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Niyo: Perfect storm keeps UM’s title hopes alive

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Wilton Speight talk in the first quarter Saturday in Iowa City.

It already was a bad week for pundits and polls.

And Saturday was no different in college football.

Only No. 1 Alabama among the nation’s top four teams survived the carnage. The other three — each of them at least three-touchdown favorites, according to the oddsmakers — saw their unbeaten seasons go up in smoke.The last was No. 3 Michigan, a 14-13 upset victim at Iowa, providing the final kick as all those playoff predictions came tumbling down.

But did they, really?

If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that there’s still more to come. And what is down now — No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 Washington joined the Wolverines in hitting the deck Saturday — can easily end up back on top. In fact, when the new college football playoff rankings are unveiled Tuesday night, they might not look a whole lot different than last week’s standings.

Same goes for Michigan’s championship hopes in the wake of Saturday’s imperfect result. And though it was hard to ignore all the noise coming from the home team’s locker room inside Kinnick Stadium, that realization made it a bit easier for the Wolverines’ leaders to say what they did.

Flawed Michigan still controls destiny in Big Ten East

“It really doesn’t matter what we feel like,” said tight end Jake Butt, one of Michigan’s senior co-captains. “We can only control what we can control, and that’s just to keep winning.

“If we keep winning and doing those things, the rest will take care of itself.”

That’s the same refrain we heard a year ago inside Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium after Michigan State had its unbeaten season derailed. And it proved true, too, as the Spartans regained control, just kept winning — even with a backup quarterback in Columbus — and eventually found themselves right where they wanted to be, in the playoffs.

How goofy is this sport? Well, where do you begin after a Saturday like that?

Eerie similarities

Earlier in the week, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had brushed off a question trying to draw parallels to 1985, when Iowa beat No. 2 Michigan on a last-second field goal in Iowa City, reminding a reporter, “We were No. 1 that year. That's the difference.”

True enough, but after Saturday’s redux, with a freshman walk-on kicker named Keith Duncan — his teammates call him “Duncan Donuts” — playing the role of Rob Houghtlin, the similarities are much harder to ignore. That day in 1985 — Oct. 19, to be exact — was the last time Nos. 2-4 in the AP Top 25 poll all lost on the same day.

And if you’re a Michigan fan still looking for parallels — or hope — there, I suppose I should mention that the No. 3 team that year (Oklahoma) went on to win the still-mythical national championship. The No. 2 team (Michigan) finished second after running the table and winning the Fiesta Bowl, which just happens to be one of this year’s playoff semifinal hosts.

Michigan: Five things we learned

But that was then, and this is now. And things are quite a bit more volatile in college football, in case you hadn’t noticed.

To wit, Michigan embarrassed Penn State in the Big Ten opener, 49-10. Last week, Penn State trounced Iowa, 41-14. So, naturally, Iowa turned around and upended Michigan on national television Saturday night, holding the Wolverines to just 13 points and 201 total yards — 35 points and 296 yards below their season averages.

And now Penn State (8-2 overall, 6-1 Big Ten) has a better chance of winning a Big Ten title than Ohio State. Never mind the Buckeyes likely will be ranked No. 2 in the polls this week after winning its last two games by a combined score of 124-6.

Wild, wild East

Indeed, the fan base feeling the most aggrieved by the Hawkeyes’ win Saturday wasn’t in Ann Arbor. It was in Columbus, where Ohio State (9-1, 6-1) no longer controls its own fate now in the Big Ten East division.

Even if the Buckeyes win out the next two weeks — winning at Michigan State and then beating Michigan at home — they’ll be left out of the conference championship game if Penn State manages to win its final two against Rutgers and Michigan State. That’s because Penn State won its head-to-head matchup with Ohio State a few weeks ago thanks to a blocked field returned for a touchdown.

That’s not to say an 11-1 Ohio State team still couldn’t grab one of the four playoff berths when all is said and done. It’s just that they’ll have little say in the matter, outside of Urban Meyer’s lobbying efforts, if it comes down to that.

For Michigan, though, whatever you think of their chances, it comes down to this. Win out, and they’re in. In the Big Ten title game, and likely in the playoff with another victory there in Indianapolis.

So for all the sting they felt Saturday night — and nobody felt it more than quarterback Wilton Speight, who was nursing a left shoulder injury that could be more troubling than the loss itself going forward — there was that, at least.

“We’ve all been talking, and everything is still right there for us,” Speight said. “We just have to handle our business for the remainder of the regular season and just let it all kind of play out. But it’s all still there.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Big Ten East picture

* Michigan wins if it beats Indiana and Ohio State.

* Ohio State wins if it beats Michigan State and Michigan, and Penn State gets one more loss.

* Penn State wins if it beats Rutgers and Michigan State, and Michigan gets one more loss.