The Michigan Wolverines football program is going somewhere.
The only question: Which direction does head coach Brady Hoke have the winningest program in college football history heading?
While some might be looking ahead to UM's tilt with rival Ohio State next week in Ann Arbor, this weekend's trip to Iowa City might be more telling as to where Hoke's Wolverines are—and where they will be going forward.
Michigan sits at 7-3 and 3-3 in the Big Ten. While those three Big Ten losses already point to a regression from last year's 8-5, 6-2 team, a loss to Iowa this weekend will mark a definite downswing and crank up the burner below Hoke's seat.
It looked like the former Ball State and San Diego State head coach would be the savior of the Michigan program, as he replaced Rich Rodriguez and took the Wolverines to an 11-2 season that was capped with a Sugar Bowl win.
However, they have trending downward since then. Last year's 8-5 campaign was understandable. The Wolverines fell to Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State, which combined to go 37-2. They also took a road loss against Nebraska and were narrowly beaten in their bowl game by South Carolina—all forgivable losses.
But this season has been different. UM nearly lost to Akron and Connecticut, which have a combined record of 4-16. Then they blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to fall to a mediocre and undermanned Penn State squad.
Later UM was embarrassed by in-state rival Michigan State, followed by another loss to Nebraska. In those two contests, Michigan yielded 14 sacks and netted minus-69 rushing yards.
If Michigan doesn’t get better quickly, Ohio State will beat the Wolverines by four or five touchdowns. There will be no mercy.
Sympathy isn’t in big supply for Michigan’s coach when he loses games his program, based on all its resources, should win.
It comes with the territory.
Yeah, Brady Hoke needs to coach ‘em better.
Or he won’t be coaching ‘em for that much longer.
It’s the bottom line.
The situation almost worsened last week when Michigan nearly fell to a Northwestern team that had lost five straight games. UM had to kick two fourth-quarter field goals to force overtime, including one in the waning seconds of regulation that nearly didn't happen.
From there, the Wolverines held on for a 27-19 win in three overtimes. Afterward, Hoke chose to look at the positives from the win, as written by MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner:
“Honestly, we’re a pretty good football team,” Hoke said during an interview with 97.1-FM's "Stoney and Bill" show. “When we play together and are accountable to each other like, I think, last week, we had to be (we can be pretty good)."
"They were into the football game together and they played for each other," (Hoke) said of last week's win at Northwestern. "You can look at the glass half empty and half full. And for us, that glass is always half full."
Hoke is choosing to look at the liquid at the bottom of the glass, but the top half of the glass is still filled with nothing but air—dead air, which is a sound representation of the Wolverine offense.
Michigan has averaged fewer than 10 points per game in regulation of its last three contests.
While that might be remedied if the Wolverines were taking on Indiana or Illinois, it isn't a promising scenario as they look to take on a gritty Iowa team that is allowing fewer than 20 points per game. The Hawkeyes are No. 3 in the Big Ten and No. 9 nationally in total defense, allowing just 319.2 yards per game.
Even if Michigan finds an edge over the Iowa defense, it won't take Hoke off the hot seat, but a loss will be detrimental to his future.
Hoke will almost certainly return next year, but a strong finish (a win over Iowa and a bowl win) will determine just how long his leash will be in 2014.