Best, worst-case scenarios for Michigan football in second half

Wolverines kick off season's second half Saturday vs. Illinois


It's been 13 days since the Michigan football team left New Jersey with a 78-0 win over Rutgers. The Wolverines were 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country heading into their only bye week.

Not much has changed in two weeks. Michigan moved up to No. 3 in the AP poll, but the goal hasn't changed:

Michigan has its eyes set on the College Football Playoff.

Best-case scenario

Considering how well it played in the first half of the season, Michigan is a heavy favorite in each of its next five games. The Wolverines open with a homecoming game against Illinois, which is one of the worst teams in the Big Ten. If things go as expected, Michigan will have no problem with Lovie Smith's Fighting Illini.

After Illinois, the games get considerably tougher. Rival Michigan State is going through its worst slump of the Mark Dantonio era -- a four-game losing streak that includes blowout losses to Wisconsin, BYU and Northwestern -- but that doesn't mean the Spartans will be a pushover.

Michigan is clearly a much better team than Michigan State this season, and most college football predictive rankings think the Wolverines have a better than 90 percent chance to win. The best-case scenario for Michigan is to cruise past Michigan State and improve to 8-0 on the season.

The Nov. 5 home game against Maryland shouldn't look very threatening to Michigan fans, despite former Wolverines' defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin returning to the Big House as the Terps' head coach. Maryland is much improved under Durkin, but it hasn't seen a defense like Michigan's this season.

Unless Jim Harbaugh's team has a huge letdown game, Michigan should have no trouble with Maryland.

The sneakiest game of the second half is Michigan's road date with Iowa, a team that lost early home games against North Dakota State and Northwestern, but has giving Michigan problems over the last decade. The Hawkeyes have won four of the last five meetings, including a 24-16 win in Iowa City in 2011, the last time Michigan had a chance to play for a Big Ten title.

This season, Michigan is clearly more talented than Iowa, and it will play in the Wolverines' favor that these two teams play a similar offensive style. Iowa needs to run the ball to have success, and Michigan has been an extremely tough team to run against -- even holding Wisconsin under 80 yards rushing.

If Michigan can go into Iowa City and win for the first time since 2005, it would be another sign of the new era under Harbaugh.

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Indiana provides a tricky trap game between Iowa and Ohio State, but with a chance to finish the home season undefeated, Michigan's elite defense could have a field day against turnover-prone Richard Lagow. The Hoosiers are a pesky team that hung around against Ohio State and Nebraska, but in Michigan's best-case scenario, this game won't be close.

Theoretically, that could set up an undefeated matchup against Ohio State in Columbus, with a spot in the Big Ten title game on the line. The Buckeyes are an elite team and J.T. Barrett will be the best player Michigan faces this season.

If the game were played today, Michigan would be nearly a 10-point underdog, according to most projections. But it's not unrealistic to believe the Wolverines could be much more competitive in "The Game."

The best-case scenario for Michigan in Columbus is that the defense finds a way to contain Barrett, and Wilton Speight does just enough to come out with the team's biggest win since 1997. If Jabrill Peppers picks off Barrett and returns the interception for a touchdown, that would make the win even sweeter for the Wolverines, who are trying to get their star into the Heisman conversation.

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Football fans know Ohio State has dominated this rivalry the last few years, but this is the best Michigan team since 2006, when one personal foul penalty separated Michigan and Ohio State in Columbus. Ten years later, the Wolverines have a shot at redemption.

There's much more football to play before thinking about an undefeated matchup in Columbus, but the best-case scenario for this Michigan team would be to play for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis with a chance to qualify for the College Football Playoff.

Worst case scenario

Even though Michigan has been great so far, there are plenty of opportunities to slip up in the second half. Dozens of teams have championship aspirations on Oct. 21, but most of those teams will come up short of achieving those dreams. Michigan hopes to stay out of that group.

The trouble could start in East Lansing, where Michigan has struggled against Dantonio's teams. With the Spartans out of the national and conference title conversations, this is their biggest game of the season.

The worst case scenario for Michigan is that Michigan State comes out hungrier and jumps out to a huge lead. Unlike against Northwestern, the Spartans could build off their early moment and hang with the Wolverines deep into the fourth quarter. Michigan's worst nightmare is the Spartans offense scoring on a fluky play late in a close game to hand Michigan its first loss of the season.

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After being knocked out of the Top 10, Michigan would bounce back to beat Maryland at home, but Iowa could follow the blueprint left by Michigan State and revive the Kinnick Stadium magic with a night game victory over No. 10 Michigan. The loss would eliminate Michigan from Big Ten East contention and the Wolverines would be delegated to playing spoiler against Ohio State.

In the worst-case scenario, Michigan would fall short of an upset over Ohio State, leaving the Wolverines with a 9-3 record and a ranking somewhere around No. 15-20.

When it comes to worst-case scenarios, 9-3 doesn't sound bad. But this Michigan team has goals beyond a decent bowl game and losing three times would be a disappointment.

Other scenarios

Obviously, there are dozens of scenarios that fall between these two extremes.

Michigan could lose one of its next five games, but turn around and upset Ohio State in the season finale. If that happens, and Michigan wins the Big Ten title game to finish 12-1, the Wolverines would likely end up in the College Football Playoff.

Michigan could also finish with two losses and go to a very good New Year's Six bowl -- like the Rose Bowl -- against another Top 10 team. Fans would be thrilled to see Michigan back in Pasadena, but it would be a letdown to lose two regular season games.

Perhaps the most likely scenario -- at least, according to predictive rankings like ESPN's Football Power Index -- is that Michigan could be 11-0 heading into Columbus and lose a close game to the Buckeyes. If that happens, Michigan will be left out of the Big Ten title game, but have an outside chance to slip into the College Football Playoff. To make that a realistic possibility, other games around the country have to play out in Michigan's favor. I broke down some of the most important games coming up Saturday in this week's Michigan football weekend rooting guide.

When Saturday arrives, the midseason speculation can end and the actual games will resume. Michigan has a golden opportunity to capitalize on an excellent first half, but there are dangerous games still ahead.