This was supposed to be the last warmup for Michigan -- an easy game against Iowa before a shot at the three-game package that's now the goal of every Wolverines season: Ohio State, the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.
That all changed when Denard Robinson got hurt against Nebraska and Russell Bellomy imploded. Now, even though the Wolverines are tied for first in the Legends Division, they either need Minnesota or Iowa to pull off a huge upset of the Cornhuskers to give them a shot at Indianapolis and Pasadena. Otherwise, even with wins over the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes, it will probably be yet another New Year's Day in Florida at the Outback Bowl or the Capital One Bowl or the Everglades Alligator Capture Bowl.
Despite the disappointment, Michigan still has to play Iowa this season, and the main focus of the game will be Devin Gardner's continued progress at quarterback. After spending two years as Robinson's backup and most of this season as a wide receiver, Gardner has become the future behind center for the Wolverines. He's won both his starts -- beating Northwestern with a last-second Hail Mary pass and a touchdown run in overtime -- and could have two full seasons left if he's awarded a medical redshirt for his injury-shortened freshman year.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes are struggling through a rough season that included early-season losses to Iowa State and Central Michigan. They actually won their first two Big Ten games, including an utterly inexplicable double-OT victory over Michigan State, but have lost four in a row. Things don't look to get much easier, with their final two games being at Michigan and home for the annual Hy-Vee Heroes Game against Nebraska. The Hawkeyes need to win both games to become bowl eligible.
Iowa will also have the extra challenge of facing a Michigan team which they've beaten three straight times. Several Wolverines seniors pointed out this week that they don't intend to graduate without a win over the Hawkeyes.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
The good news for Michigan is that it won't have to face a running quarterback this week. The Wolverines have struggled against mobile quarterbacks all year, including Northwestern's Kain Colter, but James Vanderberg isn't going to cause any of those problems. In 10 games this year, he's rushed for minus-50 yards, and in his Iowa career, he averages a miniscule 0.2 yards a carry.
Iowa's running game is a mess anyway, with walk-on fullback Mark Weisman forced to carry the load after a number of injuries. Weisman, though, sustained a leg injury in the win over Michigan State, and the Hawkeyes have been scrambling to find yet another replacement. The current starter is Damon Bullock, who gained only 43 yards on 22 carries last week against Purdue.
That means that most of Iowa's offense will have to come via Vanderberg's arm. Last season, he threw 25 touchdown passes and was one of the key factors in the win over Michigan. He started this year on the same award shortlists as Robinson but has had an atrocious season. In 10 games, he's thrown only five touchdown passes and has been intercepted six times. Senior Keenan Davis leads Iowa with just 560 receiving yards, and sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley is the only player to have caught two touchdown passes.
WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL
Iowa's best defensive player, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, leads the Big Ten in tackles. He was benched last week against Purdue for poor tackling. It's been that kind of season for the Hawkeyes.
So, like he did against Minnesota and Northwestern, Gardner will be facing an average Big Ten defense at best on Saturday. They've shown more and more weakness against the pass in recent weeks -- something Gardner is more capable of taking advantage of than Robinson -- and might be thinking more about Thanksgiving and Christmas than Michigan and Nebraska.
Gardner has the chance to have a big day against Iowa, as do receivers like Roy Roundtree and Devin Funchess. But Michigan also needs to find a way to get Fitzgerald Toussaint some consistent yardage. Toussaint is starting to hit some big runs, something he didn't do early in the year, but he's still a hit-or-miss proposition thanks to the struggles on the offensive line. Finding a combination that works against Iowa would be a big help going into Columbus next weekend.
The Hawkeyes are struggling down the stretch of a tough season, and the Wolverines are anxious to end their three-game losing streak to Iowa. This could get ugly. Michigan wins 42-17.