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Despite 3 losses, season on the line for Michigan football against Ohio State

Jim Harbaugh looks for first coaching victory over Ohio State

Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer look on during warmups before the 2016 battle between Michigan and Ohio State (Getty Images).
Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer look on during warmups before the 2016 battle between Michigan and Ohio State (Getty Images).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – For fans who don't understand the greatest rivalry in all of sports, this weekend's Michigan-Ohio State matchup might not seem like a huge game for the Wolverines.

Michigan has already lost three games, and has no chance to win the Big Ten or play in a major bowl game. This season's meeting has a very different feel than last year's College Football Playoff play-in game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan.

But there's still a whole lot on the line this weekend, and it's not just for the playoff-hopeful Buckeyes.

Taking a step forward

In terms of the program's performance year to year, Michigan doesn't want to lose the momentum it's been building since Jim Harbaugh arrived.

Harbaugh led Michigan to a 10-3 record in each of his first two seasons since taking over in December 2014. In 2015, Michigan was a surprise Big Ten East contender. Last year, Michigan was a play away from the playoff.

Now, it looks like this season will be a setback no matter what happens from here on out. Michigan won't go to a bowl as good as last year's Orange Bowl, and the best it can do is tie last season's record.

But a 10-3 season with Harbaugh's first win over Ohio State and a win in the bowl game would leave fans feeling optimistic heading into 2018. Even though the national attention won't be the same, Michigan could take another step toward competing at the highest level of college football.

Avenging last season's loss

Michigan could have knocked off Ohio State in Columbus last season. In fact, it should have, if not for a late collapse that erased a 10-point lead.

The Wolverines took a 17-7 lead into the final moments of the third quarter before surrendering a touchdown and a last-second field goal to head into overtime. In the second overtime period, the Wolverines defense was inches away from a fourth-down stop that would have ended the game.

Instead, Ohio State somehow escaped with a double-overtime victory. It followed an unfortunate script Michigan has followed under Harbaugh: Outplaying teams for the majority of a game, but coming up short in the second half.

Michigan had a better team than Ohio State last season, and dominated the game for the better part of 45 minutes. This year, Ohio State probably has the better team, so Michigan will try to return the favor.

Salvaging rocky 2017 season

Five years ago, Michigan football finished the regular season 8-4 and it felt like a minor success. This season, that sounds like an underachievement.

Michigan didn't hire one of the best coaches in the country and welcome two elite recruiting classes to finish 8-4. Harbaugh, his staff and his players won't be happy with eight wins, because they had much higher goals.

If Michigan loses to Ohio State, it will finish with eight wins against teams with losing records and four losses against the only tough teams on its schedule. It would be difficult to call the season a success under those circumstances.

But with a win over Ohio State, the season would look much different. Michigan would justify its 9-3 record and play in a solid bowl game. At the beginning of every season, Michigan's goals are to win the conference, play for a national championship and beat Ohio State. It has a chance to reach one of those goals and salvage the season.

Building foundation for future

There will never be a culture of losing at Michigan as long as Harbaugh is there, but there is a dark cloud over the program as long as the team can't beat its rivals. While the 1-2 record against Michigan State is a concern, losing to Ohio State has become the most overarching problem in Ann Arbor.

No other game compares to the Ohio State game for Michigan, and the rivalry has been embarrassingly lopsided over the last 13 years. The Wolverines have come agonizingly close most years, but fallen short in 12 of the last 13 matchups. Even under Harbaugh, Michigan hasn't been able to pull through.

It's unfair to expect Harbaugh to come in and take over the rivalry right away. He took over a program struggling to be a regular bowl team under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, while Urban Meyer took over an Ohio State team fully loaded with championship-level talent.

Regardless of the reasons for Michigan's struggles, the tide has to turn for the program to take the next step, and with each loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines dig a deeper hole.

The Buckeyes aren't unbeatable this season. They've uncharacteristically got two losses heading into the game, and even got pounded by 31 points at Iowa.

There's no doubt Ohio State will bring its best game to Ann Arbor, as it always does, and if Michigan doesn't have quarterback Brandon Peters, it will be a tall task to score. Still, the truly great programs can overcome adversity, and that's what the Wolverines will have to do Saturday.

Can it happen?

This year's game feels similar to the 2013 matchup. An average 7-4 Michigan team hosted the top-five Buckeyes in a game that meant a whole lot more to Ohio State on a national level.

Out of nowhere, Hoke's team played its best game of the season, scoring 41 points and coming a two-point conversion away from the improbable upset. The Wolverines had struggled all season to score points, yet found a way to tear up Ohio State's stout defense.

Harbaugh's team is much more talented than the 2013 squad, and although Ohio State is just as formidable, the talent gap isn't tremendously wide.

Michigan is a double-digit underdog heading into the game, and nobody will be picking the Wolverines to win. But if the Wolverines can get some bounces to go their way -- many would say they're due for a couple -- there's no reason they can't come out on top.

No matter what happens Saturday, Michigan won't play for a Big Ten title or a New Year's Six bowl. But there's a lot on the line as Harbaugh tries to finish his third season with his biggest win yet.

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