ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Three weeks ago, Michigan football was picked as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. Fast forward to the present and, despite being 2-0, the game at Wisconsin feels like a steep uphill battle.
Why does Michigan, the No. 11 team in the nation, feel like such an underdog heading into Madison?
There are a few factors at play here.
First two games
Michigan's performances against Middle Tennessee State and Army sparked much more criticism than praise because of the way the supposed new and improved offense looked.
It's not the fact that Michigan needed double overtime to beat Army. It's more about how Michigan struggled to move the ball against Army. If the team's playmakers, hailed as some of the best in the conference, couldn't make explosive plays against Army, how are they supposed to do so against Wisconsin?
The disappearance of the offense in big games under Jim Harbaugh has fans feeling skeptical about this weekend. Can you blame them? Until Josh Gattis' system produces results, it's hard to trust things will truly be different.
It starts with Shea Patterson, who's been both careless with the football and inaccurate on throws early in the season. After hearing about how well Patterson fits into the new offensive scheme, fans are frustrated by the lack of progress.
Maybe a bye week is all Michigan needed to get on track. It hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt, though, which is why the trip to Wisconsin comes with so much uncertainty.
It's well-documented that Michigan has never won as an underdog with Harbaugh at the helm. The Wolverines are 0-6 in those games, and five were double-digit losses.
Michigan is an underdog this weekend for the first time since 2017. That comes with a familiar feeling of dread for a Michigan program that's yearned for a win of this magnitude for more than a decade.
But every time Michigan has this opportunity, it has fallen short. This season was supposed to be different -- and still might be -- but the first two games dampened the sky-high expectations.
Michigan hasn't won a single game it wasn't supposed to win under Harbaugh. Those types of wins are what fuel college football fanbases, and Michigan has been without one for so long that the desperation has turned into a reputation.
That reputation puts even more pressure on the Wolverines, which might explain why one mistake can often snowball into disaster in big games.
Michigan has to play a clean game, limit the damage when momentum shifts toward Wisconsin and find a way to move the ball on offense.
But we've been saying that for years.
Michigan has been terrible against good teams on the road over the last 12 seasons, and Madison has been a house of horrors for the Wolverines.
Michigan has only taken four trips to Wisconsin since 2001, but all four have been losses -- three by at least 14 points.
This rivalry has been dominated by the home team since Michigan's last win in Madison in 2001. Nine of the last 10 meetings have resulted in the home team winning, with the lone exception being a Badgers victory over a bad Michigan team in 2010.
Michigan pounded the Badgers last season in Ann Arbor, but Madison presents a unique set of challenges.
What does it mean?
Michigan's past record on the road and as an underdog doesn't technically have an effect on this game, but the fact that Michigan doesn't have a single win in this situation for more than 10 years has created a bit of a hopeless feeling going into the weekend.
Michigan has fallen into the same routine of winning just enough to stay in contention, but not enough to win a conference championship or get to the playoff. If that trend continues this season, this is exactly the type of game Michigan would typically lose.
Maybe Michigan's offense was stagnant because of the unique preparation for a team like Army. Maybe Patterson was just struggling because of a minor injury. Maybe this really is the year Michigan breaks through and wins some big games.
But on the heels of 12 years of disappointment in these types of games, fans need to see it to believe it.
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