Ann Arbor — Michigan's lofty goals were dashed early, punctuated by a three-game losing streak, not to mention a rout at Notre Dame and a three-plus touchdown loss at Michigan State.
Outside looking in, there is still something to play for with two regular-season games remaining.
The Wolverines are 5-5 overall, having won three of their last four including two straight, and face Maryland on Saturday in the final game of the season at Michigan Stadium. They play at No. 7 Ohio State next week, so the reality is, beating the Terrapins (6-4) essentially is a must if the Wolverines want to become bowl eligible.
All week, though, Michigan coach Brady Hoke and the players, while acknowledging the desire to get to a bowl, have said that getting to a bowl is not what is driving them.
"You can't think about it as just getting to a bowl," said linebacker Jake Ryan, one of 12 seniors who will be honored before the game. "We're going to focus on Maryland."
Michigan was off last weekend, but won its previous two games against Indiana and at Northwestern.
Maryland is coming off a 37-15 loss to Michigan State and reportedly will be without leading receiver Stefon Diggs (lacerated kidney). The Terrapins gained just six rushing yards on 17 carries against the Spartans.
They will rely on quarterback C.J. Brown, who leads the team in rushing, averaging 37.5 yards a game, and the receivers, including Jacquille Veii, a converted running back.
"They're going to be a tempo team for us," Hoke said this week. That's always a great challenge that you have to have everybody on the same page. Is the passing game going to be a big part of it? No question about it, but it will only be a big part of it we do a nice job versus the run."
Michigan held Northwestern to minus-9 rushing yards and is yielding an averaging of 103.2 yards rushing, seventh best nationally.
Hoke said the team's motivation hasn't come from bowl discussion.
"We haven't talked about that," he said. "We've talked about a three-game season and that started with Indiana (on Nov. 1), because the last game on the schedule (Ohio State), you know. If you have any fiber of Michigan in you, you know what that game is.
"We focused on these three games and playing the best football we can, playing as a team and compete and out-challenge in everything we do."
This has been a challenging season for the Wolverines on so many levels, with the scrutiny of a nation after quarterback Shane Morris, later diagnosed with a concussion, returned to play in the game against Minnesota after taking a hard fourth-quarter hit, the resignation of athletic director Dave Brandon at the end of last month, and the dismissal this week of senior Frank Clark, charged with misdemeanor domestic violence and assault.
The product on the field has been inconsistent, Michigan sits at .500, and Hoke's future remains uncertain. He is in his fourth season.
For Hoke, making a bowl isn't about him but about the players.
"It doesn't mean anything to me, personally — it means something for those kids and the work they've put in since January as a unit, as a team," Hoke said Tuesday during the Big Ten conference call. "That's what's important. The most important thing is we have 12 seniors that have been through this program, and that's special. We really want to honor them."
Hoke clarified his remarks a day later, saying that reaching a bowl means something to him "personally for those kids."
But he stressed that the players have not spent a lot of time discussing a bowl as a goal. They talked about winning each game.
"We've focused on a three-game season we started before the Indiana game and playing our butts off in those three football games," he said. "That's kind of where we've focused on. As far as us talking about (a bowl), not really," Hoke said. "We've talked about Maryland, we've talked about Northwestern two weeks ago, we talked about Indiana the week before that, so these guys have been very grounded and very focused."
Ten games into the season and Hoke said the team's identity has been revealed.
The Wolverines are not flashy, and their offense can't be relied on to score a lot of points. They are averaging 20.7 points a game. Michigan also is minus-13 in turnover margin, which has been fairly consistent much of this season.
Despite the inconsistencies on the field and the turmoil off of it, Hoke has called this the hardest-working group of players he has been around.
"One thing about this team, they have been unified, they have stayed together," he said. "They have probably listened to the stuff out there, but at the same time, they've done a great job of shutting it off."
Maryland at Michigan
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. today, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Line: Michigan by 5
Records: Maryland 6-4 (3-3 Big Ten); Michigan 5-5 (3-3)
Series: Michigan leads 3-0 (Last: 1990 — (at) Michigan 45, Maryland 17)
Did you know? Maryland has won six of its last seven road games and is 4-1 this season