ANN ARBOR, Mich. – For the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan football has a losing record multiple games into a season. Looking at the rest of the schedule, the Wolverines could quickly get back on track or fly off the rails.
No matter what Michigan does over the next month, the 2020 season won’t be viewed as a success. The Wolverines lost to a bad Michigan State team and were completely outclassed by Indiana. We all know a loss to Ohio State at the end of the eight-game regular season is inevitable.
But that doesn’t mean these next four games are meaningless. They will determine if 2020 is a minor speed bump or the type of disaster that cripples recruiting and sparks wholesale changes.
So much has changed since the start of the Big Ten season -- from Wisconsin’s COVID-19 outbreak to the perceptions of Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.
Here’s how Michigan could win or lose every single game between now and Ohio State.
How Michigan could win: Michigan’s chances to beat Wisconsin essentially hinge on how well the Badgers bounce back from their COVID-19 outbreak. More than a dozen players have been shut down for 21 days due to the virus, and while some of them -- including starting quarterback Graham Mertz -- are eligible to return for the Michigan game, they’ll only have a few days of practice after two and a half weeks off. Many of the players who were isolated haven’t been identified, so it’s difficult to know exactly how great the impact will be on Wisconsin. If it’s significant, Michigan will have a chance.
How Michigan could lose: If Wisconsin is anywhere close to full strength, it shouldn’t have much of a problem handling Michigan this weekend. Mertz looks like a budding star at quarterback, and Michigan’s defense was dreadful before losing one of its best players in Aidan Hutchinson. The Badgers have only played one game -- and that came against a bad Illinois team. But not playing at all is better than what Michigan has done the last two weeks, so the edge definitely belongs to Wisconsin.
How Michigan could win: Because it’s Rutgers.
How Michigan could lose: Greg Schiano has the Scarlet Knights playing much better this season, and his team stomped Michigan State one week before the Spartans beat Michigan. Even last week’s Ohio State loss was respectable, as Rutgers scored 27 points on the Buckeyes and only lost by 22. This trip to Piscataway will be Michigan’s toughest since 2014.
How Michigan could win: A one-point loss to Indiana is understandable, as is losing to Ohio State. But when Penn State fell to Maryland by 16 points last weekend, something was clearly wrong. Penn State and Michigan are the two most disappointing teams in the Big Ten this season, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Wolverines win at home.
How Michigan could lose: While Michigan was completely outplayed by Indiana last week, Penn State dominated the Hoosiers for most of their matchup, despite the loss. The Nittany Lions out-gained Indiana 488 yards to 211 yards. Sean Clifford can still make plays, and Jahan Dotson will shred the Michigan secondary. This could be reminiscent of the 2014 night game, when a bad Michigan team beat a bad Penn State team in an ugly 18-13 battle that didn’t have any significance.
How Michigan could win: Maryland started the season with a 40-point loss to Northwestern, and that quickly made the Terrapins frontrunners for worst team in the Big Ten. Michigan also has a sizable talent advantage, which showed in the dominant win over Minnesota, a team Maryland beat by one point thanks to a missed PAT.
How Michigan could lose: Maryland has been the anti-Michigan this season -- starting with a disastrous performance and trending upward in the weeks since. The Terps mounted a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback to beat Minnesota, then bullied Penn State on the road. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa -- have you heard he’s Tua’s brother? -- is completing 67.4% of his passes for an average of 9 yards per attempt.
At the start of the season, Rutgers and Maryland felt like cakewalks, but now that’s no longer the case. Rutgers has proven it can win a game and at least put up a fight against the best teams in the league, while Maryland looks revamped behind Tagovailoa.
Penn State is off to a brutal start, but at some point, James Franklin’s team is going to show the potential that inspired its top 10 preseason ranking. Wisconsin, despite dealing with so much uncertainty, is probably the best team in the conference behind Ohio State.
Michigan could technically finish anywhere from 5-3 to 1-7, but will likely land somewhere in the middle. These next four weeks will determine if 2020 is simply forgettable, or memorable for all the wrong reasons.