ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - Michigan aimed high before the first snap of the season, publicly and privately saying a Big Ten championship and spot in the College Football Playoff were goals.
It looks like it is time for Plan B.
The Wolverines (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) have lost two of their last three games, probably putting those goals out of reach.
Michigan is two games behind the division leaders, No. 2 Penn State, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 16 Michigan State. The Wolverines were routed by the Nittany Lions on Saturday and lost by four points to the Spartans at home.
Outside of the program, there's probably no one that thinks this is the year the Wolverines will win a conference title for the first time since 2004. Winning a national championship for the first time in two decades appears to be even more of a longshot after the Wolverines have plummeted out of The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in two-plus years.
"You don't want it to be this way, but things are not necessarily in our hands anymore," offensive tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty acknowledged Monday - even if the Wolverines win the rest of their games, including on the road against No. 5 Wisconsin and at home against the rival Buckeyes.
Bushell-Beatty and his teammates insisted, though, that they're not giving up their preseason hopes and dreams.
"Our goal was to win the Big Ten, and make the playoff," receiver Grant Perry said. "Whether or not that's a possibility, it's still up in the air. Anything can happen. We're going to keep playing like that's our goal and keep trying to win and play well."
Michigan's next chance to keep its high hopes alive, at least mathematically, will be against Rutgers (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday afternoon at home. The Scarlet Knights have won two straight to pull into a fourth-place tie with the reeling Wolverines, who are coming off a 42-13 loss at Penn State.
"We've all moved on from this past Saturday and we're ready to see what Rutgers brings to the table," Perry said. "We're ready to get after it and prove ourselves."
The Wolverines have a lot to prove.
Their offensive line is struggling to protect backup John O'Korn, who is missing open receivers when he does have a rare opportunity to scan the field. The problems with the passing game have affected the running game, which hasn't been a consistent asset for the low-scoring offense.
Michigan had been able to lean on its defense before its weaknesses were exposed against the Nittany Lions. Penn State moved the ball seemingly at will. As if the result wasn't embarrassing enough, cornerback Lavert Hill extended the middle fingers on his hands and put them up in the air as he walked off the field at Penn State.
"I sincerely regret my inappropriate gesture at the end of Saturday's football game," Hill said in a statement released by the school. "I let my emotions get the best of me and learned a valuable lesson. I am truly sorry for this offensive gesture and vow that it will not happen again."