Michigan has four games remaining but only two really matter. At the beginning of the season, schedule prognosticators en masse were in agreement. Most had Michigan at 4-4 through eight games. The optimistic went with 5-3. Michigan did its part to secure the better of the two predictions by upsetting Notre Dame. Fans, however, did not do their part. They ratcheted up expectations so much after the win over the Irish that 5-3 was no longer an optimistic view. After losing to Penn State on Saturday, Michigan fell to 5-3--or the pre-season optimistic view--yet there isn't a whole lot of optimism. Nobody likes to see their team lose. Nobody likes people who overreact, either. There is a whole lot of overreacting going on. Despite all of the pessimism that has come from Michigan performing the way everyone thought it would, the maize and blue are in position to clinch a successful season over the next two weeks. Unfortunately, they could also be two weeks away from deserved criticism and disappointment for the first time this year. The next two weeks will define Michigan's season.
Of its remaining four games, Michigan plays two that are winnable and two that are functional losses. If Michigan wins its two winnable games against Illinois and Purdue, then it will guarantee a winning season and a bowl game. If Michigan beats Illinois and Purdue, there's always the possibility that it'll grow enough in those two games to give Wisconsin and Ohio State a run. However, that's irrelevant. Would I like to see Michigan win those games? You bet. I'd also like to see Ohio State on probation and chocolate milk flow from my faucets. One of the cornerstones of being a good fan is being realistic. Therefore, all I care about is beating Illinois and Purdue. I would say improving from 3-9 in season one to 7-5 in season two would qualify as an acceptable level of improvement.
Michigan's on-field atrocities in 2008 have been well-documented. It was the worst Michigan team in 46 years. While last season's futility certainly did a number to the record books in a negative way, the most devastating consequence had nothing to do with any of the black marks that are now permanently in the record books. Rather, it had to do with what those black marks prevented after the season. Because Michigan did not qualify for a bowl game, it was not permitted the 15 bowl practices that come with it. That is a considerable penalty to a young and inexperienced team learning a new system. To compare, college football teams are only permitted 15 practices over the entire spring practice period. The 68 teams that were permitted those bowl practices had double the practice that Michigan had between December and August. Teams that were already better than Michigan--Iowa, Penn State, etc.--had the luxury of more practice time. If there's any team that absolutely needs those 15 bowl practices, it's a team coming off a 3-9 season. That is the quintessential example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Missing out on those practices unquestionably delayed Michigan's development. In my opinion, more important than beating Ohio State or getting the second "signature win" that everyone seems to be begging for, is qualifying for 15 bowl practices and the additional game that comes with them. Players like Denard Robinson, Justin Turner, and Jeremy Gallon would get almost as much practice from 15 bowl practices as they had in their entire careers coming into the season. Some of Michigan's most promising players have yet to enter its two-deep because of inexperience. Players like Ricky Barnum, Patrick Omameh, Taylor Lewan, Quinton Washington, and Michael Schofield need all of the extra practice they can get. The vast majority of Michigan's talent comes from players who don't start. Those players need practice to understand their assignments and improve their technique. Bowl and Spring practices are where players can make great strides. It's very difficult for underclassmen and experienced players to make significant progress during the season because teams are too focused on their next opponent. It's after the season when players make the biggest improvement.
I've been critical of fans who have unjustifiably raised expectations. This team did not need to be burdened with additional pressure simply because it went out and played well against Notre Dame. Those increased expectations are solely responsible for the sense of disappointment that seems to have multiplied over the last few weeks. However, I have no problem defining success (or failure) as beating Illinois and Purdue. If Michigan doesn't win both of those games, then fans should be pissed. They should express disappointment in both the team and the coaching staff. Illinois has essentially given up on its season. The Illini are 0-5 in the Big Ten and have lost all five games by double digits including games against Indiana and Purdue. I have no doubt that Juice Williams will magically morph into the genetic combination of Vince Young and Dennis Dixon upon site of the winged-helmet but even if Williams plays well, Michigan has no business losing. Purdue has been competitive this season in losing close to Oregon and beating Ohio State but that doesn't change the fact that the Boilermakers are not a good team. In year two of a multi-year rebuilding effort, I am willing to accept close losses to Iowa and Michigan State and a beatdown at the hands of a clearly superior Penn State team. I fully expect Michigan to lose to both Wisconsin and Ohio State because they are superior teams. I have patience. I have reasonable expectations. This season will be a success, if not an overwhelming one, if Michigan simply beats Illinois and Purdue and receives an invitation to a bowl game.* Some of that success will come from winning seven games but the majority of that success will come from what the 15 spring practices and extra game means for next season. On a schedule that features such prominent teams as Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, I have no problem saying that Illinois is the most important game of the season. More so than any other sport, college football is dictated by passion and motivation. Michigan is talented enough that if it comes with aggression and focus on Saturday, it will easily beat Illinois. If we are treated (or tricked) to another version of the twilight zone against a team as sorry as Illinois, then criticism will reign and I won't do a thing to stop it.
* Technically, Michigan could make a bowl game with a 6-6 record but it would not be guaranteed. Last season, two 6-6 teams were not invited to bowl games. The Big Ten has seven or eight bowl slots depending on how many BCS bids the conference gets. If two Big Ten teams play in BCS bowls, then the conference would receive eight bids as long as there are eight teams that qualify. If Michigan splits with Illinois and Purdue and loses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, it will stand at 2-6 in the conference. In a scenario where the conference only has one BCS team, Michigan could have a difficult time getting to a bowl at 6-6. As things stand now, it appears as though Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin are going to comfortably make a bowl game. Northwestern needs one win to reach six wins. Since it still plays Illinois, there's a good chance that win will come. Minnesota needs two wins to reach 6-6 and it will likely get there with games remaining against Illinois and South Dakota State. If Michigan loses to Purdue, and Purdue beats Indiana (quite possible) and Michigan State at home, then the Boilermakers would also be 6-6. The Big Ten could easily have nine bowl eligible teams for only seven bowl spots.I have read through the NCAA Handbook for postseason selection and it appears as though all 6-6 teams are created equal and not ordered by conference record. It doesn't specifically say this, but it doesn't say the opposite which is the key. If that is the case, then that bodes extremely well for Michigan. Assuming only one BCS selection for the conference, if five Big Ten teams reach 7-5 or better (which seems likely) and four teams finish at 6-6--Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Purdue--then bowl organizers would likely have the luxury of choosing based on attractiveness. Fair or not, this would seem to favor Michigan. The bottom line is that at 7-5, Michigan would be guaranteed a bowl. At 6-6, there are no such guarantees.