When Michigan arrived in East Lansing Friday, its destiny was in its hands. With a perfect 5-0 record in November, the Wolverines would represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten Championship Dec. 7. A loss? The Maize and Blue weren't even thinking about a potential defeat and what that would mean for their postseason aspirations.
Yet today, Michigan sits in a distant fourth place at 3-2 behind undefeated Michigan State (5-0), Nebraska (3-1) and even 3-2 Minnesota, whom U-M beat 42-13 in week one of conference action.
Michigan finds itself in a dire predicament, needing MSU to drop at least two of its final three games - at Nebraska, at Northwestern and home to Minnesota - while winning its next four and then hoping that somehow there is a three-way with either the Cornhuskers or Golden Gophers in which that team beat the Spartans so the clear-cut head-to-head tiebreaker is nullified and the next criteria is enacted.
Confused? That demonstrates precisely where Michigan is, at the mercy of an unkind fate, on the outside looking in for the third straight Big Ten Championship Game and likely going without a league crown for the ninth consecutive season. U-M's 18-year old freshmen were in third grade the last time Michigan won the Big Ten.
So what's left to play for? Pride; a potential upset of Ohio State, which would derail the Buckeyes national title hopes; a strong finish and momentum leading into a bowl game and the 2014 season; and the slight chance of a Legends Division berth. A very slight chance.
"We've got four more important games on our schedule, a great matchup with Nebraska next week, and that's what we're going to start focusing on," junior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan said.
"We move forward. Obviously, we would need some other things to happen that aren't in our control [to play for the Big Ten]. We can only control so much.
"We know the next four weeks are what we control at this point. Moving forward after this loss, learning from it, and coming out to face a tough Nebraska team is what's going to be on our mind."
After losing a year ago in Lincoln, a loss that cost Michigan the Legends Division, the Wolverines should be plenty motivated to return the favor against NU and effectively silence its Big Ten Championship ambitions. Going on the road to Northwestern a week later, if U-M beats the Cornhuskers, Michigan could right itself even more and build towards its season finale with the Buckeyes.
By the time the Maize and Blue welcome Ohio State for the Nov. 30 showdown at The Big House, they will know if they're playing for anything tangible or if they're just looking to spoil their rival's day.
Head coach Brady Hoke understands Michigan wasted its best chance with the loss to Michigan State. He's not giving up on the season or his team, but he's resigned to the reality of the situation.
"It's not in our hands, but … who knows," Hoke said.