Michigan football needs to prove this year is different in game vs. Wisconsin

Wolverines, Badgers to square off under the lights in Ann Arbor

Donovan Peoples-Jones celebrates a touchdown catch with Nico Collins while playing Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - After five weeks of flying under the radar and taking care of business against weaker competition, Michigan football will be the center of the college football universe Saturday when it hosts Wisconsin under the Big House lights.

In a week with a handful of great matchups between top 25 teams, ESPN's "College Gameday" chose to broadcast from the University of Michigan campus as the No. 12 Wolverines host the No. 15 Badgers.

It's an opportunity for Michigan to replace the nation's memories of the Notre Dame game with a glimpse of the team that's worked its way back into the mix for a Big Ten East Division title.

Michigan is much better than it was on Sept. 1, but that doesn't matter unless the Wolverines can prove it on the field.

Big game troubles

Anyone who's followed the Michigan football program since Jim Harbaugh took over knows the typical chain of events. Michigan will pound on bad teams, beat good teams at home, struggle on the road and lose big games.

Michigan has been impressive since the opener, but there's no denying 2018 is following a similar script.

Jim Harbaugh leads his team to the field before a game against Northwestern at Ryan Field on Sept. 29, 2018, in Evanston, Illinois. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

During the Notre Dame game, all the usual demons came back to bite Michigan. The offensive line couldn't protect. The quarterback turned the ball over. The defense gave up early scoring drives.

In the end, Michigan clawed its way back to within a score, but couldn't capitalize on a potential game-tying drive. It's happened over and over again as the team falls just short of the type of win that would have people saying, "Michigan is back."

Last week, Texas announced its return with a win over Oklahoma. Michigan is still looking for that impact victory.

New year, similar situation

Saturday's game against Wisconsin finds Michigan in almost exactly the same position as a year ago.

On Oct. 7, 2017, Michigan was 4-0 heading into a home night game against Michigan State. The Wolverines had pounded four teams that weren't very good and entered the game as an 11.5-point favorite.

Saturday is another home night game, with Michigan coming off a handful of blowing wins and sitting as a 9.5-point favorite.

This isn't the first time Michigan has looked like a different team under Harbaugh. The problem is the team that looks so impressive can vanish in the blink of an eye. It's even happened this season, when all the improvements Michigan made against Western Michigan, SMU and Nebraska went out the window in the first half against Northwestern.

That can't happen against Wisconsin.

Matchup favors Michigan

If it weren't for Michigan's struggles in big games, fans would probably feel very confident going into the Wisconsin game.

The Badgers haven't looked like the team that went 12-0 last regular season. Wisconsin was ranked No. 6 in the country when it lost at home to a BYU team that has since been blown out by Washington and Utah State.

Wisconsin bounced back with a nice win at Iowa, but then struggled to put away 0-5 Nebraska, which gained 518 yards of offense.

The difference between the two teams so far this season is that Michigan has completely dominated the lesser teams, while Wisconsin hasn't.

Michigan needs to learn from the teams that have already given Wisconsin trouble this year. BYU rushed for 6.8 yards per carry against what's usually a stout Badger front. Iowa and Nebraska, meanwhile, burned Wisconsin through the air.

For the first time in years, Michigan is a threat to run and pass on any given play, and Harbaugh has to use that to his advantage.

Shea Patterson looks over center against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The two teams are evenly matched in the running game. Michigan ranks 42nd in the nation in rushing offense, while Wisconsin is 43rd at stopping the run. Michigan owns the No. 6 rushing defense, and Wisconsin owns the No. 4 rushing offense.

The passing game might be where Michigan has an advantage. The Wolverines are 28th in the nation at 8.5 yards per pass attempt and 17th with a 67.1 percent completion rate. Yet through six games, only 24 teams have passed it less than Michigan.

Wisconsin's defense is allowing 7.6 yards per pass attempt, which is 91st in the nation. Last week, Nebraska threw for 407 yards on 44 attempts.

Michigan's offense has opened up this season because quarterback Shea Patterson can make plays with his arm. If he can do so against Wisconsin, it will legitimize the strides he's made under Harbaugh.

Must-win game

For Michigan to keep its 2018 goals alive, it has to beat Wisconsin.

The Wolverines are entrenched in a three-way battle for the East Division, and Penn State and Ohio State aren't going anywhere. It's critical for Michigan to hold serve at home, especially with more difficult Big Ten games ahead.

On a national scale, a second loss would eliminate Michigan from the College Football Playoff conversation.

A win wouldn't completely change the narrative about Michigan in big games, but it would chip away at it, and it would keep the Wolverines alive for all their goals.

Chase Winovich leaves the field after a 56-10 win over Nebraska on Sept. 22, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Irrelevancy is a dangerous disease in college football, and with a loss already on its resume, Michigan has to keep winning to avoid that fate.

The Wisconsin game is a crossroads for Michigan. With a win, the Wolverines will likely be a top 10 team with dreams of a conference title and playoff appearance still alive.

A loss would drop Michigan out of the top 20, end its playoff hopes and cripple its dreams for a Big Ten title.

The stakes are high. These situations typically haven't ended well for Michigan.

If the Wolverines want to take a step forward, that has to change this weekend.

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