ANN ARBOR, Mich. – A new Michigan football season is underway, but it feels a lot like last year after an uninspiring loss to Notre Dame in the opener.
Michigan made its first trip to South Bend since 2014 and trailed from the opening drive to the final buzzer, suffering from many of the same issues that have haunted the Wolverines under Jim Harbaugh.
The offensive line was a sieve, the defense struggled on third down and the team dug such a deep hole it couldn't burrow its way out. The final score was 24-17, but it never felt like Michigan would really claw all the way back.
Now, the Wolverines are 0-1 with five more games against teams coming off double-digit win seasons left on the schedule. Three of those games will come on the road, where Michigan hasn't beaten a ranked team in 12 years.
In other words, Michigan isn't going to run the table, win the Big Ten East and make its first trip to Indianapolis. There's no evidence that Harbaugh's offense has the type of firepower to roll through the conference's most difficult schedule.
But in college football, seasons can be salvaged even if they don't end in championships. Now that Michigan's goals have changed, here are five ways it can still consider 2018 a reasonable success.
1. Find an offensive line combination that works
It's been far too long since Michigan has had a strong offensive line, and Saturday was another terrible display. Starting quarterback Shea Patterson had very little time to get rid of the football, and the lack of protection crippled the offense from making plays downfield.
Michigan is especially vulnerable at the tackle positions, as Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty struggled to keep up with Notre Dame's edge rushers. There are younger players on the roster who might struggle due to youth, but have higher ceilings in the long run.
James Hudson and Chuck Filiaga are two offensive tackles who deserve a chance to prove themselves this season. Both redshirted last season, so there's no reason to keep them off the field if they can improve Michigan's offense for the future.
Even though the schedule as a whole is grueling, Michigan has two manageable games coming up before Big Ten season, and the Western Michigan and SMU games would be good chances to try different offensive line combinations.
If the line isn't much better by the time the Wolverines face Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, the offense will be in big trouble again.
2. Beat Michigan State on the road
Last week, we broke down five things that have haunted Michigan over the last decade, and those popped up again at Notre Dame.
The offensive line folded, the defense struggled against a running quarterback and the team lost to another rival on the road.
Michigan's next chance to exorcise those demons will come in East Lansing.
Michigan won the last meeting with Michigan State at Spartan Stadium, but that came against an MSU team that finished the year 3-9. Overall, the Wolverines are 2-8 against their in-state rival over the last decade.
If Michigan can knock off a Spartans team that's expected to compete for a conference title, it will dispel two of the biggest knocks against Harbaugh during his Michigan tenure: his record against rivals and the team's inability to finish better than third in the division.
3. Go undefeated at home
Michigan has won some big games at home during Harbaugh's tenure, but none since 2016. This year, they'll have two chances to make noise at home.
Wisconsin and Penn State will come to Michigan Stadium in the middle of Big Ten play, and both could be ranked in the top 10 at the time. Right now, the perception that Harbaugh can't win big games is hurting Michigan on the field and in recruiting, so those are two huge opportunities to make statements without leaving Ann Arbor.
Michigan has four home games that should definitely be wins: Western Michigan, SMU, Maryland and Indiana. Though Nebraska should improve this season under new head coach Scott Frost, the Wolverines will be the favorite at home in the first month of the season.
That means the home slate should come down to the Wisconsin and Penn State games.
Unless the Badgers slip up against lesser teams in the next four games, they will be undefeated and ranked in the top five when they arrive in Ann Arbor.
Penn State has tough home tests against Ohio State and Michigan State before it plays Michigan, but if it can split or sweep those games, it will also be one of the top-ranked teams in the nation.
Michigan needs to win big games, and if it goes undefeated at home, it will require at least two wins against the top teams in the conference.
4. Beat Ohio State
Michigan is in the midst of the most embarrassing stretch against Ohio State in the rivalry's history: 13 losses in 14 games. Michigan's only win came against the rebuilding 2011 Buckeyes that went 6-7 under Luke Fickell.
It seems unlikely, but Michigan could really put a stamp on this season with a win over Ohio State. The Wolverines haven't won in Columbus since 2000, and the last trip ended with Michigan's conference championship hopes dashed in double overtime.
Nothing has gone right for Michigan in this rivalry, so even a three-loss season with a win over Ohio State would give Harbaugh something to build on.
Ohio State is absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball, and Urban Meyer has dominated the Big Ten in recruiting. The Buckeyes have been widening the gap with Michigan for years, and Harbaugh desperately needs a win of this magnitude.
The matchup is more than two months away, but Michigan already looks like a massive underdog. If the team can improve enough over the next 10 games to beat Ohio State on Nov. 24, it would be a great end of the season.
5. Win a high-profile bowl game
Last year's five-loss campaign ended on a sour note as Michigan dropped three straight games and became the only Big Ten team to lose its bowl game.
It was a complete collapse against a team with less talent, and it came in a mediocre bowl game.
Despite losing the opener, Michigan has too much talent to play in another weak bowl game, especially with so many opportunities for big wins on the schedule. If the Wolverines can get back into a New Year's Six bowl game, it would put them back in the right direction heading into 2019.
It's not enough for Michigan to simply make it to a big bowl game, however, because they've lost two bowls in a row. After a rough start to the season, finishing with 10 or 11 wins would ease Michigan's pain.
If Michigan had knocked off Florida State in the Orange Bowl two years ago, it would have finished with 11 wins, three wins over top-10 teams and a New Year's Six bowl crown. It would take a similar body of work to pull off that feat in 2018.