ANN ARBOR, Mich. – October has not been kind to Michigan football, as it fell from the No. 7 team in the country to an unranked, two-loss team with no championship hopes.
Michigan's home loss to Michigan State was a surprising upset, but last weekend was much more concerning. The Wolverines went into Happy Valley and took a beating from Penn State, losing by the widest margin since Ohio State won by the same score in 2015, Jim Harbaugh's first season.
Now, Michigan has to reassess its goals. The Big Ten championship and playoff hopes that surrounded this team in the preseason have evaporated with the second loss. It's an unfamiliar feeling for Harbaugh's team, which has been at least in the national conversation for the better part of two calendar years.
There are still five games left on the schedule, but the circumstances have left fans looking forward to next season, when the team could again hope to compete for more than a respectable bowl game.
Next season's schedule is even more grueling, with Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State all hosting Michigan away from Ann Arbor. The Wolverines will also have to welcome Penn State and Wisconsin to the Big House.
The point is that Michigan needs to be much better next season to have any hope of improving on what's been a solid, but unspectacular, first three seasons under Harbaugh. With that in mind, Michigan has an opportunity to use the remaining games on this year's schedule to develop players at positions of need.
Here are five players who should get more playing time the rest of the season in order to build for the future.
QB Brandon Peters
It's ironic that I'm calling for Peters this week, of all weeks, because John O'Korn is coming off his best start of the season.
The reason O'Korn has remained the starter for Michigan is because he's a better quarterback than redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, at least in Harbaugh's eyes. It wouldn't have made sense to start Peters over O'Korn while Michigan was still in contention with only one loss. Harbaugh certainly couldn't afford to throw Peters into the fire and name him the starter for a whiteout in Happy Valley.
But now Michigan has nothing to lose. The next three games should be wins no matter who starts at quarterback, as Michigan's defense has proved it can handle teams such as Rutgers, Maryland and Minnesota without a problem.
Wisconsin and Ohio State, however, are a completely different story. Can the Michigan team we watched at Penn State pull off an upset over either Wisconsin or Ohio State? Absolutely not. The offense couldn't run the ball, couldn't catch the ball and couldn't protect O'Korn in the pocket.
So why not give Peters a shot? He'll never have a friendlier opportunity to get his feet wet than Rutgers in the Big House, and there's a nonzero chance he'll turn out better than both Wilton Speight and O'Korn. That would give the Wolverines a spark, and possibly change the look of the final two games.
It's not as if Peters doesn't have talent. In fact, he might have the most raw talent of any quarterback on the roster. A four-star player across the board out of high school, Peters was viewed as the No. 6 pro-style quarterback in the country in the 247 Sports composite rankings.
Nobody wants Michigan to win more than Harbaugh, so there are clearly reasons Peters didn't get the job over Speight or O'Korn. But at this point, it makes sense to use the rest of the 2017 season to see what Peters can do.
WR Nico Collins
With all the controversy swirling around the quarterback position, Michigan's wide receivers have flown under the radar. But in reality, they're just as culpable as the quarterbacks.
Michigan's receivers have struggled with drops all season, but the inability to get open is even more glaring. Harbaugh has been forced to call short, conservative passes all season because his targets aren't creating separation downfield.
Donovan Peoples-Jones has been a bright spot, and Tarik Black was the best receiver on the roster before his injury, but Michigan could really use a jump ball target such as Nico Collins.
The true freshman got a taste of game action at Penn State, but he hasn't been targeted yet this season.
By appearing in the seventh game of the season, Collins won't be available to redshirt this season, so Harbaugh might give him as many reps as possible in preparation for the future. Collins is 6 feet 4 inches tall and has good speed and athleticism. He's the type of receiver who's actually open even when he's technically not, because he can win the battle for the ball.
That's exactly what Michigan needs on offense, both this season and moving forward.
RB Kareem Walker
It feels as if something is missing from Harbaugh's vintage pro-style offense, and it might be the presence of a true power running back.
Karan Higdon has done a solid job leading Michigan's ground attack, and Ty Isaac and Chris Evans have both had good moments, but the rotation needs a tough runner who can make plays between the tackles.
Kareem Walker hasn't gotten much of a chance this season, but he has the tools to be the best running back on the roster.
Walker was 247's No. 5 overall running back in the class of 2016, and since then he's received four carries.
Walker showed a good burst in each of the last two spring games, and he could be the piece Michigan's running back group is missing.
Harbaugh's offense is dependent on rushing the ball and controlling the clock, and Walker's style best fits that mold.
OL Cesar Ruiz
It's no coincidence that my first three suggestions are players at positions in which Michigan has struggled this season.
The offensive line has been up and down in the run blocking game this season, but the pass blocking has been even worse. Specifically, the right side of the line has struggled, and it's exposing weaknesses in other areas, such as quarterback accuracy and route running.
Freshman Cesar Ruiz is the most promising backup offensive lineman on the roster, and he's earned snaps in four of Michigan's seven games this season.
Ruiz was the No. 1 center in the country this offseason, and should be able to make an immediate impact on the interior offensive line. The right side is already a weakness for the Wolverines, so it makes sense to give the talented Ruiz a chance.
Experience is critical on the offensive line, especially among the linemen as a group. Michigan will return three starters from the offensive line going into next season, and it would only help Ruiz to let him play alongside them for the rest of this year.
CB Ambry Thomas
There hasn't been a more outstanding position on Michigan's roster this season than the cornerbacks. True sophomores Lavert Hill and David Long took over as starters this season and have immediately become one of the best duos in the Big Ten.
Penn State wouldn't even throw at Michigan's cornerbacks last weekend, and that's likely the best offensive attack the Wolverines will face all season. When Trace McSorley threw at Long in the first half, Long picked it off and sparked a near-comeback. A few drives later, Hill batted down a fourth-down pass that was right on the money.
Since Hill and Long have been so consistent, Ambry Thomas hasn't gotten many snaps on defense. But there have been opportunities to get him into the game.
Thomas is an explosive playmaker, even as a true freshman. He showed his ball skills at Penn State with a kick return to midfield that helped spark a dormant Michigan offense.
Don Brown might include Thomas in more defensive plays, along with Brandon Watson, to build up his experience heading into next season. He's also becoming the primary returner on kickoffs.