ANN ARBOR, Mich. - For the third time in the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan is very, very close to becoming a true championship contender.
All the chatter surrounding the football program focuses on a five-loss 2017, the record against rivals and third-place finishes in the Big Ten East Division.
But the real story of Harbaugh's first three years at Michigan should be titled, "One Play Away."
The 2015 season started out just like this one. In fact, Michigan lost the opener at Utah by the exact same 24-17 score as this year's Notre Dame game. The Wolverines won their next five games in dominant fashion before a meeting with Michigan State.
Michigan held the lead for more than 58 minutes, and the score was 23-21 when the final clock ran out. But Jalen Watts-Jackson scored on one of the most improbable plays in college football history, and Michigan's championship hopes died.
If Blake O'Neill had gotten that punt off, Michigan would have been 10-1 heading into a home game against Ohio State. Harbaugh was one play away.
In 2016, Michigan led Ohio State for the entire second half, even carrying a 10-point advantage late into the third quarter. But a last-second field goal tied it, and Michigan lost a heartbreaker in double overtime. Ohio State snatched the Big Ten East title and a possible playoff berth from a Michigan team that could finally taste it.
One play away.
This season, Michigan has battled to rebound from an opening loss to Notre Dame, and it again finds Michigan State standing in the way.
Will this season be a repeat of 2015, when Michigan's championship hopes died in October? Or will it be like 2016, when the battle in Columbus was for all the marbles?
Saturday is the fork in the road.
Sure, Michigan still has to play Penn State and pesky Indiana at the Big House, and there's still a road game against Rutgers, the Big Ten's personal punching bag.
Ask Wisconsin, or Nebraska, or Maryland about this Michigan team in Ann Arbor. It's a completely different beast.
But as Harbaugh steadily tears down the stereotypes surrounding Michigan football, there's one that's evaded him: the cursed road streak. What was once a decade of losing to ranked teams on the road has turned into 0-17 in those contests since 2006.
There will be fifth-graders tuning into this weekend's game who haven't seen Michigan win a big road game in their lifetimes.
Winning on the road is hard. Beating ranked teams and rivals is hard. But at some point -- regardless of the dropped punts and close fourth-and-one's and questionable penalties -- Michigan needs to actually take the field and win one of these games.
The Wolverines can dismantle Western Michigan, and SMU, and even Wisconsin; and they can score as many touchdowns as they want against Nebraska -- heck, Scott Frost is probably having nightmares about Karan Higdon at this very moment.
None of that matters if they can't win in East Lansing.
Michigan will either go into the bye week as a top-six team with a legitimate shot at the Big Ten title, or another Harbaugh squad that was oh-so-close to getting over the hump. We'll know by the time the sun sets Saturday.
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