The narrative was nearly unanimous. With the college football season entering the home stretch, Michigan was peaking. No longer a team with a strong defense and a capable but conservative offense, the Wolverines were finally opening up the playbook for first year starting quarterback Wilton Speight. Michigan was operating on all cylinders, it was said. As the season was winding down, things were trending up for Michigan.
And who could disagree? Michigan's biggest concerns coming into the season, quarterback and offensive line play, seemed to be working themselves out. Equipped with a stable of talented running backs, Michigan was having more success on the ground than it had in previous seasons, ranking among the top 20 nationally in rushing offense. And the passing game was thriving. Speight excelled in his expanded role, playing the best football of his young career, following up a 16 for 25, 244 yard performance against Michigan State with a 19 for 24, 362 yard, three touchdown performance against Maryland. More than a game manager, Speight was developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten and one of Michigan's most potent weapons. As Speight's game developed, Michigan's future looked even brighter.
Struggling against Iowa was not part of that narrative. One of the most disappointing teams in the conference, Iowa was not supposed to be a challenge for Michigan, but rather another tune-up for the season-ending clash against bitter rival Ohio State. But that's not what happened, of course. In a game in which Michigan disappointed in nearly all facets, the Wolverines were knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten.
In many respects, Saturday's outcome actually means very little. Michigan still controls its destiny, as the saying goes, with the conference championship and a berth in the college football playoffs still within its grasp. After a day of upsets, everything is still there for the taking for the Wolverines.
Ironically, Michigan finds itself in the same position as Michigan State found itself last season, when a late season slip against Nebraska appeared to derail the Spartans' championship dreams. In the face of defeat, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio defiantly stated that, "Our goals are in front of us in terms of we at least have an opportunity to control our own situation." Dantonio proved prescient, as the Spartans recovered to record victories over Ohio State and Iowa en route to capturing the conference championship and landing a spot in the college football playoffs.
Michigan's goals are similarly still attainable. But while Saturday's outcome might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, it changed the narrative (and did more than that if Speight misses considerable time due to injury). What to make of Michigan now? Are the Wolverines the team that blazed to three victories of at least 50 points and humbled Big Ten East co-leader Penn State? Or are they the team that allowed Michigan State to hang around for four quarters and struggled to move the chains against Iowa?
The reality, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in between. Everyone has bad days, or nights in this case, and bad games. Michigan fans need to step off the ledge. The Wolverines are certainly not as bad as they appeared against Iowa, but they may not be the juggernaut they seemed to be just a week earlier, either. Likewise, Speight is not the quarterback who missed open receiver after open receiver against the Hawkeyes, but he's also not the Heisman candidate his coach proclaimed him to be after the Maryland game.
Perhaps most alarming for Michigan, more so than losing its perfect season, is the fact that the team's biggest questions coming into the season, quarterback and offensive line play, are still its biggest questions ten games into the season. Questions that likely won't be answered until the season finale against Ohio State, where each team's season will be determined, if not defined.
As disappointing as Michigan's performance in Iowa City was, like Michigan State last year, the Wolverines still have all of their goals in front of them. And if you're looking even more irony, it's now Michigan that's trying to match what its in-state rival was able to accomplish last year, and rebound from a baffling, late-season loss to finish the season strong and achieve its championship goals.