The unthinkable is looking more likely with each passing day. Or should we say with each passing loss.
Michigan's 33-year bowl streak that stretches to 1974 is dying on the vine. The Wolverines are 2-4, the school's worst mark through six games since 1967 — which, coincidentally, is the last time Michigan finished with a losing record.
Three more losses, and college football's winningest program officially will be out of the bowl business in 2008. And that's a real possibility. Up next: Penn State. And games remain vs. Michigan State and at Ohio State. Everyone figured Michigan would struggle as it transitioned to Rich Rodriguez. But no one anticipated struggles like these.
"I think it's fair for everybody to question it," Rodriguez said. "They're going to question everything I do. I think they've questioned everything I've done since I've been here, the last eight, nine months. There's nothing wrong with that."
Expect the questions to keep coming after Saturday's trip to State College. Michigan's 2-4 record is about to morph into 2-5. Penn State is everything Michigan is not. The Nittany Lions are good — maybe great. They have been a national surprise, pacing the Big Ten with a 7-0 record, ranking No. 3 in the nation and thinking national championship. And they are angry, having lost nine in a row to Michigan.
But getting to the postseason is the least of Rodriguez's concerns. His program is in free-fall, coming off a stunning 13-10 home loss to a Toledo team that entered the game with a 1-4 record. Was that rock-bottom for a program poised to lose eight games for the first time ever?
The offense is a mess, ranking last in the Big Ten (291.5 ypg) and 109th in the nation. Michigan has been equally inept running (ninth in the Big Ten, 130.7 ypg) as passing (10th, 160.8 ypg). And when it comes to turnovers, no one is as generous as Michigan (19 giveaways) in the Big Ten. Add it up, and this is the lowest-scoring offense in the conference (18.8 ppg). Compounding matters is that a defense considered one of the Big Ten's best also has struggled.
"I've been through this in similar respects at other times," Rodriguez said. "The glaring, major mistakes have been the most frustrating things for us. … The turnovers are the key things. Then some things maybe you didn't see. There may be a missed assignment here. There are not a lot of missed assignments, but it could be a missed assignment, one block here."
More bad news: The Wolverines are banged up. Starting quarterback Steven Threet missed the second half of the Toledo loss with a bruised throwing elbow and is questionable for Penn State. And tailback Brandon Minor may not play because of bruised ribs.
"It starts with me and the coaches," Rodriguez said. "We've got to stay the course. It's easy to waver. I know there are a lot of people disappointed, a lot of fans disappointed."
Iowa vs. Wisconsin. Focus on the entire body of work when Wisconsin travels to Iowa. The Badgers are circling the drain, having lost three in a row. The Hawkeyes ended a three-game slide last week with a victory at Indiana. Neither team has a signature victory yet. Here's a chance. There may be a greater sense of urgency for Iowa, which faces a tougher schedule down the stretch and is desperate to reach a bowl after missing the postseason last season. Can the Iowa offense continue to improve against a Wisconsin defense that was battered last week against Penn State?
PLAYER TO WATCH
Ohio State RB Chris Wells. He looks to be hitting his stride after an injury to a big toe caused him to miss three games. Good thing, because the Buckeyes have the Big Ten's worst passing attack (143.6 ypg) with true freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor at the controls. Wells, who has run for 479 yards, will have to carry a big load if the Buckeyes hope to escape Michigan State with a victory Saturday before a huge showdown on Oct. 25 with Penn State in Columbus.
Michigan State has run a league-high 313 times but is tied for the league lead for fewest fumbles lost with three. … Minnesota compensates for a defense that ranks 10th in the Big Ten (382.3 ypg) by pacing the Big Ten in turnovers forced (20). … Penn State's Derrick Williams ranks second in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 33.4 yards per return with two touchdowns. … Michigan State has won six in a row for the first time since opening the 1999 campaign with six consecutive triumphs. The Spartans haven't won seven in a row during one season since 1978.
Big Ten quarterbacks. Only one ranks among the nation's top 20 passers in efficiency: Penn State's Daryll Clark (No. 11). … Wisconsin QB Allan Evridge was replaced by Dustin Sherer in the third quarter of last week's loss to Penn State. As of midweek, no decision had been made on who would start at Iowa. … Purdue has scored one touchdown in the past nine quarters. … Indiana has lost four in a row. Wisconsin and Purdue are on three-game skids. The Badgers' 48-7 loss to Penn State was Wisconsin's worst home loss since 1989. … Michigan has scored only seven points in the third quarter this season. … Purdue has gone three games in a row without forcing a turnover. … Northwestern QB C. J. Bacher has more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (seven).
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"Do I have any misgivings? I'm not sure what a misgiving is. Would I love to have Todd (Boeckman) having some snaps in the game? Obviously. Because Todd's a great kid and you would love to have him have opportunities. Do I think Terrelle (Pryor) is improving? I think he's learning every day. I'm not exactly sure what a misgiving is, but … " – Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, on if he has any misgivings about switching starting quarterbacks.
"We are going to find out here in the next five weeks, starting with this one. I do think Ohio State is an excellent football team. They have a lot of tradition, they have won very well, they are very well-coached, they have excellent personnel, but we are going to find out on Saturday. It is going to be exciting to see where we're at. I think we continue to judge our program, and I continue to say we are a work in progress. This is just beginning here. We are 20 games in." – Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on whether the Spartans are a Big Ten contender.
"I think this is the toughest go that we've had in terms of opponents and the quality of opponents back-to-back-to-back. I think it has been the most challenging of any we've had." – Purdue coach Joe Tiller, on the first half of the schedule
"I don't know what I'd have to vindicate. You guys have got to write columns and you got to figure out something to write. We've probably won more games in the last three and a half years than any team in the country. We won 11, and nine and nine. … I don't know whether that's the best or what. I've never felt I had to vindicate myself in any way." – Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on if he feels vindicated by this season's success
Ohio State DE Lawrence Wilson is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery. … Wisconsin may be without G Kraig Urbik, who hurt a knee vs. Penn State. … Ohio State has had 13 different players catch passes. … Michigan State's Mark Dantonio was defensive coordinator at Ohio State from 2001-03. … Six of the Big Ten's top 17 rushers are freshmen: Michigan's Sam McGuffie (No. 9), Minnesota's DeLeon Eskridge (10), Wisconsin's John Clay (13), Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor (14), Ohio State's Dan Herron (16) and Iowa's Jewel Hampton (17). … Penn State is one of only three 7-0 teams in the nation. The others are Ball State and Utah. … Minnesota is aiming for its first 7-1 start since 1961. The Gophers are one of four Big Ten teams that already is bowl-eligible (Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State are the others). Northwestern needs one more victory to be bowl-eligible. … Only three Big Ten teams are ranked (No. 3 Penn State; No. 12 Ohio State; No. 20 Michigan State) in the AP Top 25. The Big 12 South has four schools (Texas; Oklahoma; Texas Tech; Oklahoma State) in the top eight. The Mountain West has as many teams (Utah, BYU, TCU) ranked in the coaches' poll as the Big Ten. … Michigan lost seven games in 1934, 1936 and 1962. … Minnesota has scored 89 points off 20 turnovers. In 2007, the Gophers tallied only 41 points off turnovers all season.
BIG TEN MIDSEASON REPORT
BEST GAME: Michigan 27, Wisconsin 25, Sept. 27. The Wolverines roared back from a 19-0 halftime deficit, scoring 20 fourth-quarter points to stun the Badgers. It was the biggest home comeback in Michigan history. The Badgers could have forced overtime with seconds remaining, but a potential game-tying two-point conversion failed. Moments earlier, Wisconsin had completed a successful two-point conversion, but it was nullified by penalty.
BEST REMAINING GAME: Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 25. This sets up as a possible de facto Big Ten title game. Know this — the Nittany Lions never have won in Columbus (0-7) since joining the Big Ten in 1993.
BEST PLAYER: Michigan State RB Javon Ringer. He has emerged as the ultimate workhorse, literally carrying the Spartans into Big Ten title contention. Ringer has rushed 247 times for 1,112 yards and 14 TDs, and has become a Heisman contender.
BEST FRESHMAN: Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor. He assumed command in the fourth game (vs. Troy) and hasn't looked back, living up to his hype as the next Vince Young.
BEST COACHING JOB: Joe Paterno, Penn State. The Nittany Lions were supposed to be good — but not this good. Penn State is 7-0 and in the hunt for the national championship.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Purdue's Curtis Painter. He was being touted by most as the league's top quarterback and a possible first-round draft pick. But he's the 10th-rated passer in the Big Ten and was benched at one point.
MOST SURPRISING UNIT: Northwestern defense. The Wildcats ranked 10th in the Big Ten in defense last season (410.5 ypg), but new coordinator Mike Hankwitz has brought an aggressive scheme that has buoyed Northwestern's rise to No. 4 (316.0 ypg).
MOST DISAPPOINTING UNIT: Michigan defense. This group was supposed to be a pillar that would carry a developing offense through rough times. It hasn't happened, as the Wolverines' defense ranks sixth in the Big Ten (344.2 ypg).
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. He is facing the prospect of missing the postseason for a second year in a row, continuing a descent that began in 2005.