ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football made a statement with its victory at Penn State this weekend, and now it’s time to start talking about the Big Ten title race.
Despite an 8-1 start to the year, the Wolverines still had plenty to prove this week. They lost their toughest Big Ten game at Michigan State and needed a win over one of the Big Ten East powers to regain credibility.
Even as the No. 6 team in the nation, it was fair to wonder if Michigan truly deserved to be in the conference title conversation.
Those questions were put to rest Saturday, when Jim Harbaugh’s team marched into Happy Valley, didn’t play anywhere near its best game and still found a way to win in front of a “White Out” (technically “Helmet Stripe,” but it was the same thing) crowd.
Evolving season aspirations
During the offseason, many wondered whether Michigan was even a safe bet to go to a bowl game after posting a dismal 2-4 record in 2020. The schedule looked much more difficult when Washington, Nebraska, Northwestern and Indiana were expected to be competitive teams.
As the early season wins piled up, albeit against inferior competition, the stakes grew much higher. Suddenly, Michigan looked like a potential New Year’s Six bowl crasher, if it could just find a way to win one of the games against Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State.
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The Michigan State loss was a setback, especially because Michigan was the better team that day. But a handful of mistakes buried the unbeaten season, and any talks about the Big Ten East race stalled.
Since then, Michigan State has dropped a game and Michigan won two in a row. Saturday’s win in Happy Valley breathed new life into Michigan’s dormant conference title aspirations.
Big Ten picture
Right now, Michigan and Michigan State are tied for second place in the Big Ten East with one conference loss apiece. Ohio State is the only remaining undefeated team in conference play.
What Michigan needs to win the division:
- Michigan beats Maryland this weekend.
- Ohio State beats Michigan State this weekend.
- Michigan beats Ohio State next weekend.
That’s all. Michigan only needs three specific outcomes, and two of them seem fairly likely, at least according to the spreads. Michigan is a two-touchdown favorite at Maryland this weekend, and Michigan State is a 19-point underdog at Ohio State.
Ohio State game
If Michigan and Ohio State both win this weekend, their matchup will determine the Big Ten East title for the third time in six years.
Only this time, the game is in Ann Arbor.
In 2016 and 2018, Michigan needed to win at the Horseshoe to clinch the division. Granted, the Buckeyes pose a major obstacle at any venue, but winning in Columbus as Ohio State’s primary rival is about as difficult as it gets for a college football team.
Michigan will be -- and should be -- a significant underdog against Ohio State, even at home. But the Wolverines will still go into that game with a better chance to win the Big Ten East than in any of Harbaugh’s previous seasons. Ohio State is the best team in the conference, but if Michigan was ever going to find a way to pull an upset, this is the recipe to do so.
The Wolverines can’t afford to overlook Maryland, but Harbaugh and his team said they put an increased emphasis on the Ohio State game this season, starting way back in the spring. If that’s true, then maybe Michigan can finally cash in on some of the bad breaks that have gone against this program for years and years and years.
No matter what happens, 2021 has been more successful than even the most optimistic Michigan fans expected. Two weeks from the end of the regular season, this team could very well control its own destiny in the Big Ten East.