ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan football team have fought for a season since the moment the Big Ten announced football would be postponed. Now they’ve got what they wanted, but the 2020 season won’t be easy.
As Michigan’s schedule dropped from 12 to 10 to eight games, there were no significant changes to the conference slate. Michigan trimmed some fat by dropping the Purdue game, but otherwise, the games that matter stayed the same.
On top of the extended offseason and strange circumstances under which this season will be played, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has kept fans from learning as much about their teams as usual. Michigan has been practicing throughout the shutdown, but other than who will start at quarterback, this team remains a mystery.
It’s impossible to know what to expect from Michigan, especially with the most difficult schedule in the conference. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give our usual preseason predictions a shot.
Last season: 11-2 (beat Auburn in Outback Bowl)
Game details: Oct. 24 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Michigan hasn’t had much success against top-tier quarterbacks under Harbaugh. The Wolverines have a couple of wins against Trace McSorley and one each against Nate Stanley and Ian Book. Not the most impressive list.
Tanner Morgan might be the best quarterback not wearing an Ohio State jersey Michigan has seen in this era. Last year, what he did for Minnesota was better than any season by a quarterback in Michigan history.
Morgan threw for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 66% of his passes for an average of 10.2 yards per attempt last season. The only Michigan quarterback to throw for more yards in a season was John Navarre in 2003, and he was much worse than Morgan in touchdowns (24), interceptions (10), completion percentage (59.2%) and yards per attempt (7.3).
On the other sideline, Michigan will get its first look at Joe Milton as QB1. While reports out of camp are positive, and he obviously has the talent to be the best quarterback of the Harbaugh era, nobody really knows what to expect from a first-time starter.
The fact that his first start comes on the road against a team that won 11 games last season is enough for me to lean toward the team with an established star at quarterback.
Prediction: Loss, 27-21
Last season: 7-6 (beat Wake Forest in Pinstripe Bowl)
Game details: Oct. 31 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor
After Mark Dantonio’s abrupt departure and a hectic coaching search, this was already going to be a strange season in East Lansing. Throw in, well, everything else that’s going on in the Big Ten, and Mel Tucker has a lot to juggle.
Michigan put a beating on Michigan State for the first time in a long time last year, dropping 44 points on the Spartans and running them out of Ann Arbor. Now MSU has to return to the Big House for a second year in a row, and the talent gap hasn’t closed.
Tucker has questions to answer at quarterback, and there don’t appear to be many big playmakers on either side of the ball. Even though the Spartans always get up for this rivalry game, it would be a surprise to see Michigan drop this one at home.
Prediction: Win, 30-13
Last season: 8-5 (lost to Tennessee in Gator Bowl)
Game details: Nov. 7 at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Indiana
Since the Wolverines are hosting Michigan State for a second year in a row, they’ll have to travel to Bloomington again to balance out the home-away schedule.
Indiana fielded one of its best teams in decades last season, yet Michigan got its most comfortable win over the Hoosiers in five years.
By now, everyone knows Michigan has beaten Indiana 24 times in a row and 39 times out of 40 since 1967. But the previous four seasons before 2019 hadn’t been easy.
Harbaugh’s team needed overtime their first two trips to Bloomington in 2015 and 2017. Last year, Michigan won in a 39-14 blowout.
The return of Michael Penix Jr. should make Indiana a tricky matchup for Big Ten teams once again, but Michigan has no business losing this game, especially with less of a disadvantage on the road.
Prediction: Win, 35-27
Last season: 10-4 (won Big Ten West Division, lost to Oregon in Rose Bowl)
Game details: Nov. 14 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor
It’s hard to forget the absolute beatdown Wisconsin laid on Michigan last season, but what people seem to forget is the Wolverines did the same to the Badgers the previous year in Ann Arbor.
This will be the fifth straight season Michigan has played Wisconsin in a Big Ten crossover game, and so far, all four meetings have been won by the home team. In 2016 and 2017, the games were close. The last two seasons -- not so much.
The departures from Wisconsin’s 2019 roster are glaring. Obviously, there’s no replacing a generational running back like Jonathan Taylor. The Badgers are also without top wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who was drafted by the Detroit Lions.
How will Jack Coan fare without his top two weapons? Well, the Badgers will have one of the best offensive lines in the country, as always, and Coan is coming off a season in which he completed nearly 70% of his passes for 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Michigan will need to find a way to get pressure against that elite offensive line, because when he can stand comfortably in the pocket, Coan is good enough to pick a defense apart. Everyone knows how porous Don Brown’s defense becomes when his blitzes don’t hit home.
This is a tossup game. It could go either way, but with both teams trying to replace so much talent, I’ll stick with the home team.
Prediction: Win, 20-17
Last season: 2-10 (no bowl game)
Game details: Nov. 21 at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey
I’ve made fun of Rutgers a lot since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten, but to be fair, they could have a lot more success this season... if they moved to the MAC or the Sun Belt.
Last year, Rutgers beat UMass and Liberty for its only two wins. It lost every single Big Ten game by at least 21 points and fell to 7-45 in conference games since joining in 2014. Rutgers has finished Big Ten play 0-9 in three of the four years playing nine conference games.
Greg Schiano will get the program moving back in the right direction, but he has a deep, deep hole to dig out of.
Michigan is 5-0 with a combined score of 214-37 against Rutgers in the Harbaugh era.
Prediction: Win, 45-10
Last season: 11-2 (beat Memphis in Cotton Bowl)
Game details: Nov. 28 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor
Penn State wasn’t quite as explosive on offense last season without McSorley, but Sean Clifford took over and did a nice job, throwing for 2,654 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Once again, Penn State found itself in a New Year’s Six bowl game, and they handled No. 17 Memphis to get to 11 wins. It’s better than any season Michigan has had since 2011, but if Ronnie Bell had secured a touchdown catch to complete Michigan’s comeback in Happy Valley, things could have played out much differently.
James Franklin has a Big Ten championship at Penn State, and Harbaugh doesn’t have one at Michigan. But that has more to say about the Ohio State conundrum than any actual separation between these two programs.
Michigan outplayed Penn State on the road last season, a year after smacking the Nittany Lions by 35 points in Ann Arbor. Other than the blowout loss in 2017, Michigan has been the better team in this head-to-head rivalry.
How much will being at home matter this season? Probably not a lot, but if Milton can be at least as good as Shea Patterson was last season, Michigan should be the favorite at home.
Don’t expect another four-touchdown massacre, but Penn State hasn’t won a non-Rich Rodriguez game in Ann Arbor since 1996.
Prediction: Win, 31-24
Last season: 3-9 (no bowl game)
Game details: Dec. 5 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor
Maryland has Taulia Tagovailoa, a former top-five quarterback recruit who transferred from Alabama. That has created a buzz around the program, especially with five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett headlining a top 35 recruiting class for the Terps last cycle.
Mike Locksley got off to a hot start last season, going 2-0 with a 43-point stomping of then-No. 21 Syracuse. It was all downhill from there, though, as Maryland finished the season 0-9 with just one win over Rutgers, which hardly even counts.
Michigan went into Maryland last season and crushed Locksley’s team 38-7. Giles Jackson returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, and the Wolverines were up three scores by halftime.
Even though Tagovailoa and Jarrett will be a dangerous duo, the talent gap is still wide. Michigan should roll at home.
Prediction: Win, 42-10
Last season: 13-1 (won Big Ten title, lost to Clemson in CFP semifinal)
Game details: Dec. 12 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus
By now we all know how this goes, right?
Ohio State crushed Michigan once again last season en route to an undefeated regular season, a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff appearance.
Ryan Day brings back one of the top quarterbacks in the country and a loaded roster top to bottom. The atmosphere in the Horseshoe won’t be what Michigan usually experiences, but crowds really haven’t mattered in this game for two decades.
Unless Milton emerges as a Heisman-level quarterback in his first season, Michigan probably won’t be competitive in this game.
Prediction: Loss, 49-17
Ninth game: Iowa
Game details: Dec. 19 vs. corresponding West Division team based on standings
The Big Ten announced each team will play a ninth game during “Big Ten Champions Week," the same day as the conference title game.
The winners of the East and West divisions will meet for the Big Ten crown, and the rest of the teams will be matched up based on their final division finish -- second place in East plays second place in West, third place in East plays third place in West, etc.
Big Ten officials said they’d like to avoid two teams playing each other twice in the same season, if possible. So Michigan probably won’t play Wisconsin or Minnesota, even if they finish in the same spot in the standings. It’s possible the final standings could force a rematch, though. Nobody really knows what to expect from this new experiment.
If Michigan’s season plays out like the predictions above, it will finish second in the East behind Ohio State, assuming the Buckeyes also beat Penn State, giving Michigan the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nittany Lions if they both finish 6-2.
The West Division figures to be a three-horse race between Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. If Iowa loses at Penn State and Minnesota loses at Wisconsin, the division title could very well come down to the Iowa games against both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
It seems possible that Minnesota and Wisconsin could both finish 7-1, with Wisconsin earning the top spot thanks to a head-to-head win. If Iowa is third at 5-3, the Big Ten would likely have second-place Michigan play third-place Iowa and third-place Penn State play second-place Minnesota, since Michigan vs. Minnesota and Penn State vs. Iowa would have already happened.
There isn’t much more information about these games yet, such as location and whether fans will be allowed to attend by then. But just comparing the talent on the two rosters, Michigan would have an edge over Iowa, especially if the game is in Ann Arbor.
The 2020 edition probably wouldn’t be as low scoring as the 10-3 final last season, but I would still expect a defensive battle.
Prediction: Win, 21-13
With Ohio State and Penn State in the East Division and Wisconsin and Minnesota as crossover opponents, Michigan clearly has the most difficult schedule in the conference. Even the road game against Indiana could be a dangerous week for the Wolverines.
At best, Michigan has a chance to go 7-1 during the regular season, but it could just as easily finish 4-4. Sure, it’s an unusual year, but Harbaugh still needs to get his team back on track after another rough ending in 2019.
Michigan has traditionally been one of the best teams in the country when it hosts the Penn State and Wisconsin games, so those two days will write the story of the season. Since home field advantage is somewhat neutralized and the rosters are very comparable in terms of talent, the difference between six and four wins is razor thin.