ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It doesn't happen very often for a Jim Harbaugh team, but for the next several weeks, Michigan football is going under the radar.
The Wolverines took two body blows in October, including a 42-13 loss at Penn State, that knocked Michigan out of Big Ten and playoff contention. The unranked Wolverines now face a three-game stretch of winnable games that could quietly put them on the right track.
It starts with this weekend's game against Rutgers. No team has suffered the wrath of Michigan football worse than Rutgers the last two years. In 2015, Michigan smacked Rutgers by 33 points. Last season, the Wolverines won 78-0.
Chris Ash clearly has Rutgers heading in the right direction, with back-to-back wins against Illinois and Purdue. But there's no reason Michigan should allow the game to stay close, despite an anemic offense.
There are a lot of things to work on against the Scarlett Knights. Michigan needs to get back to what it was doing early in the season: sacking the quarterback, moving the chains on short passes and running the football. In its losses, Michigan struggled to do all three.
Rutgers is the weakest team left on the schedule, so Michigan needs to make a statement and put together a complete game. It's almost November, and the Wolverines still haven't played a consistent 60 minutes this season.
It looked as if Minnesota was going to be a pesky team in the Big Ten West Division under P.J. Fleck, but the 3-0 start has given way to a 1-3 conference record.
The Golden Gophers are struggling to replace the production they lost from last year's nine-win team, and with the game happening under the lights at the Big House, Michigan should be a heavy favorite.
Minnesota has given up at least 30 points in three of four Big Ten games, so Michigan's offense should be able to find the end zone, whether it's John O'Korn or Brandon Peters under center.
It's also a chance for Michigan to earn a shot of confidence. No, it's not Ohio State or Michigan State, but it is a battle for the Little Brown Jug, and if Michigan can avoid an upset, it will be sitting at 7-2. Considering how much the Wolverines have struggled, that's not a bad place for them to be.
Who knows which Michigan team will show up at Maryland, with top-10 games against Wisconsin and Ohio State on the horizon.
Maryland has lost multiple quarterbacks to injury this season, so the team that dominated Texas on the road to start the season isn't the one Michigan will see in College Park.
D.J. Durkin has started to feel the repercussions of those injuries, as the Terps ride a three-game losing streak. They've been blown out by at least 16 points in four of their last five games.
Before the thrashing at Penn State, Michigan had fared pretty well on the road, crushing Purdue and surviving at Indiana. The Wolverines badly need to pick up a win at Maryland before playing in a tough environment against Wisconsin.
What it would mean
Even with an easier schedule ahead, it would be huge for Michigan to start a three-game winning streak against the teams above. Look no further than Ohio State, which has played five straight games against weaker competition, but shot up the rankings.
Since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, he's been all about exposure. Michigan has been in the spotlight every offseason because of his tactics, and every season because of its performance on the field.
But now Michigan risks becoming nationally irrelevant, and irrelevance is a disaster for fans and recruiting. If the Wolverines can't beat Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland, it's looking like at least a five-loss season, and that would be a major underachievement.
The Wolverines appear destined for an 8-4 finish, but if they can rip off three wins in a row, they'll have momentum and nothing to lose against Wisconsin and Ohio State. With a roster as talented as Michigan's, that could be enough to give the Wolverines a fighting chance.
After the excitement that surrounded games against Florida, Michigan State and Penn State, the next few weeks will seem mild for Harbaugh's team. But that doesn't mean the games aren't critical to the direction of Michigan's season.