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Michigan battling for bowl eligibility against Maryland Saturday

Michigan 5-5 with game in Columbus next week

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(AP Photo/Tony Ding)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan's football season has been a disappointment from basically every single angle.

In addition to the team's mediocre 5-5 record through Week 12, Brady Hoke has battled through the mishandling of a young player with a concussion and the forced departure of the university's athletic director. Even after the Shane Morris debacle was over and Dave Brandon hit the road, Hoke's bye week was spoiled by the news that his best defensive end was being arrested on domestic violence charges.

Yes, it's been a long four months for the Wolverines' head coach.

As tough as the season has been for Michigan, on and off the field, it still has a chance to salvage something that looked like a pipe dream just five weeks ago. With a win against Maryland Saturday the Wolverines will qualify for, and surely receive an invitation to, a bowl game.

"So what?" you might ask; and it's true, Michigan won't be going to a New Year's Day bowl or even sniffing the four-team college football playoff this year. But qualifying for a bowl game could upgrade the 2014 season from total disaster to serious disappointment.

Playing in a bowl game would give Michigan an extra month of practicing, which will pay dividends for a roster full of young players hoping to turn the program around in the coming years. It will also give Team 135 a chance to finish the year with a winning record, even with a likely pounding in Columbus looming on Thanksgiving weekend.

Most importantly, focusing on a bowl game would buy the university more time in its search for an athletic director and potential replacement for Hoke. As soon as the Wolverines walk off the field for the final time, the uproar will start. School president Mark Schlissel's inbox will be stuffed with requests from Michigan faithful offering their input on who should represent this historic program and why.

Does that really matter? Will demand from the largest living alumni base have an affect on Michigan's next move. Well, let's take a look at the Dave Brandon timeline over the past few months.

The embattled AD survived two straight declining seasons from the football program, a 2-4 start in 2014, an instance in which his backup quarterback was left on the field with a concussion and even an email scandal which shined a light on Brandon's rude responses toward the fans that make his program run.

What was it that got the man fired? It was the students' march to the president's on-campus house, and the constant demand for change from the Michigan fan base as a whole. Greatly declining attendance numbers probably played a role, too.

What we learn from this flashback is that fans have power, because the fans ultimately drive the financial and future success of Michigan football. If Michigan beats Maryland and travels to a bowl game, fans will be focused on that final chance to end the year on a high note, and not head hunting for those responsible for another losing season.

Ironically, new interim athletic director Jim Hackett is capping off the year with an event that will help fans recognize Brandon's absence even more than his resignation did: Fan Appreciation Day.

One of the biggest issues between fans and Brandon was his insistence on running Michigan athletics like a business at the expense of its thousands of loyal fans. Now, as the Michigan faithful say goodbye to their seniors Saturday, the Big House will offer discounts on concessions and a chance to walk on the field after the game. Michigan is desperately trying to reconnect with its fans and erase the divide that grew between the two during Brandon's tenure.

The best way for Michigan to reward fans would be to beat Maryland, who travels to Ann Arbor as a five-point underdog.

How has Michigan reached the point where it enters a game favored over a winning Big Ten team? On Oct. 4, the Wolverines lost to Rutgers to fall to 2-4 on the year. They rode a three-game losing streak that included a pounding at the hand of Minnesota to lose the Little Brown Jug for just the second time in 24 years. Notre Dame scorched the Wolverines 31-0 in the final scheduled meeting between the two. In fact, many fans were unsure if Michigan would win another game that season.

But since that loss the team is 3-1 after grinding out three wins against weaker Big Ten competition. At 5-5, and with a matchup against No. 6 OSU on the horizon, Michigan can capitalize on the hot streak Saturday to snatch up a 13th game.

Maryland owns a 6-4 record, but the Terrapins haven't looked like a powerhouse in their first Big Ten season. Maryland's best win is over middle-of-the-pack Iowa, and it lost to OSU, Wisconsin and MSU by a combined score of 141-46. It doesn't help that top playmaker Stefon Diggs hasn't played since Nov. 1. The dynamic wide receiver won't line up against a stout Michigan defense Saturday.

Saturday's cloudy matchup in Ann Arbor means next to nothing to college football on a national level, but it does offer Michigan the chance to play for a bowl game and finish 2014 on a positive note. It's one of the last opportunities for Hoke to post a positive storyline at the end of a tumultuous season.