At Jim Harbaugh’s weekly press conference on Monday, a reporter asked if he allows his team to look ahead toward what could be in front of it if it continues winning. In typical Harbaugh fashion, he deflected the question, saying the Wolverines are focused on using the bye week to get better.
Michigan fans, though, don’t have to worry about the risks of looking ahead. So with no games for 10 days, here are the different paths the Wolverines can take going into their last four regular-season games.
Scenario 1: Win out
After the last two weeks, this is the scenario that Michigan fans have allowed themselves to dream of. And despite matchups with Penn State and Ohio State, it is certainly possible. The Wolverines have looked dominant in six of their last seven games, including back-to-back top 25 tilts, largely because their improved offensive line has their offense matching one of the nation’s top defenses.
Winning out would indisputably make this the best season of the Harbaugh era regardless of bowl placement. And because it would mean beating Ohio State, most would consider it Michigan’s best season since 1997.
The Wolverines are currently undefeated in Big Ten play, so their fate is in their own hands in the Big Ten East. That means that this scenario would result in a trip to Indianapolis for the program’s first ever Big Ten championship game appearance.
If Michigan won that game, it’s hard to envision a way they could miss out on being selected for the College Football Playoff. The one possibility would be if Clemson and Notre Dame both finish undefeated and either LSU or Georgia beats Alabama and went on to win the SEC. In that scenario, the team that beat Alabama would be a one-loss SEC champion and Alabama would be either 11-1 or 12-1 but without an SEC championship. Even in that scenario, though, the committee would be hard-pressed to select a one-loss non-conference champion Alabama over a one-loss conference champion Michigan that would have four top 25 wins and a loss to a playoff team.
If the Wolverines made the Big Ten championship and lost, things would get complicated.
Of the three teams currently tied for the Big Ten West lead — Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa — the Hawkeyes are the only team with a chance to make the CFP, and they would need a lot to go their way even if they went undefeated and beat Michigan. If Iowa made the CFP, the Wolverines would be slotted into the Rose Bowl as the next-highest ranked Big Ten team.
Assuming the Big Ten West champion is not strong enough to make the CFP, though, that team would automatically be placed into the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten champion. That would leave Michigan in either the Fiesta Bowl or the Peach Bowl, because the Sugar Bowl is required to pair an SEC team and Big 12 team, and the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl are both being used for the CFP.
Most likely outcome: CFP
Scenario 2: Beat Penn State, lose to Ohio State
Though not the worst possible case for the rest of the season, this would be a nearly identical ending to 2016 and that’s not a good thing for Michigan.
However, if Ohio State drops one of its next three games — against Nebraska, Michigan State, or Maryland — the Wolverines would win the Big Ten East even without a win over the Buckeyes. They would likely be eliminated from CFP contention barring major upsets in other conferences but would get a Rose Bowl bid by winning the Big Ten championship game.
If Ohio State goes into The Game with one loss, this scenario would mean that the Buckeyes win the Big Ten East. If they then made the CFP, Michigan would almost certainly be the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl representative. And if Ohio State wins the Big Ten but is not selected for the CFP — which is very likely after its loss to Purdue — it would go to the Rose Bowl, sending Michigan to either the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl.
Most likely outcome: Fiesta/Peach Bowl
Scenario 3: Lose to Penn State, beat Ohio State
While it wouldn’t be an undefeated finish, this would still be Michigan’s best season under Harbaugh. It would finally give the Wolverines a win over Ohio State and they would win the Big Ten East.
The loss would probably eliminate Michigan from CFP contention but they would go to the Rose Bowl with a win in the Big Ten championship game and either the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl with a loss (or possibly still the Rose Bowl if the team they lost to got selected for the CFP).
Most likely outcome: Rose Bowl
Scenario 4: Lose multiple games
Even after Michigan’s dominant run over the past seven weeks, this nightmare scenario remains very much in play. Assuming the losses come to Penn State and Ohio State, it would leave the Wolverines at 9-3 and probably outside of the New Years’ Six bowls in favor of Penn State, Ohio State, and the Big Ten West winner, though they would still have an outside chance at being selected for the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl. If not, they would probably go to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando for the second time in four years.
Of course, a loss to either Rutgers or Indiana would drop Michigan even further down the Big Ten’s bowl pecking order but that is a highly unlikely proposition at this point.
Most likely outcome: Citrus Bowl
To summarize, the Wolverines’ possible outcomes range from the College Football Playoff to Citrus Bowl. It’s safe to say there is a lot to play for over the next four weeks.