ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football will not achieve its preseason goals this year, but there's still plenty to accomplish in the second half of the season.
Most importantly, the Wolverines host their three biggest rivals in the span of five weeks. Notre Dame comes to town this weekend for the last scheduled chapter of the rivalry. Michigan State visits in mid-November and Ohio State at the end of the month.
Michigan could still finish the season feeling pretty good about what it accomplished, but that has to start this weekend against the Fighting Irish.
Shea Patterson and the offense showed major improvement last week after falling behind 21-0 at Penn State. But Michigan needs to prove that was actual progress and not just one hot performance.
Notre Dame is an excellent team. Coming off an undefeated regular season and playoff appearance last year, the Fighting Irish are 5-1 with a close loss to Georgia and solid wins over Virginia and Southern Cal.
The Wolverines opened as a slim favorite but are now one-point underdogs.
Notre Dame defeated Michigan in the opener last season, but neither team had really established its identity. Patterson was in his first game since transferring to Michigan, and Ian Book hadn't even taken over the starting quarterback job for the Irish.
Many of the names will be the same in this year's matchup, but it should look completely different.
If Michigan can duplicate last weekend's second half -- minus the dropped passes from wide receivers -- it has a great chance to leave the rivalry with a win.
And that could springboard Michigan to a nice winning streak in November.
The Wolverines will likely be favored at Maryland, against Michigan State and at Indiana the following three weeks. Is it possible that Josh Gattis' new offense took a few games to click, and now Michigan can start to become the team many expected in the preseason?
It's possible, and this weekend is a chance to prove it.
Notre Dame, unlike Ohio State, looks beatable. Louisville had success running the ball against Notre Dame. Virginia actually outgained the Irish and might have pulled an upset if not for five turnovers. USC picked up 25 first downs and 426 total yards against Notre Dame's defense.
Michigan is the last tough game on Notre Dame's schedule, so the Fighting Irish have their eyes on a possible 11-win regular season. There's a lot at stake under the lights in Michigan Stadium.
Should Michigan pull off a win, the trip to Maryland looks much less daunting than it did a month ago. Since starting the season 2-0 with a 43-point beatdown of then-No. 21 Syracuse, Maryland is 1-4 with a win over Rutgers, a 59-point loss to Penn State and consecutive losses to Purdue and Indiana by a combined 32 points.
Michigan has a bye week after Maryland, then hosts in-state rival Michigan State. The Spartans have a strong defense, but might limp into Ann Arbor with a 5-4 record.
The ensuing trip to Indiana will be extremely dangerous considering Michigan's recent history in Bloomington. Jim Harbaugh has needed overtime to win both of those games, and the Hoosiers are off to an impressive 5-2 start.
But that's a game Michigan should win.
This theoretical four-game winning streak would put Michigan at 9-2 with solid wins over Iowa, Notre Dame and Michigan State. At that point, if the Wolverines have continued to improve, they would at least position themselves for a possible rivalry game upset.
Ohio State looks unbeatable, but look at what happened to Georgia against South Carolina, or Wisconsin against Illinois. If Michigan is playing good football, it could put together one great performance at home.
But a loss to Notre Dame would leave Michigan limping into the final stretch on a two-game losing streak, and it feels like the season could go off the rails.
Michigan has a chance to build on the positives from last weekend. It starts with Notre Dame.