to the start of the season, Ohio State appeared to be the largest hurdle standing between Michigan and a 10-win season.
But after this past weekend, it's clear that Michigan State—which hammered Illinois 42-3—will put up more than just a fight Nov. 2 in East Lansing.
The Wolverines (6-1, 2-1) snapped a four-year losing streak in 2012 and can't afford to misjudge the Spartans (7-1, 4-0) this fall—for if they do, an eight- or nine-win finish could be the end result of 2013.
Despite a 34-23 loss to Minnesota, Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) remains a challenger in the mixture known as the Legends Division. The Huskers play Michigan on Nov. 9 in Ann Arbor.
And then coach Brady Hoke has Northwestern (Nov. 16) and Iowa (Nov. 23).
Sunny side up for Team 134 would be winning out the rest of the way. That's a given. Beating the No. 4-ranked Buckeyes (8-0) on Nov. 30 is possible but not entirely likely based on what Hoke's team has shown through nine weeks.
Starting with this weekend, the Wolverines can start anew, forget the previous seven games and make a run at a Rose Bowl bid.
Or, dare it even be suggested, a run at a BCS bowl.
Hoke Has Pieces to Contend
Expectations haven't been lowered. Not by a long shot. Although Team 134 hasn't shined as brightly as once anticipated, it's far from a Big Ten bottom-dweller.
Hoke said he has "no doubt" that Michigan has the wind to contend for a league crown, per Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.
Flying to a basketball-score victory over Indiana prior to hitting the bye week was enough to temporarily fuel the Wolverines, who saw quarterback Devin Gardner throw for a school-record 504 yards; Jeremy Gallon, the beneficiary at receiver, finished with a Big Ten-record 369 yards.
Michigan can score. And with an offense with such capabilities, it'd be easy for any coach to harbor legitimate conference championship dreams. Hoke has the tools to get there.
Story Will Be Told vs. MSU
It's one of two must-wins each season. Hoke isn't a stranger to the Backyard Brawl, or whatever other clever in-state moniker it's given by fans. He's coached under Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr. He's been taught how to approach Michigan-Michigan State.
The best-case scenario would be to beat head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans, not only to keep alive the chase for the division title, but also to stoke the fire as the season progresses. A strong performance in East Lansing would likely do wonders for a team searching for consistency.
And an identity.
Thus far, Michigan is a team that gets the job done in some shape, form or fashion. But it's also a team deserving of doubt.
Akron. UConn. Penn State.
Three close calls, two wins and an egg on face in Happy Valley.
One of the biggest gripes about the secondary has been its coverage, or lack thereof. Receivers are getting way too comfortable. Nittany Lions star wideout Allen Robinson benefited from the luxury cushion afforded by the Wolverines' man coverage. His sideline tight-wire catch set up the game-tying touchdown in regulation (won 43-40 in 4OT).
Robinson was held for most of the night. He had one catch at the half. But when push came to shove, Robinson delivered. His defender did not.
The Spartans don't have an Allen Robinson, but they do have a Macgarrett Kings Jr., Keith Mumphrey, Tony Lippett, Aaron Burbridge and Bennie Fowler. Dropped balls have been a concern, but the entourage of Michigan State wideouts can make for a rough day at the job for Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, Jarrod Wilson and Courtney Avery.
Michigan needs to be physical. It needs to be nasty. The Wolverines have allowed too many opponents to have their way, regardless of the outcome. Indiana's Tre Roberson threw for 288 yards, essentially doing as he pleased while trying his best to get the Hoosiers in position to knock off Hoke.
And it almost worked.
|Past 5: No Love Lost (UM leads 68-32-5)|
|2011||Michigan State||28-14||East Lansing|
|2010||Michigan State||34-17||Ann Arbor|
|2009||Michigan State||26-20 (OT)||East Lansing|
|2008||Michigan State||35-21||Ann Arbor|
Saturday will be a game of do or die, guts and glory—all of that jazz. You know how it goes. Everything that needs to be revealed about Team 134 will come to the forefront.
Huskers Are Beatable
Michigan should have paid close attention during its off time. With any luck, Hoke's men were watching Minnesota vs. Nebraska.
The Gophers outlined a clear way to defeat Bo Pelini's Huskers—run the ball, own the clock and bring a physical brand to the field.
Basically, Michigan has to avoid the cute stuff and hit the Huskers in the mouth. Same applies to the Michigan State game.
David Cobb led Minnesota with 138 of 271 total rushing yards on 31 carries. He was used in the I-form and as part of a split-back look, a formation which Michigan should utilize but has yet to do. A relatively bland scheme on the part of acting coach Tracy Claeys, but it wore down the Huskers front for four quarters.
Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson repeatedly exposed holes in Nebraska's zone defense in the second half. He didn't have gaudy stats, but he took advantage of seam routes with tight end Drew Goodger, who had three catches for 68 yards.
Nelson played it smart, taking what was given and making the most of each opportunity. His stat line of 152 passing yards and 55 rushing yards was efficient, not incredible.
Devin Gardner needs to be that against Nebraska.
At 6'5" and 235 pounds, Devin Funchess has to be a deciding factor. Nebraska's secondary is full of 6-footers. Goodger made it work; Funchess shouldn't have an issue.
That's the favorable look at Michigan's duel with Nebraska.
The unfavorable scenario, other than a loss, would be some sort of injury, especially to a key player. If said starter were to be sidelined, Michigan's chances of winning anything this year would dramatically decrease.
Don't forget that Hoke is unbeaten in Ann Arbor. Ending that streak would ruin the hot start, obviously, but it could also bring about more questions, such as "is Michigan football really going in the right direction?"
As of now, Hoke endures the standard criticism. But those critiques could quickly get less constructive and more personal if he were to bow to the Spartans and Huskers.
That would create a two-game scenario in which "win or go home" comes into play. Stuck at six wins, victories over Iowa and Northwestern would be season savers. And for a team with sky-high expectations, that simply won't cut it.
An 8-4 season isn't impossible. But neither is an 11-1/10-2 finish. It's all on how the players respond and perform. Michigan could see the Rose Bowl or find itself eating celery and carrots at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Starting with the Spartans, the next two weeks will essentially serve as the year in a nutshell.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.