ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It doesn't take long for the college football landscape to change.
A week ago, the outlook for Michigan football was grim. It had just lost to Notre Dame and faced a daunting schedule in its quest to compete for a conference championship. The offense looked broken, and even the next stretch of games looked tricky.
All it took was a win over Western Michigan to change the feel of the situation. The Wolverines put up 451 yards of offense and seven touchdowns while the defense suffocated WMU.
As good as Michigan looked last weekend, it was the other teams on its upcoming schedule that really changed the outlook for the next month.
Big Ten struggles in Week 2
Last week, with Michigan sitting at 0-1, we broke down a five-game stretch of near-must-win games. At the time, Northwestern was on a nine-game winning streak, Nebraska was a relative unknown under Scott Frost and Maryland was coming off a huge win over Texas.
Now, the upcoming schedule looks much more manageable for a Wolverines team that got back on track at home.
Northwestern was the biggest disappointment in Week 2, losing at home to Duke after starting the season with what appeared to be an impressive road win over Purdue.
The Wildcats scored on the first drive of the game, but they were shut down for the final 54 minutes. Duke scored three touchdowns in the second quarter and cruised to an easy 21-7 win.
It seemed likely that Michigan would head to Evanston Sept. 29 to battle a ranked Northwestern team on an 11-game winning streak, but the Wildcats seem much less formidable after Saturday's loss.
Nebraska suffered an even more heartbreaking loss, allowing Colorado to take the lead with 1:06 on the clock. The Cornhuskers were impressive, but an unnecessary roughness penalty late in the game proved costly, and budding star quarterback Adrian Martinez went down with an injury.
If Martinez is hobbled at all when the Cornhuskers come to Ann Arbor, their chances to pull an upset will take a huge hit. Michigan's defense has struggled against running quarterbacks under Don Brown, and Martinez rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado before the leg injury.
It will also be Nebraska's first trip away from home under Frost.
Even Maryland sleepwalked through last Saturday, trailing Bowling Green at halftime before exploding for 35 unanswered points in the second half. The Terrapins looked excellent in the season opener against Texas, but they were less impressive on the road.
Playing in Ann Arbor will be much tougher than playing at Bowling Green, so the Terrapins can't afford to get off to a slow start. It looks like Maryland could be 4-0 heading into that matchup, and it might be ranked in the top 25. That could be a great chance for Michigan to pick up a quality home win.
If Michigan can get through the next four weeks without a slip-up, its resume will be solid but not outstanding.
The seven-point loss to Notre Dame on the road isn't a black eye as long as Michigan doesn't drop another game. Notre Dame is ranked in the top 10.
In terms of impressive wins, Michigan won't have any -- at least not through Oct. 6. If the Wolverines are 5-1, it will mean that every team they beat has at least two losses except for Maryland, which could be unbeaten heading to Ann Arbor.
But a road win over Northwestern and home victories over Nebraska and Maryland will be enough to keep Michigan edging its way up the rankings. Those games won't make a huge splash, but if higher-ranked teams lose, they'll fall below Michigan.
Opportunities to move up
College football is unpredictable, and Michigan could very well suffer another setback during this stretch of winnable games. But if not, the Wolverines will benefit from upsets around the nation.
Michigan is currently ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press poll. Several other teams ranked between 11 and 18 face tough challenges between now and Oct. 6.
Here are some of the games that could bump Michigan up in the rankings:
- Saturday: No. 17 Boise State travels to No. 24 Oklahoma State
- Oct. 6: No. 16 Mississippi State hosts No. 7 Auburn
- Saturday: No. 15 TCU plays No. 4 Ohio State in Arlington
- Oct. 6: No. 13 Virginia Tech hosts No. 8 Notre Dame
- Saturday: No. 12 LSU travels to No. 7 Auburn
- Sept. 29: No. 11 Penn State hosts No. 4 Ohio State
That's six opportunities for Michigan to move up in the rankings, and there will almost surely be teams that lose unexpectedly over the next month.
Why does it matter?
Technically, the AP poll doesn't matter at all, especially since the College Football Playoff rankings determine postseason matchups at the end of the year.
But rankings are important in college football because the most dangerous opponent for any program is irrelevancy.
Last year, Michigan was clearly a team with a floundering offense and was never a contender to win the Big Ten East Division. The struggles showed in recruiting, and for the first time, head coach Jim Harbaugh heard some rumblings from the fans.
Michigan has been in the rankings for most of Harbaugh's tenure, and this year figures to be no different. But with a brutal three-game stretch of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State coming up in the middle of the season, Michigan absolutely has to climb as high as it can in the upcoming games.