ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s pretty amazing how much can change in one year. On the eve of kickoff last season, the Michigan football team was unranked, coming off a losing season, and on the brink of having to start over with a new staff.
Now, the Wolverines are the defending Big Ten champs. They beat Ohio State, went to the playoff, and finished with 12 wins for the first time since the national championship team did it in 1997.
Michigan brings back most of its offensive weapons, which is why voters from both major polls ranked the Wolverines in the top 10. But there are questions about how the defense will rebound from losing two elite pass rushers and its entire starting secondary.
Fortunately for Jim Harbaugh, the September schedule should provide a bit of a grace period.
Here are my game-by-game predictions for this Michigan football season.
Game details: Sept. 3 in Ann Arbor
For the first time ever, Michigan will begin the season coming off a playoff appearance. There’s pressure on the team to get back to that stage, and the caveat to having a weak non-conference schedule is Michigan simply can’t afford to slip up.
This will be Cade McNamara’s audition for the starting quarterback job, and although there’s sure to be some first-game rust, he’s the type of veteran who won’t make backbreaking mistakes that open the door for a major upset.
Colorado State is starting a new regime and overhauled the roster with transfers, but Michigan has enough firepower to win this one handily.
Prediction: Win, 42-17
Game details: Sept. 10 in Ann Arbor
The Hawaii game sure looks a whole lot spicier now that it’s at night and J.J. McCarthy will get his first career start.
Hawaii also has a new head coach, but the season didn’t exactly start the way Timmy Chang had hoped. Last weekend, the Warriors got stomped by one of the worst teams in Power Five, losing 63-10 against Vanderbilt at home.
Based solely on last year’s records, Hawaii looked like Michigan’s toughest non-conference opponent, but after that Vanderbilt beatdown, I’m not so sure. Michigan should be able to win this game no matter who’s under center.
Prediction: Win, 60-13
Game details: Sept. 17 in Ann Arbor
UConn is one of the worst football programs in the country right now. The Huskies went 1-11 last season with a slim victory over Yale, didn’t play in 2020, and finished a combined 3-21 across 2018 and 2019.
Jim Mora has his work cut out for him, as he looks to eventually lead UConn to its first winning season since 2010. He brought in several transfer players, but the season’s already off to an 0-1 start after a loss to Utah State, so even getting to four wins would be an accomplishment.
Will Michigan know who its starting quarterback is by this point, or will the competition be extended beyond the first two weeks? That should be the only drama unfolding in Week 3.
I could see the Wolverines coming out sluggish in this game, especially looking forward to the Big Ten season after such a boring non-conference slate.
Prediction: Win, 41-14
Game details: Sept. 24 in Ann Arbor
Harbaugh and Michigan punked the Terrapins on their own turf last November, winning by a final score of 59-18. The Maryland players will certainly have that game on their minds when they come into Ann Arbor.
Mike Locksley has a talented roster, and Taulia Tagovailoa is a true dual-threat playmaker at quarterback. Maryland won seven games last season, including a bowl game, so this will be the first actual challenge for the 2022 Michigan team, especially on defense.
It’ll be tempting for Michigan to look ahead to Iowa, but Maryland’s offense is dangerous enough to make things uncomfortable.
Prediction: Win, 35-24
Game details: Oct. 1 in Iowa City
Here it is: The first litmus test for this year’s team. Even if the Wolverines are 4-0 going into October, we won’t know very much about them because of the schedule.
Kinnick Stadium is a difficult place for the first away game, especially if it’s a night kickoff (which it should be). Regardless of what happened in last year’s Big Ten Championship Game, this is one of the toughest games on Michigan’s schedule.
Michigan won in some tough environments last season, namely Nebraska and Penn State. But Kinnick at night would be a different animal. This is one of the most important games on the schedule because it could ultimately determine whether Michigan finishes with one or two loses -- just like it did in 2016.
It’s hard to believe Iowa is the better team after what happened just 10 months ago in Indianapolis, but Michigan typically doesn’t play well at Iowa, especially when the stakes are this high.
Prediction: Loss, 27-20
Game details: Oct. 8 in Bloomington
If Michigan is coming off a loss to Iowa, the following week becomes a critical bounce back game. If Michigan goes in 5-0, it’s more of a trap game ahead of Penn State.
Either way, Michigan will have a massive talent advantage over an Indiana squad that didn’t win a Big Ten game last season. The Hoosiers were one of the most disappointing teams in the country, finishing 2-10 after posting an excellent 6-2 record in 2020.
When the Wolverines last visited Bloomington -- during that 2020 season -- they got their doors blown off by 17 points. Last year’s matchup was a blowout in the other direction, but it wasn’t one of Michigan’s stronger performances.
Knowing the recent history between these two teams and how the games usually go, this’ll somehow turn into a stressful Saturday afternoon for Michigan fans.
Prediction: Win, 28-17
Game details: Oct. 15 in Ann Arbor
Sean Clifford is back for another season at Penn State, but he had a bit of an up-and-down performance in the opener at Purdue. He threw four touchdown passes, including the game-winner with under a minute to play, but also completed just 20 of 37 attempts with an ugly pick-six.
Penn State is trying to bounce back from a second-straight disappointing season, and James Franklin just signed a new 10-year contract extension to stay in Happy Valley. This is an important season for the Nittany Lions, and they’ll be looking to avenge last year’s home loss to Michigan.
Clifford carved up Don Brown’s defense in his last trip to Ann Arbor, rushing for 73 yards while passing for 163 more en route to an easy win. He’s always dangerous with his legs, and Michigan’s new front seven will have to contain him in this matchup.
It’s hard to predict how these two teams will look so far down the line, but as of now, Michigan should be in a better place.
Prediction: Win, 31-28
Game details: Oct. 29 in Ann Arbor
Can Harbaugh finally get over the hump and beat Mel Tucker this season? Last year, Michigan blew a 16-point second half lead to lose their second-straight meeting with the Spartans. Kenneth Walker III was the main culprit in that loss, but even without him, Michigan State is expected to be one of the top teams in the league.
The biggest question for this matchup is the MSU secondary. Michigan should have a dangerous passing game with Ronnie Bell returning and all its other weapons in place. If the Spartans struggle against the pass like they did last year, it’s hard to see them getting many stops, unless Michigan makes unforced errors (again, see last year).
But there’s an element of “throw the matchups out the window” to this rivalry. It hasn’t really mattered whether Michigan was a playoff team or a mediocre team under Harbaugh -- this is always a battle, one that rarely goes Michigan’s way.
After suffering their only loss of the regular season in East Lansing a year ago, I have to believe the Wolverines are giving this game their full attention. Even so, you never know what to expect.
Prediction: Win, 28-27
Game details: Nov. 5 in Piscataway
Greg Schiano has made Rutgers a much more competitive team over the last two years, and the next step is to finish with a winning record.
The Scarlet Knights gave Michigan a huge scare in the Big House a year ago, so don’t count this game as an automatic win, especially on the road after two high-profile home games.
Rutgers twice had the ball down seven points in the fourth quarter against Michigan last season. On the first drive, they missed a critical field goal that would have cut Michigan’s lead to four. Then, with a chance to tie or win the game in the final moments, Rutgers’ upset bid fell short thanks to a David Ojabo sack.
Last year’s Michigan team was so good in these tricky road games against middling Big Ten teams, such as Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, and Maryland. If that’s the case again, then Rutgers shouldn’t pose much of a problem.
Prediction: Win, 31-14
Game details: Nov. 12 in Ann Arbor
The excitement for Nebraska football died down last weekend when the Cornhuskers found a way to blow an 11-point lead against Northwestern. Scott Frost called for a controversial onside kick that robbed his team of momentum, and now his already-hot seat has turned into a real-life version of the “this is fine” meme.
The eye test always benefits these Frost-era Nebraska teams, but in the end, they typically seem to disappoint. I would expect this Nov. 12 matchup to be a tough one, but at this point, it’s hard not to assume Nebraska will find a way to lose.
And with the way Northwestern ran the ball against that front seven, Michigan’s offense could have a field day.
Prediction: Win, 35-21
Game details: Nov. 19 in Ann Arbor
This year, Illinois gets the honor of being The Team Michigan Plays Before Ohio State. The Illini are off to a 1-0 start after beating Wyoming last weekend, and they’re facing a Friday night battle at Indiana in Week 2.
Bret Bielema is a good coach, and he found a way to win five games in his first year at Illinois. He beat Penn State and Nebraska last season, so who knows, maybe he could get to a bowl game in his second season.
Regardless, the only way Michigan loses this game is if the players are already looking ahead to that Columbus trip, and if there’s as much on the line as last year, Harbaugh and his staff won’t let that happen.
Prediction: Win, 42-14
Game details: Nov. 26 in Columbus
This has probably felt like the longest offseason in decades for the Buckeyes after Michigan’s dominant performance in The Game. Ryan Day talked about dropping 100 on Michigan only to watch Harbaugh celebrate a Big Ten East title and then say Day was born on third base.
Yeah, I’m sure that went over well in Columbus.
Ohio State is going into this game angry, but Michigan will no longer be going in scared. Even though they’re the more talented team, the Buckeyes can’t chalk this up as a free win like they could in years past.
So much can happen over the course of 12 weeks leading up to this game, but as it stands, Ohio State is the most talented team in the league, and they’ve got a little extra motivation. Add in that the game is at the Horseshoe, and it would be one of the best wins in program history if Michigan found a way to pull an upset.
Prediction: Loss, 38-28
Bowl game: Rose Bowl vs. Oregon
Game details: Jan. 2 in Pasadena
If Michigan finishes the season with two losses, it won’t have an opportunity to return to the College Football Playoff. But a 10-2 record with wins over Penn State and Michigan State would likely be enough to warrant the program’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 16 years.
Nobody knows what will happen in the SEC or the other Power Five conferences, but it sure feels like Alabama and Georgia are strong bets to return to the playoff this season, especially considering Georgia’s schedule in the SEC East.
That would leave only two playoff spots for the rest of the country, and in this scenario, one of them would go to Ohio State.
Utah and Oregon would be the best bets to vie for that final playoff spot out West. They’re two of the most talented teams in the Pac-12, and their schedules should allow them to stockpile wins. If they both finish the season 11-1 -- with Oregon losing to Georgia but beating Utah at home -- it would likely set up a rematch in the conference title game (the Pac-12 no longer has divisions).
If Utah wins the rematch, it would probably earn a playoff bid (depending on the resumes of Clemson and the Big 12 champion), sending Oregon to the Rose Bowl.
It’s a testament to how much college football has changed that Michigan would be disappointed to play in a Rose Bowl, but that would probably be the case. The Wolverines haven’t won a bowl game since New Year’s Day 2016, so it’s hard to pick in their favor here.
Prediction: Loss, 38-35