U-M wakes up in excellent position

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- At 7-1, Michigan finds itself in an excellent if not unexpected position heading into the final stretch of the season -- a three-way tie for the lead in the Legends Division of the Big Ten. The Wolverines have put themselves in a place where they could make the inaugural Big Ten championship game and be seriously considered for a BCS bowl spot if they don't earn an automatic berth.

Michigan is 3-1 in the conference, tied with Michigan State and Nebraska in the division. If the Wolverines win out, that would include a victory over the Huskers. But they would need the Spartans to lose again, because MSU beat them head to head. Nebraska beat Michigan State 24-3 on Saturday to hand the Spartans their first conference loss.

At their best this season the Wolverines have looked like a team that could tear through opposing teams' defenses. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson has had flashes of brilliance, when his passes drop into the hands of receivers perfectly and when his feet evade any living thing within 10 yards of him.

But at their worst, the Wolverines have looked like a team hanging on for dear life. The miscommunications have been obvious, and the defense has allowed plays where a six-ton truck could slip through.

"We just have to focus on ourselves, this team, Michigan," Robinson said, "and come out ready to play every weekend, because in the Big Ten there's always competition."

Here's an idea of what that competition looks like for the Wolverines through the next month, in a season that could turn out to be magical or one in which Michigan simply could disappear.

At Iowa, Nov. 5: The Hawkeyes (5-3) are coming off what is perhaps the biggest upset in the Big Ten this season. Despite leading Minnesota by 11 in the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes relinquished their lead and their bowl-clinching sixth win to the Golden Gophers, 22-21. It was Minnesota's first conference win. In fact, the Gophers hadn't come within 27 points of their other three Big Ten opponents, including a 58-0 loss to Michigan.

In recent history, the Wolverines have struggled in Iowa City. Michigan hasn't returned from Iowa with a win since 2005. Of the Hawkeyes' four remaining games, Michigan might be the most beatable team. And with that sixth win sitting on the horizon, the Hawkeyes should come out strong at home against the Wolverines. But if Iowa had a hard time stopping Minnesota's running game (40 carries, 178 yards), it will have an even harder time slowing Robinson and Co.

At Illinois, Nov. 12: Three weeks ago Illinois was 6-0 and ranked No. 15 in the coaches' poll. After Saturday's loss to Penn State the Illini are 6-3, unranked and officially reeling. During its winning streak Illinois averaged 34.7 points per game. During its losing streak Illinois is averaging just 9.3 points. The Illini are now in a bye week and thus have two weeks to solve their offensive woes and prepare for the Wolverines. Michigan has scored at least 28 points in all but one game this season, and its defense ranks sixth nationally in scoring, allowing just 14.6 points per game.

versus Nebraska, Nov. 19: Nebraska (7-1) has been an interesting addition to the conference. Like the Wolverines, the Huskers have struggled greatly with their consistency. They were pummeled by Wisconsin in their first Big Ten game, but on Saturday they manhandled Michigan State. The Huskers had scoring drives of 80 and 89 yards in the third quarter against the vaunted Spartans defense. Before Nebraska plays the Wolverines, the Huskers will have a chance to air out their offense against Northwestern, then they travel to Happy Valley to face Penn State, the only undefeated team in the Big Ten. If both teams enter the Big House with only one loss, this game will get a lot of national attention.

versus Ohio State, Nov. 26: Oh, how the Wolverines hate Ohio State (5-3). And while the Buckeyes have struggled without a certain sweater vest on the sideline, they did take down a hard-nosed Wisconsin team Saturday. Offensively, they're racking up about 300 yards per game, down nearly 150 yards from a season ago. But fifth-year senior running back Dan Herron, who rushed for 175 yards against Michigan last year and has never lost to the Wolverines, is trying to make it a four-year win streak. Michigan hasn't beaten Ohio State in the Big House since the 2003 season, but with a rebuilding Buckeyes team, this season could be the one in which the Wolverines break that streak. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether the Michigan/OSU game is a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup or the worst against the second-to-worst team in the Big Ten. It will be a dogfight in Michigan Stadium.

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com or or on Twitter @chanteljennings.