ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Nobody really knows what to expect from Michigan football this season.
Unlike in years past, Jim Harbaugh’s team will begin 2021 completely under the radar. Thanks to a 2-4 record last season and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff, the Wolverines are unranked in the preseason polls.
Maybe it’s better that way.
Michigan has the talent to overachieve this year, but a lot has to fall into place. Can Cade McNamara be a quality Big Ten quarterback? Will a younger coaching staff have success reviving a defense that was torn to shreds a year ago?
READ: Trying to separate Michigan’s true offensive stars from the preseason darlings
Before 2020, Michigan was always competitive under Harbaugh. Soon we’ll find out if the shortened season was just a bump in the road, or the beginning of the end.
The Wolverines have one of the toughest schedules in the country, featuring five AP top 25 opponents. Here are predictions for all 12 matchups on the schedule, and a bowl game.
Last season: 4-2
As football returns to Ann Arbor this weekend, many will assume Michigan can coast through Week 1 against the usual MAC punching bag.
But don’t take Western Michigan lightly.
The Broncos are led by star quarterback Kaleb Eleby, a legitimate NFL draft prospect with the ability to pick apart a weak secondary. Michigan fans who watched last season are probably still sensitive about the term “weak secondary.”
Eleby completed 64.7% (99 of 153) of his attempts last season for an average of 11.2 yards while throwing 18 touchdown passes and two interceptions. In his college career, Eleby has thrown for 2,807 yards and 28 touchdowns with just five picks.
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The defensive side of the ball was another story. Western Michigan surrendered 34.2 points per game -- almost as much as Don Brown’s defense. Obviously, Michigan’s playmakers will be champing at the bit to do some damage.
This is far from a gimme for Michigan, especially considering how much the defense struggled against accurate passing attacks a year ago. But I still think the Wolverines will survive.
Prediction: Win, 37-27
No. 20 Washington
Last season: 3-1
We didn’t learn much about Washington last year, as one-third of its games were canceled due to COVID. But the Huskies are expected to be one of the top teams in the Pac-12.
Defense is the calling card for Washington, though it will be without star linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui due to injury. The Huskies allowed 25 points per game last season in four Pac-12 contests, but nearly every key contributor is back for 2021.
Michigan will have to find a way to get to quarterback Dylan Morris, who was named the starter again this season. Morris, a former four-star and top 200 recruit, finished 2020 with a 60.9% completion rate, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Washington is probably a better team than Michigan, but night games at the Big House are an advantage. I don’t feel good about this one, but I’m leaning toward Michigan pulling an upset under the lights.
Prediction: Win, 27-24
Last season: 0-6
Everyone knows what the storyline will be when Northern Illinois visits Ann Arbor: the return of Rocky Lombardi.
The former Michigan State quarterback had the game of his career last season at Michigan Stadium, completing 17 of 32 attempts for 323 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the most shocking result of Michigan’s season, as the Wolverines lost to their in-state rival despite being favored by three touchdowns.
Lombardi transferred to Northern Illinois this offseason, a team that failed to win a game in the MAC. The Huskies allowed 38.7 points per game on defense and couldn’t run the ball on offense. It was a mess for a normally formidable MAC program.
If Michigan does beat Washington, there could be a hangover effect. But the Wolverines should be able to survive Lombardi this time.
Prediction: Win, 35-14
Last season: 3-6
Rutgers was a vastly improved football team last year, which is no surprise to anyone familiar with Greg Schiano. He’s sparked new excitement within the program and is making strides both on the field and in recruiting.
Last season, Michigan needed three overtimes to survive a trip to Piscataway. It was the best game of McNamara’s career, but once again exposed weaknesses in all three levels of the Wolverine defense.
Rutgers returns a trio of offensive playmakers and captains that could be a problem for Michigan once again: quarterback Noah Vedral, running back Isaih Pacheco and receiver Bo Melton. Vedral threw for 381 yards against Michigan last season, while Melton had seven grabs for 109 yards and a score.
As long as Schiano is around, Michigan can no longer just show up to the field and beat Rutgers by five touchdowns. Still, in Ann Arbor, this is a matchup that should favor the Wolverines.
Prediction: Win, 38-20
At No. 12 Wisconsin
Last season: 4-3
For the sixth season in a row, Michigan has to play Wisconsin, the clear favorite in the Big Ten West.
This series has been dominated by the home team, but Wisconsin went into the Big House and absolutely embarrassed Michigan during the shortened 2020 campaign. In the last two seasons combined, Wisconsin has popped Michigan by a combined score of 84-25.
There aren’t any obvious signs that this year’s matchup will be different. The Badgers are considered the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten behind Graham Mertz and a stout defense. It should be another rough trip to Madison.
Prediction: Loss, 31-14
Last season: 3-5
This is one of the games that will define the 2021 season for Michigan. Most of the schedule is made up of obvious wins or losses, but this trip to Nebraska feels like a tossup.
Nebraska looked absolutely awful in its opener against Illinois, allowing 28 unanswered points after jumping ahead 9-2. Scott Frost is getting a bit uncomfortable in his seat, and he’ll be looking to outhit Michigan in the first matchup in Lincoln since 2012.
Adrian Martinez struggles with consistency, but he still managed to pass for 232 yards and run for 111 more against Illinois. As long as he’s on the field, Michigan is in danger, especially on the road.
Picking Michigan in 50-50 road games always feels like playing with fire, but I do think the Wolverines are more talented this season.
Prediction: Win, 34-30
Last season: 7-2
Northwestern is starting to become a regular contender in the Big Ten West and is coming off another division title in 2020.
Pat Fitzgerald has the Wildcats feeling optimistic heading into 2021, even though they have the fewest returning starters in the conference. Clemson transfer and former five-star recruit Hunter Johnson is perhaps the biggest question mark, as he earns the starting nod at quarterback.
Here’s the thing: Northwestern very well could be 6-0 or 5-1 entering the Michigan game. The Wildcats have one of the easiest schedules in the country and should be feeling good about themselves by mid-October.
On the other hand, Northwestern was statistically one of the most fortunate teams in the nation in terms of turnover rate, and that flipped a couple of potential close losses into wins. With so many new starters and some regression coming, Northwestern shouldn’t be favored at the Big House.
Prediction: Win, 26-18
At Michigan State
Last season: 2-5
I hate trying to predict the Michigan-Michigan State game. There never seems to be any rhyme or reason to it, and last year was the epitome of a “throw out the records” game.
Michigan State lost to Rutgers in the season opener last year while Michigan crushed a ranked Minnesota team on the road. The following week, with Michigan favored to win handily, the Spartans dominated for 60 minutes in Ann Arbor.
What does that mean for this year? Probably nothing, if previous installments of this rivalry are any indication. What we do know is Mel Tucker has to be taken seriously, and I’m not sure Michigan felt that way last Halloween.
Michigan State has as many question marks as Michigan heading into this season. They were the two worst teams in the Big Ten East -- a distinction neither is familiar with. I personally have no idea what to expect from Year 2 of the Tucker era.
The road team has won five of the last six meetings, and Michigan’s pass defense should be at least marginally better this season. I’ll take the visitors in another dogfight, but nothing would surprise me.
Prediction: Win, 24-21
No. 17 Indiana
Last season: 6-2
I realize at this point I’ve got Michigan at 7-1, which is funny because I don’t consider myself to be particularly high on this team. The schedule just happens to be very back-loaded.
Indiana will travel to the Big House coming off its first win over Michigan in any of its players’ lifetimes. It was a decisive one, too: The 38-21 score doesn’t even feel like it fully captures how dominant the Hoosiers were.
This year, it’s Indiana that enters with lofty expectations, ranked inside the AP’s top 20. After losing to Michigan every meeting since 1987, could the Hoosiers make it two wins in a row?
Michael Penix Jr. is back to lead what should be a dangerous offense, especially with Ty Fryfogle as his No. 1 target. How Penix responds after an offseason rehabbing a torn ACL will be a key factor for the Hoosiers offense.
Defensively, Tom Allen’s teams always seem to get after the passer. That allowed Indiana to hold opponents to 20.3 points per game last season -- third-best in the Big Ten.
As long as Penix stays healthy, Indiana should be dangerous once again.
Prediction: Loss, 34-27
At No. 19 Penn State
Last season: 4-5
Michigan really helped Penn State turn its season around last year. The Nittany Lions were 0-5 when they visited the Big House, and the Wolverines didn’t even put up a fight, sleepwalking to a 27-17 loss.
Penn State won out from there, finishing 4-5 and feeling much better coming into this season. Michigan hasn’t won in Happy Valley since 2015, and with the exception of 2019, it hasn’t been close.
Sean Clifford has had an up-and-down career, but he’s more proven than any of Michigan’s options under center. This is also one of the few teams in the conference that can stack up with the Wolverines in terms of raw talent.
Until Harbaugh proves he can win this type of road game, there’s no reason to expect it.
Prediction: Loss, 28-16
Last season: 2-3
Like the Nebraska game, this is a road contest that could go either way for Michigan. The Terrapins have showed signs of moving in the right direction in recent years, and Mike Locksley is recruiting at a high level.
For Michigan, the trip to Maryland is a perfect trap scenario. The Wolverines will be coming off a visit to Penn State and looking ahead to the Ohio State game.
At the same time, this is a chance for a signature win for Maryland, which probably won’t be competing for much more than a bowl game this season. A lot can happen over the 10 weeks leading up to this game, and one of the key questions will be: Does Michigan show up?
Taulia Tagovailoa has the potential to be a game-changer at quarterback, and former Michigan commit Branden Jennings is earning rave reviews on the defensive side of the ball at Maryland camp. Michigan fans probably aren’t paying much attention to this game when they glance at the schedule, but they’d better hope the team isn’t approaching it the same way.
Michigan’s talent should give it the edge, but Maryland is a matchup to keep an eye on. This feels like it could be a one-score game or even come down to the final drive.
Prediction: Win, 31-30
No. 4 Ohio State
Last season: 7-1
As always, the final game of the regular season will pit Michigan against Ohio State. Even though the Buckeyes are breaking in a new quarterback, they’re the obvious choice to win the Big Ten.
Michigan will host The Game in Ann Arbor for the second time in a row after the 2020 meeting was canceled by COVID.
Former top 50 recruit C.J. Stroud is Ohio State’s starting quarterback, and he’s got all the tools to be the next Heisman Trophy candidate to emerge from Columbus.
The faces change, but the challenge remains the same for Michigan in this matchup. Can the Wolverines overcome a talent gap as well as the mental block that has allowed Ohio State to control the rivalry for decades?
Prediction: Loss, 52-17
Bowl prediction: Music City Bowl
If Michigan finishes the season 8-4 with a 5-3 record in the Big Ten, it will earn a decent bowl game against an SEC opponent. That’s not the type of matchup that’s gone well for the Wolverines in the past.
In this scenario, I’ll predict Michigan plays in the Music City Bowl, with Ohio State going to the playoff, Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and Penn State, Indiana and one other West Division team -- perhaps Iowa or Northwestern -- slotted above the Wolverines.
Kentucky isn’t exactly a powerhouse, but the Wildcats are expected to have a bounce-back season in the SEC and should finish with somewhere between six and eight wins. Michigan might be the more talented team, but I need to see Harbaugh coach another bowl win before I can expect it.
Prediction: Loss, 35-30