Michigan hosts Ohio State on Saturday, the latest installment in perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of college football. It’s a time when the nation’s attention should be focused on Ann Arbor, where well over 100,000 decked out in maize and blue will try to make life miserable for anyone daring to don scarlet and gray. And after a few weeks of the season it looked like The Game would be important, that it might play a role in who went to the Rose Bowl. But that’s not the case anymore.

Promise has disappeared. Still, patience is needed.

Michigan hosts Ohio State on Saturday, the latest installment in perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of college football. It’s a time when the nation’s attention should be focused on Ann Arbor, where well over 100,000 decked out in maize and blue will try to make life miserable for anyone daring to don scarlet and gray.


And after a few weeks of the season it looked like The Game would be important, that it might play a role in who went to the Rose Bowl. But that’s not the case anymore. Ohio State clinched the Big Ten’s berth in Pasadena last Saturday with an overtime win over Iowa. Michigan, meanwhile, continued a slide that’s lasted close to two months.


After four weeks, the Wolverines were 4-0. They were ranked 22nd in the Associated Press media poll and 20th in the USA Today coaches poll. It looked like they were making a great leap forward a season after they went 3-9 - their most losses ever in a single season - and missed out on a bowl game for the first time in 38 years.


This is the second season under coach Rich Rodriguez, and he completely revamped the offense when he arrived in Ann Arbor, ridding the Michigan of its traditional power attack and installing a spread option. A huge step back was no surprise, with the expectation that there would be slow growth for a few years before an explosion when players recruited to play in the speed-oriented attack matured.


There was indeed a huge step back last year, a drop from nine wins and a bowl victory over Florida to three wins. It was bigger than many expected, and more severe than some found acceptable. It was frustrating to a fan base used to Big Ten contention every single year.


This year figured to be a baby step, five or six wins with perhaps eight or nine next year and then, look out.


But that 4-0 start, including a last-minute victory over Notre Dame when true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier orchestrated a game-winning drive that finished with a touchdown pass to Greg Mathews, gave hope that the team would skip a small step or two. The schedule figured to toughen when Michigan got into the meat of the Big Ten season, and struggles were expected. But eight wins seemed pretty reasonable at that point.


Instead, the Wolverines have disintegrated. The team that started 4-0 is now 5-7, with only rival Ohio State remaining.


After the 3-9 record last year - coupled with a slew of off-the-field issues that included a messy split with West Virginia, ignorance about longtime traditions, accusations of NCCA infractions regarding the amount of time players were forced to practice each week there was serious heat on Rodriguez heading into this season.


The start lessened that heat. It’s reignited. And now there’s even more fuel, news that Rodriguez and the football staff failed to file paperwork showing the number of hours the team practiced this season, plus concern that the Michigan defense is porous.


Still, patience needs to be exercised. What Rodriguez is attempting at Michigan isn’t just rebuilding or reloading, but revamping.


Rebuilding and reloading mean getting some new players and plugging them into an existing system alongside veteran players who can help bring them into the fold and ease their adjustment. It means a year of mediocrity followed by a return to normal. It happened under Bo in the 1980s when the Wolverines dropped to 6-6 in 1984 but leaped up to 10-1-1 in 1985 and finished No. 2 in the nation. It happened under Lloyd Carr in the 1990s when the Wolverines were 8-4 in 1996 and then 12-0 in 1997, when they split the national title with Nebraska.


This takes more time.


“We can play a whole lot better offensively, and we need to,” Rodriguez said Monday at his weekly press briefing. “Our execution has been there sometimes, sometimes it hasn’t. We can get better in that. There’s no question defensively, particularly the last several ballgames, we’ve not played well and given up some big plays. That’s been disappointing. But it’s not been a lack of effort. ... We’ve got another big game in front of us.


“Hopefully our defense will rise to the challenge. It’s going to take a total team effort to have a chance at this one.”


Beyond revamping - teaching an entirely new system - it’s important to realize that Michigan has very young players in key positions, none more glaring than Forcier at quarterback. True freshman are inconsistent. They show flashes of greatness, like on that game-winning drive against Notre Dame, and plenty of terrible.


There’s still a chance for Michigan to do something great this year. A win over the Rose Bowl-bound Buckeyes would sweeten the sour taste that has developed since that 4-0 start. Beyond the pride of a win over Ohio State, a sixth victory would make Michigan bowl eligible.


But that’s unlikely. The Wolverines will likely wind up 5-7 - just 1-7 in the Big Ten -with losses in seven of their last eight games. Still, 5-7 is a step up from 3-9. Last year there was a 35-17 loss to Notre Dame, where this year there was a 38-34 win over the Fighting Irish.


When Rodriguez took over Glenville State in 1990 the team went 1-7-1 his first year. Then came four wins, followed by six wins and then 10. After stints as an offensive coordinator at four schools, where there was improvement each time, he took over at West Virginia in 2001. The Mountaineers went 3-8 his first year, then came three straight years with four losses followed by an explosion to 11-1.


“Certainly, most importantly for us in the next couple Februarys is signing guys that can help on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively,” said Rodriguez. “We’ve got to make our mark in the next couple signing classes. This past year’s signing class I think helped a little bit. The next couple are critical for us, particularly addressing our defensive needs.”


This season’s promise has disappeared. There will be no meaningful game on Saturday in Ann Arbor. A game that should be the center of the college football universe the third Saturday in November won’t be this year. But Rich Rodriguez can coach, and patience still needs to be exercised.


What We Learned


The aura of invincibility that surrounded USC for the better part of the last decade is gone, torn away in dramatic fashion last Saturday afternoon.


Stanford didn’t just beat the Trojans in the Coliseum - in their own house - but annihilated USC, 55-21. The Cardinal showed that while there was real reason to fear the Trojans in past years, that there was real risk of humiliation, there is no such risk this year.


USC might be a beast again next year, or the year after that, but not now, not this year when the Trojans stand 7-3.


Carroll took over USC before the 2001 season. It was a team mired in mediocrity, a once-great program that had fallen off, been surpassed in the Pac-10. The Trojans went 6-6 his first season, but then Carroll restored them to greatness.


Between that .500 season and this year, the Trojans were simply the best team in college football. They lost just two games in 2002, and beat Iowa in the Rose Bowl. Then came a one-loss season, a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl and a share of the national championship.


And in 2004 the Trojans steamrolled the nation, rolling to a 13-0 record and undisputed national title - they beat Oklahoma 55-19 in the finale.


They lost out on a third straight national championship in 2005 when a superhuman performance by Texas quarterback Vince Young ended USC’s bid for back-to-back unbeaten seasons. Since then, the Trojans have gone 11-2 twice and 12-1 once, and they’ve won the Rose Bowl each time.


But this year is different.


There was an early season slip at Washington, but that was dismissed when the Trojans rebounded with four straight wins, including a 30-3 victory at California. Then came a 47-20 loss at Oregon, and two weeks after that Stanford took the Trojans apart.


True freshman quarterback Matt Barkley may be special, but at this point he’s not Carson Palmer, Matt Lainart, John David Booty or Mark Sanchez. And clearly the defense, which has been among the best in the nation year after year, is feeling the losses of Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews, among others.


Simply, USC has fallen off this year. For the first time since Carroll’s first year, there is vulnerability. The aura of invincibility has disappeared.


Game of the Week


This weekend’s schedule is sad.


There are rivalry games, but with Michigan not where it normally is the marquee game isn’t what it should be. And unfortunately, by coincidence, none of the top teams are playing tough games. Undefeated Texas, which is looking like a near lock to play for the national championship, hosts a Kansas team that looked like it might provide a test when the season started but is just 1-5 in the Big 12. Florida and Alabama, meanwhile, for some strange reason are not simply playing non-conference opponents but the sisters of the poor.


Top-ranked Florida hosts Florida International. Second-ranked Alabama gets a visit from Chattanooga.


Really.


It’s the week before Thanksgiving, and instead of opposition like Auburn or LSU or Ole Miss or even Vanderbilt, the Gators are playing a team from the Sun Belt. The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, don’t get Georgia or Arkansas or Kentucky. They get a team from the the Southern Conference.


At a time of year when there should be a mad dash to the BCS Championship, when there should be not merely one game that will impact who makes the title game in Pasadena on Jan. 7 but multiple games, there are none, so the best matchups are games that will merely impact conference standings, bowl position.


The most intriguing are in the Pac-10, where a pair of games will go a long way toward determining who will face Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.


Stanford, which trails Oregon by a game in the conference standings but beat the Ducks a couple of weeks ago so holds the head-to-head tiebreaker, hosts Cal in a brilliant rivalry game that once brought us one of the great plays in the history of college football. Oregon, meanwhile, is at an Arizona team that is a solid 6-3 and boasts a stout defense.


Should Stanford beat Cal and Oregon fall, it would represent a remarkable accomplishment for the Cardinal. They were 1-11 in 2006, the year before Harbaugh arrived. They went 4-8 his first season, including a monumental upset of USC in the Coliseum, then improved to 5-7 last year before making a leap this year.


But that’s all there is, the best there is to offer five days before Thanksgiving, when the race for the national championship should be front and center.


If I Had a Ballot ...


1. Alabama (10-0): All eyes will be on the Tide’s trip to Auburn next weekend.


2. Florida (10-0): The Gators are just biding their time until the SEC title game.


3. Texas (10-0): The Longhorns continue to impress on both sides of the ball, averaging 42 points and giving up less than 13.


4. TCU (10-0): The Horned Frogs essentially clinched a berth in a BCS bowl with their dominance of Utah.


5. Georgia Tech (9-1): The Rambling Wreck dismantled a decent Duke team that figured to pose problems with its prolific passing attack.


6. Cincinnati (10-0): The journey to Pitt on Dec. 5 looms.


7. Boise State (10-0): It’s been 10 weeks since the Broncos played a decent team.


8. Oregon (8-2): Arizona won’t be a pushover.


9. Ohio State (9-2): After an upset loss to Purdue, the Buckeyes have played solid football.


10. LSU (8-2): The Tigers are clearly good, but they don’t yet have a marquee win.


Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 or eavidon@cnc.com.