That margin is just about gone.
The Wolverines and the Wildcats simply can't afford a letdown when they meet Saturday if they want to make something of their seasons.
Michigan got at least a little bit of a reprieve with 34-10 win over Indiana last week even if it remains embroiled in turmoil.
Athletic director David Brandon resigned a day earlier, and big questions remain about coach Brady Hoke's future.
''The whole season, there's been distractions outside of football,'' offensive lineman Jack Miller said. ''I think the team was able to kind of come together and just say, `Hey, all we can do is go out and play.' And that's what we were able to do as a team.''
For now, the focus is simply trying to become bowl-eligible.
The Wolverines (4-5, 2-3 Big Ten) must win two of their final three games to stay in the running, and with a trip to Ohio State still looming, they can't afford a letdown. A loss at Northwestern or at home to Maryland in two weeks all but knocks them out of the running before they visit the Buckeyes on Nov. 29.
The Wildcats (3-5, 2-3) are also fading from bowl contention. With three straight losses after last week's 48-7 blowout at Iowa, their margin for error is just about gone.
Here are some things to look for in this game:
LATE THEATRICS: Don't be shocked if this one has a wild finish. That is becoming the norm between Michigan and Northwestern.
The Wolverines rallied two years ago to win 38-31 in overtime in Ann Arbor with Devin Gardner delivering down the stretch. He threw a 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree that set up Brendan Gibbons' 26-yard field goal with 2 seconds left in regulation and scored on a 1-yard run in OT.
Michigan trumped that last year in Evanston, winning 27-19 in triple overtime after Gibbons and the field goal unit sprinted onto the field as the clock ticked toward zero, then made a 44-yard field goal as time expired in regulation. Gardner scored the winning TD on a 5-yard run.
''I have a chip on my shoulder knowing they stole two from us these past two years,'' Northwestern receiver Tony Jones said. ''There would be no better feeling than to go out there and dominate them this upcoming Saturday.''
JOHNSON'S FOLLOW-UP: Sophomore Drake Johnson might have earned a starting job for Michigan after a breakout performance against Indiana in which he ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee limited Johnson to just one game as a redshirt freshman last season. He was held out of spring drills and did not get much of an opportunity until the Hoosiers game.
''I think he has continued to develop and progress, and they'll compete,'' Hoke said. ''They'll compete for it (the starting job) like they always do. I would say De'Veon Smith right now, he's fine. We'll see what happens.''
SEEKING SPARK: How brutal was last week's game for Northwestern?
The Wildcats managed a season-low 180 yards while giving up a season-high 483. They got outscored 24-0 in the first quarter, and Trevor Siemian completed 8 of 18 passes for 68 yards in the game.
GARDNER GETS GOING: Gardner, bothered by an ankle injury the past few weeks, threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns last week. It was the first time this season he surpassed 200 yards passing after hitting that mark eight times last year.
MILESTONE MARCH: With 726 yards, Northwestern's Justin Jackson is trying to become the third Wildcat since 2006 to run for 1,000 as a freshman along with Tyrell Sutton (1,000 in 2006) and Venric Mark (1,366 in 2012). Jackson will be tested this week by a team allowing 3.1 yards per rush - tied second in the Big Ten.