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Early look at 6 toughest games on next year’s Michigan football schedule

Michigan schedule highlighted by four difficult road tests

Jim Harbaugh of looks on during the first quarter against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Jim Harbaugh of looks on during the first quarter against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As the Michigan football team prepares for its Citrus Bowl match-up with Alabama, many fans have likely turned their attention to the 2020 schedule.

The game against Alabama on New Year’s Day will be a chance for this year’s team to go out on a high note, but there’s not really much on the line. Michigan can’t win a national title, a Big Ten title or even a New Year’s Six bowl. The Citrus Bowl is more about practicing, recruiting and bragging rights at this point.

How can the fan base cope with another solid but disappointing season? It turns its collective attention to 2020, when the Wolverines will once again try to get over the hump and win the loaded Big Ten East Division.

This year, Michigan’s season was really defined by six games: loses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State as well as big wins over Iowa, Notre Dame and Michigan State. Most people will only remember that the team lost three games, but it also crushed rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State by a combined score of 89-24.

Next year’s schedule has a similar feel, with half the games posing difficult tests.

Washington

Game details: Sept. 5 (Week 1) in Seattle

Notre Dame is off the schedule for the next decade, but that doesn’t mean Michigan will join the growing trend of scheduling non-conference cupcakes.

The Wolverines will open the season on the road against what will likely be a top 25 team. The Huskies lost five games this season but had been a staple in the top 10 the previous three seasons, going a combined 32-9.

There are some unanswered questions surrounding the Washington program. Chris Peterson, who had led Washington to a playoff appearance and three straight New year’s Six bowl games, abruptly announced he was leaving the program, leaving it in the hands of his defensive coordinator, Jimmy Lake.

How will Washington respond to the change in leadership? That remains to be seen. The transition will also depend heavily on quarterback Jacob Eason’s decision to remain at Washington or declare for the NFL draft.

Eason is widely regarded as an early round draft pick, though probably not one of the top handful of quarterbacks. The Georgia transfer completed 63.8% of his passes this season for 2,922 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

If he returns for a fifth year, the Huskies’ offense will be a major test for a Michigan team that will at least lose Lavert Hill, Josh Metellus, Khaleke Hudson, Jordan Glasgow and Carlo Kemp.

Michigan hasn’t played well on the road under Jim Harbaugh, and doing so in the first game with a new starting quarterback will be a challenge. It’s also a great opportunity to set the tone for a strong season.

Wisconsin

Game details: Sept. 26 (Week 4) in Ann Arbor

That’s right: Michigan will play Wisconsin in a division crossover game for the fifth year in a row. The Wolverines have consistently played the toughest conference schedule since Harbaugh arrived, and that won’t change with the Badgers coming to town next year.

Wisconsin embarrassed Michigan in Madison this year, going up 35-0 before cruising to an easy win. It was the first obvious sign that Michigan wasn’t the Big Ten title contender everyone expected. Meanwhile, the Badgers went on to give Ohio State a scare in the conference title game.

Wisconsin will be the favorite in the Big Ten West Division once again. After falling to 8-5 under Alex Hornibrook in 2018, Jack Coan helped steady the ship and get Wisconsin back to double-digit wins this year.

Michigan has won both home games against Wisconsin under Harbaugh, including a 25-point blowout in 2018. Even though Jonathan Taylor will likely move on to the NFL, the Badgers will still have a studly offensive line, a strong defense and a returning quarterback.

Just like it was in 2019, starting Big Ten play against Wisconsin will be a tall task for Michigan.

Penn State

Game details: Oct. 3 (Week 5) in Ann Arbor

If Michigan can survive Wisconsin, its reward will be immediately turning around to play fellow Big Ten East power Penn State.

This season, Michigan and Penn State played a close game for the first time in five years. Penn State rode a whiteout crowd to a 21-0 lead before Michigan cut it to seven points and had the game-tying pass dropped in the end zone.

Michigan blew out Penn State by 35 and 39 points the last two meetings in Ann Arbor. It also won by double digits on the road in 2015. Penn State won a 29-point blowout at home in 2017.

Sean Clifford had a strong first season as a starting quarterback, throwing 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions while completing 59.5% of his attempts.

Speedy receiver K.J. Hamler will be back, too, after burning Michigan for six catches, 108 yards and two scores this season.

This will be an important game as it could very likely decide which team finishes second in the Big Ten East.

Michigan State

Game details: Oct. 10 (Week 6) in East Lansing

Harbaugh won’t get a break after back-to-back battles with Wisconsin and Penn State.

Michigan crushed its in-state rival this season, beating Michigan State for the third time in four seasons and leaving head coach Mark Dantonio’s future up in the air.

Will Dantonio fight his way out of the corner as he’s done so many times before, or are the Spartans in for a third-straight disappointing season. Either way, when Michigan goes into East Lansing, it’s never easy.

The Spartans will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and several new faces on both sides of the ball. Michigan State’s recruiting has dipped the last couple of cycles, so Dantonio will need to continue to develop and get the most out of his players.

Between new quarterbacks and coaching questions, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding next year’s match-up. But even when Michigan is the better team, MSU typically finds a way to keep it close in East Lansing.

Minnesota

Game details: Oct. 17 (Week 7) in Minneapolis

The final game of a grueling four-week stretch for Michigan comes on the road against a Minnesota team that nearly went to the Big Ten championship game this year.

P.J. Fleck led Minnesota to 10 wins for the first time since 2003. The Golden Gophers were in the playoff hunt until the final week of the season.

The league’s breakout quarterback, Tanner Morgan, will return next year after throwing for 2.975 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions this season. He completed 66.1% of his attempts for an average of 10.3 yards per throw.

Highlighted by a win over Penn State, Fleck has Minnesota on the right path, and this edition of the battle for the Little Brown Jug should be more competitive than when Michigan beat Minnesota by 23 points in 2017.

The Gophers also have a tough schedule leading up to this game. They host Iowa in mid-September and travel to Wisconsin the week before hosting Michigan. Both teams will already be battle tested by Oct. 17.

Ohio State

Game details: Nov. 28 (Week 13) in Columbus

Upsets happen all the time in college football, but it would be disingenuous to say Michigan has much of a chance against Ohio State next season.

Not only have the Buckeyes won 15 of the last 16 meetings, they also ran away with a 29-point win in Ann Arbor this season. With the game in Columbus and quarterback Justin Fields back for another year, there isn’t much reason to believe Michigan can make up that 30-point gap.

Crazier things have happened in college sports, but until Michigan wins this game, there’s no reason to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Ryan Day hasn’t missed a beat since taking over for Urban Meyer, both on the field and on the recruiting trail. The gap between these two programs is still wide, and next year’s match-up figures to demonstrate more of the same.


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