ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The 2020 Michigan football season is a full eight months away, but anyone who’s been paying attention over the last five years should know pretty well what’s going to happen.
Michigan finished a disappointing 2019 season with a loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday. The Wolverines played a strong first half and went into the break with a lead, but as they have so often under Jim Harbaugh, they wilted in the second half, ultimately losing by three scores.
Some people expected Michigan to win the Big Ten and perhaps make an appearance in the College Football Playoff this season, but losses to the four best team on the schedule dashed those hopes. There won’t be any such predictions when this August rolls around.
Michigan is a tradition-rich program, but right now the tradition is losing one early game, ripping off a mid-season winning streak, going into the Ohio State game with one or two losses, losing that game and then falling short in a solid but ultimately disappointing bowl game. It’s like clockwork.
With that in mind, here’s a game-by-game look at what Michigan could do next season.
This season: 8-5 -- beat Boise State in Las Vegas Bowl
Many people will look at a Washington team that lost its head coach and NFL-caliber quarterback and predict Michigan to start the season with a win. But that would be out of character for the Wolverines.
Even with a new quarterback, Washington is likely to be ranked to begin the 2020 season, and it’s common knowledge how Michigan has performed against ranked teams on the road. Husky Stadium is regarded as one of the toughest atmospheres on the West Coast, and Michigan will travel there with a new starting quarterback of its own.
Whether the job is won by Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton, playing at Washington is a tough way to kick off a career. When’s the last time Michigan overcame something like that to win a game on the road?
This feels a lot like the Wisconsin game this season. It’ll be the team’s first road game against a program breaking in a new quarterback and coming off a five-loss season. Michigan got popped by the Badgers, and while Washington might not have that kind of firepower, it should still win at home.
Prediction: L, 28-20
Ball State (home)
This season: 5-7 -- no bowl game
Michigan’s non-conference slate is much more manageable after the trip to Washington, and it should be able to bounce back with a win over Ball State.
A closer-than-anticipated game against the Cardinals in 2006 might have cost Michigan a chance at a rematch with Ohio State in the national championship, and this is the first time Ball State has returned to the Big House since.
Based on how Michigan’s recent seasons have gone, the new starting quarterback will put a shaky first performance behind him and look incredible against Ball State. The question will be whether he can sustain that level of play against top competition.
Prediction: W, 49-7
Arkansas State (home)
This season: 8-5 -- beat Florida International in Camellia Bowl
Most people will consider Arkansas State another non-conference rollover game, and although Michigan should obviously win, the Red Wolves are much better than Ball State.
Arkansas State has finished with a winning record each of the last nine seasons, winning four bowl games in that span. It’s an established winning program capable of scaring a Power Five team, so Michigan can’t look ahead to the grueling schedule that follows.
All that considered, Michigan should still take care of Arkansas State, especially in Ann Arbor. Barring a disaster, the Wolverines would finish the non-conference season 2-1.
Prediction: W, 38-17
This season: 10-4 -- lost to Oregon in Rose Bowl
Wisconsin was a vastly improved team this season after an outlier 2018 saw it lose five games. With Jonathan Taylor likely moving on to the NFL, this team will need a new leader on offense.
Jack Coan stepped in and proved to be a solid Big Ten quarterback this season, so the Badgers will be much more established at the most important position. If Quintez Cephus -- who caught 59 passes for 901 yards and seven touchdowns this season -- returns for his senior year, the passing attack will be strong.
Wisconsin will almost certainly be 3-0 coming into Ann Arbor, making this a top 20-type battle. It’s exactly the type of home game Michigan would win to get the hype train rolling again.
This year’s meeting was such a blowout that many people forget Michigan has handled Wisconsin at home the last two meetings. Only two Big Ten teams have been able to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Wisconsin isn’t one of them.
Prediction: W, 24-21
Penn State (home)
This season: 11-2 -- beat Memphis in Cotton Bowl
Like Wisconsin, Penn State took its quarterback change in stride this season, riding Sean Clifford to 11 wins and a Cotton Bowl title.
K.J. Hamler is moving onto the NFL draft, but Penn State will still have an elite defense and a returning quarterback. Expect the Nittany Lions to compete at the top of the conference once again.
The Michigan-Penn State rivalry has closely mirrored the one between Michigan and Wisconsin. Both teams have held serve at home over the last four meetings, with three being blowouts.
Michigan nearly stole one in Happy Valley this season, but a 21-point comeback fell one drop in the end zone short. Now Penn State has to make a return trip to Ann Arbor. Advantage: Michigan.
One of these two home games -- Wisconsin or Penn State -- is likely to be a night game. That atmosphere will be electric, especially if Michigan is coming off a win over undefeated Wisconsin. Again, these are the types of games that have kept Michigan near the top of the Big Ten East under Harbaugh.
Prediction: W, 34-27
Michigan State (away)
This season: 7-6 -- beat Wake Forest in Pinstripe Bowl
Michigan State is no longer a team that competes for Big Ten championships and playoff appearances, but there’s still a lot of pride in East Lansing, especially when it comes to the Michigan game.
Mark Dantonio has had a rough few years since the Spartans made the playoff in 2015. He’s just 27-24 over that span with at least six losses in three of the last four seasons.
Michigan State won at least 11 games five times from 2010 to 2015, but every season it seems less and less likely to return to that level of play. As the gap between Michigan and Michigan State widens on the field, it’s been reflected in recruiting.
Maybe it will be a blessing for the Spartans to move on from veteran quarterback Brian Lewerke. Living largely on the shoulders of his 2017 performance, Lewerke handicapped the Michigan State offense the last two years. Injuries have also been a significant issue, but it often felt like the Spartans simply needed a change.
Since Dantonio seems unlikely to make that change in the coaching staff, the program needs to hit on a quarterback to get the ship moving back in the right direction.
Even throughout its recent struggles, Michigan State has managed to field a strong defense. There’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case again next season. With the game in East Lansing, this certainly isn’t a lock for Michigan, despite the obvious talent gap.
Prediction: W, 29-22
This season: 11-2 -- beat Auburn in Outback Bowl
Nobody was surprised to see Wisconsin bounce back this season, or that Ohio State win the Big Ten, or that Rutgers went win-less in conference play. But nobody saw 11 wins in Minnesota’s future.
P.J. Fleck deserves a ton of credit for Minnesota’s improvement throughout the season. The Golden Gophers could have lost to South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern the first three weeks of the season, but instead, they escaped with three close wins and turned that into a nine-game winning streak.
A win over No. 4 Penn State established Minnesota as a legitimate threat. Had it survived a close road test against No. 20 Iowa, Minnesota would have represented the West Division in the conference title game.
Instead, Fleck settled for a bowl win over No. 12 Auburn. His team will finish 2019 ranked right around the top 10.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan will return next season after completing 66% of his passes for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a first-year starter. Rodney Smith will finally be out of eligibility, but Minnesota has a host of talented running backs and receivers.
For the first time in a long time, Michigan will likely be an underdog in the battle for the Little Brown Jug. And based on what we saw from these two teams in 2019, it would be justified.
Prediction: L, 32-24
This season: 4-8 -- no bowl game
The momentum Jeff Brohm had built in West Lafayette came to a screeching halt this season as injuries knocked Purdue back among the Big Ten bottom dwellers.
Most teams wouldn’t be able to overcome injuries to the starting quarterback and star receiver, and that was the case for Purdue. Elijah Sindelar played in only three games while Rondale Moore was limited to four.
This will be Purdue’s first trip to Michigan Stadium since 2011. It’ll be the last meeting between the two teams until the Boilermakers return to Ann Arbor in 2023.
Brohm has done a great job improving the roster and has superstars such as Moore and George Karlaftis. Purdue is capable of pulling off an upset -- just ask the 2018 Buckeyes.
But this will be one of Michigan’s easier Big Ten games next year, so it needs to take care of business.
Prediction: W, 42-14
This season: 3-9 -- no bowl game
Remember when Maryland was 2-0 and ranked No. 21 in the country? If not, I can’t blame you.
Maryland was exposed as a pretender in Mike Locksley’s first year at the helm, losing nine of its last 10 games with only a win over Rutgers. The Terrapins lost to Temple. They lost to Purdue by 26 points. They lost to a bad Nebraska team by 47 at home.
Where does Maryland go from here? It’s hard to say. The rest of the Big Ten East is so far ahead of the Terps, and even Rutgers won’t be a pushover (for Maryland) with Greg Schiano taking over.
A bowl game looks like a long shot for Maryland again next season.
Prediction: W, 45-10
This season: 2-10 -- no bowl game
We make fun of Rutgers a lot here at ClickOnDetroit, but to be fair, well -- OK, making fun of Rutgers is fair. Since joining the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have been an embarrassment, and that continued with an 0-9 conference record in 2019.
But one of the few things the school could do to potentially revitalize its football program was hire Schiano, and that’s ultimately what happened. He’s putting together a coaching staff that will recruit competitively in talent-rich New Jersey, and at the very least, Rutgers should be more competitive.
Will that happen next season? Probably not. Rutgers has such an established history as a Big Ten laughingstock that it might take a few years for Schiano to get back to a bowl game. But it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Scarlet Knights win a conference game or two at home next year.
Michigan has to make the trip to Piscataway, and although it might not be another 50-point blowout this time, the Wolverines should have enough of a talent advantage to win.
Prediction: W, 38-17
This season: 8-4 -- playing Tennessee in Gator Bowl
Michigan fans will be absolutely shocked to learn the Indiana game is one week before a trip to Ohio State -- again.
The Hoosiers have had an excellent season in 2019, winning eight regular season games. But a quick glance at the schedule shows Indiana is still well behind the top tier of the conference.
Indiana’s four losses came to the four teams that have contended for Big Ten East titles since the division came into existence: Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan.
Tom Allen took a major step in the right direction by taking care of all the games he was supposed to win. Beating in-state rival Purdue on the road was a nice way to polish off the season.
Michigan expected to get its usual battle from Indiana on the road this season, but that game actually turned into a blowout. With the match-up returning to Ann Arbor in 2020, expect the Wolverines to win a 25th straight game over the Hoosiers -- even if it’s closer than expected.
Prediction: W, 33-21
Ohio State (away)
This season: 13-1 -- lost to Clemson in Fiesta Bowl (CFP semifinal)
Ryan Day led one of the most talented Ohio State teams ever to a Big Ten title and playoff appearance this season, and even with several defensive players heading to the NFL, Ohio State will likely win the conference again next year.
Justin Fields returns for another season after throwing 41 touchdowns and three interceptions this year. Master Teague takes over as the next monster in the backfield. Ohio State will simply reload and be one of the most talented teams in the nation once again.
With the game in Columbus, Michigan will be a massive underdog. This game hasn’t been close since 2016, and the talent gap hasn’t closed at all, so what reason is there to expect a different result?
Prediction: L, 52-16
Michigan has lost between three and five games every season under Harbaugh, so another 9-3 regular season wouldn’t be a surprise.
The wins over Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Indiana would be enough to keep Michigan in the top 20, but losing its three biggest road games would ultimately be the talking point a year from now.
Michigan is in a much better spot heading into this decade than it was in 2010, but there’s no sign the program is ready to take the next step into the elite tier.
Until Michigan beats Ohio State, it will be difficult to close the gap in recruiting. Until Michigan closes the gap in recruiting, it will be difficult to beat Ohio State. For now, the program is firmly entrenched in a group that includes Penn State and Wisconsin behind the Buckeyes.
In years when Michigan hosts Penn State and Wisconsin, it typically stays in the playoff hunt until the final weekend in November. But road games at Washington and Minnesota look like tall tasks for a team that has a history of road struggles and is breaking in a new quarterback.
Michigan football isn’t a disaster anymore, but it’s certainly become repetitive. Like an episode of Psych, the villains might change next season, but the script will ultimately stay the same.