Michigan hurting, but still has chance to win mediocre Big Ten
Michigan coach Brady Hoke didn't say much after his team's loss against Notre Dame.
But he did say this: "I think we have a long way to go win the Big Ten Conference."
The Wolverines are off to a disappointing 2-2 start. They were rocked in their opener against No. 1 Alabama, fell flat offensively last week against No. 10 Notre Dame and have tumbled out of the polls.
Quarterback Denard Robinson remains inconsistent in the passing game, and now leads the country in interceptions after throwing four in Saturday's 13-6 loss against Notre Dame.
"Not good enough to win a Big Ten championship," safety and captain Jordan Kovacs said after that defeat.
But all is not lost, as Michigan sets out to use its off week to rest up, get healthy and recharge for the start of the Big Ten schedule next week against Purdue.
And although the Wolverines feel as though they're a long way from competing for a title, they have key pieces in place.
Receiver Devin Gardner and tight end Devin Funchess have emerged as big-target pass-catchers, helping to fill the void left by Junior Hemingway. They both pose mismatches for defenses.
Freshmen have stepped up and played well, especially at linebacker (James Ross, Joe Bolden) and kick returner (Dennis Norfleet).
Robinson remains a dynamic player, evidenced in smashing performances against Air Force and UMass.
The defense seems to be finding another gear just in time for conference play. Michigan allowed only 239 yards of offense -- and only 94 on the ground -- against Notre Dame.
It allowed only one touchdown and 13 points, despite the offense turning over the ball six times.
"We've played a couple of good teams, and I think this team has learned a lot with the first loss and now this loss," offensive lineman Taylor Lewan said. "This team is going to learn a lot from this situation, and this bye week couldn't come at a better time.
"With the Big Ten season coming up, I think this team learned a lot about themselves and the things we can do to be successful in the future."
The Wolverines have been far from perfect, but so has the rest of the Big Ten. They seem just as capable as anybody of winning the title.
Michigan State, among the preseason favorites to win the Legends Division, is 3-1 after losing to Notre Dame -- 20-3, a worse score than Michigan -- and narrowly beating Eastern Michigan last week.
Nebraska is 3-1 after a loss against UCLA. Iowa is 2-2 after losses to lowa State and Central Michigan.
The only unbeaten teams in Michigan's division are Minnesota and Northwestern. Both are better than expected, but neither has been tested like the Wolverines.
In the Leaders, Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible to play for the title. Wisconsin has been a mess, after falling against Oregon State and narrowly beating Northern Iowa and Utah State.
The Badgers even fired their offensive line coach.
Indiana (2-1) has fallen to Ball State at home, and Illinois (2-2) was blown out last week against Louisiana Tech.
The Leaders' best actually could be Purdue (2-1), whose only loss was a 20-17 setback against Notre Dame.
Michigan has two weeks to prepare to face the Boilermakers in West Lafayette, a place it won 27-16 in its last trip there.
But the Wolverines are just 3-4 away from Ann Arbor under Hoke, and averaging fewer than 20 points. They will have to solve those road ills to have a chance of beating Purdue, and later at Nebraska and Ohio State.
"You have to have a short memory," Lewan said. "Playing on the road, hostile environment -- especially one like (Notre Dame) -- you have to tune it out. We got to play ball.
"In the end, it's just football. You've been doing it since you were a little kid and why not keep it going now?"