ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Success can be a difficult word to define in college football.
When Jim Harbaugh led the Michigan football team to a 10-3 record in 2015, it was widely viewed as a major success. The 10-3 records in 2016 and 2018 -- not so much.
There’s a lot that goes into the formula for determining success in this sport. Preseason expectations are a big part of the equation. Conference and national championships are obviously key factors. Even a simple win over a rival is enough for some people to celebrate a season.
College sports aren’t like professional sports. They aren’t cut and dry. In the NFL, there are clear rules that determine which teams go to the playoffs, where they finish in the division, etc.
But if Rutgers finished this season with a 4-4 records, its fan base would feel much better than Ohio State fans if the Buckeyes went 7-1 and got left out of the College Football Playoff.
With so many factors and variables baked into the word “success,” what would it take for Michigan to come away from 2020 feeling good about its season?
1. Beat Ohio State
This one’s pretty simple: If Michigan can find a way to upset Ohio State this year, the 2020 season would be remembered as a success, assuming the Wolverines don’t lose a bunch of games beforehand.
Michigan hasn’t gotten a win in the rivalry since 2011, and this certainly doesn’t look like the year for that to change. Ohio State has a better roster top to bottom and one of the best players in the country at quarterback.
It would be a huge surprise for Michigan to even stay competitive in this game, considering how lopsided most of these matchups have been. The home field advantage won’t be as strong this season, but going to Columbus is still never easy.
A win over Ohio State and at least a 6-2 record overall would be a step in the right direction for Harbaugh’s team. Michigan just needs to put that losing streak in the rearview mirror.
2. Any 7-1 record
Normally, a seven-win season would be a disaster for Michigan, but considering there are only eight games on the regular-season schedule, that would be a resounding success for 2020.
The way I see it, any possible combination of seven wins and one loss would feel like a great season. If that loss is to Ohio State, Michigan would still have a rivalry win against Michigan State and three excellent wins against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State.
If the loss is to any other team, that means Michigan would finish the season with a win over Ohio State and likely a top five ranking. Even if that loss is to rival MSU, Michigan fans would be crazy not to call that a success.
Depending on the opening line for the Minnesota game, there’s a chance Michigan will be favored in its first seven games. If not, the Wolverines will be very slight underdogs. It’s not unreasonable to think about Michigan winning seven games.
3. Big Ten title game appearance
Michigan doesn’t have to win a Big Ten title to consider 2020 a success, but simply making it to Indianapolis would be a great start.
To be fair, this probably wouldn’t happen without at least one of the above scenarios, but it’s possible. Even if a 6-2 Michigan team somehow made the Big Ten title game thanks to tiebreakers, it would be a massive weight off Harbaugh’s back to finally win the East Division.
To get to Indy with two losses, Michigan would probably have to beat both Ohio State and Penn State. Penn State would have to beat Ohio State and lose another game, giving Michigan the head-to-head tiebreaker with both.
Or, if Michigan went 7-1 with a loss to Penn State or Ohio State, getting in via a three-way tie would be the first break to go this team’s way in a decade.
The bottom line: It doesn’t really matter how it happens. If Michigan found itself in the Big Ten title game, 2020 would be a successful season.
4. Joe Milton develops into championship caliber QB
There’s only one non-record-dependent way Michigan come away with a positive 2020 season: Joe Milton setting the stage for an incredible 2021.
Michigan has been a quarterback away from getting to the College Football Playoff at least twice in the Harbaugh era. Even if Milton struggles early in the season, improving to a point in which Michigan can build a championship caliber roster around him would make 2020 worth it.
Ohio State always has great quarterbacks. Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin have had some really good quarterbacks the past decade. Even Minnesota has a star under center right now.
But Michigan can’t say the same. If it takes a couple bumps in the road during the 2020 season to buck that trend, so be it.