ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The pressure is on in Ann Arbor.
Jim Harbaugh managed his third 10-win season out of four years in 2018, but once again, the final two weeks left fans with a bad taste in their mouths.
After getting blown out by Ohio State and Florida, it has been a long, anxious offseason for the Wolverines.
Are they finally ready to take the next step? Experts certainly think so, picking Michigan to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2003.
To finally get over the hump, Michigan needs to win the Big Ten East Division and earn its first trip to Indianapolis. That would set up a potential berth in the College Football Playoff.
It won't be easy. Michigan has one of the toughest schedules in the country, with six games against teams ranked in the preseason top 20.
Here are my game-by-game predictions for Michigan's 2019 season.
Middle Tennessee State
Last season: 8-6 -- lost Conference USA championship game and New Orleans Bowl
If Michigan's defense remains elite under Don Brown and the offense takes a step forward under Josh Gattis, this tricky opening matchup shouldn't be a problem.
Middle Tennessee State is a solid program, but it has to replace Brent Stockstill, who threw for more than 3,500 yards and 29 touchdowns a year ago.
There might be some growing pains offensively in the first game, but it would be a disaster if Michigan lost the opener.
Prediction: Win, 35-13
Last season: 11-2 -- won Armed Forces Bowl
This is a popular upset pick after Army went into Norman, Oklahoma, and nearly upset the Sooners last season. Oklahoma eventually pulled out an overtime victory, but Army bounced back with nine straight wins to end the season.
Army is a strong team with a unique offense, so it's a perfect formula for an upset, even on Michigan's home field. The Wolverines will have to be very careful in Week 2, especially with so many new faces on the defensive front.
The Black Knights went 0-2 against Power Five teams last season, so I'm not ready to predict an upset, but Michigan can't afford to get behind early and let Army control the clock.
Prediction: W, 31-21
Last season: 8-5 -- won Pinstripe Bowl
Nobody's talking about the Badgers after an 8-5 season, but they're as dangerous as any team in the Big Ten West.
Jonathan Taylor is back for his junior season after rushing for nearly 2,200 yards in 13 games. He's already over 4,000 rushing yards for his career and enters 2019 as a Heisman favorite.
Michigan embarrassed Wisconsin in the Big House last year, winning by 25 points in a nationally televised night game. The Wolverines rarely play well in Madison, so this will be a major challenge.
Both teams are coming off a bye week, which helps Michigan following a game against Army. Will Jack Coan still be starting at quarterback by kickoff, or will freshman Graham Mertz have already taken over?
The matchup of Taylor against an unproven defensive line could cause issues for Michigan, but the gap in quarterback play should be wide enough to give the Wolverines an edge, even on the road.
An 11 a.m. local time kickoff also helps Michigan in terms of opposing atmosphere.
Prediction: W, 27-20
Last season: 1-11 -- no bowl game
Rutgers won its opener against Texas State last season before losing 11 straight.
The Scarlet Knights have been a punching bag since joining the Big Ten, and this year should be no different.
Prediction: W, 45-14
Last season: 9-4 -- won Outback Bowl
Iowa had a sneaky good season last year, winning nine games and coming a few possessions from stealing the West Division title from Northwestern.
Iowa lost the Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern games on back-to-back-to-back weeks by a total of 12 points. The Hawkeyes only lost one game by more than six points, an early home loss to Wisconsin.
The season was polished off by an upset of No. 18 Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.
Veteran quarterback Nate Stanley is back for his senior season, so Iowa will be formidable once again.
Michigan always has problems with the Hawkeyes, most recently in 2016, when the undefeated Wolverines dropped a game to unranked Iowa in Kinnick Stadium at night. That loss ultimately robbed Michigan of any chance to go to the playoff.
This is a dangerous home test for Michigan, but Gattis' offense should be humming by October. I expect the Wolverines to hold serve in Ann Arbor.
Prediction: W, 31-21
Last season: 4-8 -- no bowl game
Will Illinois be better this season? Probably. Is Brandon Peters an upgrade at quarterback? Definitely.
There are tricky aspects to this Illinois game, especially in front of a road crowd that has a strong dislike of Michigan. But if Michigan can't overcome those obstacles with such a wide talent gap, this season could get ugly.
Illinois was one of three FBS teams to allow more than 500 yards per game last season, so Michigan should be able to score some points.
Prediction: W, 42-13
Last season: 9-4 -- lost Citrus Bowl
The Michigan-Penn State rivalry has been lopsided in favor of the home team since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, a trend that continued with Michigan's 42-7 shelling of the Nittany Lions last November.
Last time Michigan traveled to Penn State, Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley had their way with Brown's defense. Both are now gone, along with Miles Sanders and Tommy Stevens, so it's hard to know what to expect from the offense.
Penn State has high hopes for new starting quarterback Sean Clifford, and the defense figures to be one of the best in the league.
Michigan has had a difficult time winning big games on the road, and even if it can pull off a win in Madison, I don't think it will go 2-0 in its two toughest tests away from home.
Prediction: L, 34-24
Last season: 12-1 -- lost in College Football Playoff semifinal
Michigan has a handful of massively important games in the second half of the schedule, and this one shouldn't be overlooked just because it's out of conference.
This is the last scheduled meeting between Michigan and Notre Dame after the Irish took the first half of the home-and-home last season. If Michigan loses at home, it will have to live with being swept in the final series for the foreseeable future.
Notre Dame is one of the most talented teams on the schedule, especially with Ian Book at quarterback. Michigan didn't have to contend with him last year, so it will be a completely different offense.
The game time hasn't been announced, but considering the last two matchups at the Big House were instant classics under the lights, it should be a night kickoff.
The rosters are similar, so Michigan gets the edge at home, needing a bounce back performance.
Prediction: W, 38-34
Last season: 5-7 -- no bowl game
This isn't one of Michigan's six games against top 20 teams or even one of its eight games against bowl teams. But there are reasons to fear a road game against Maryland.
First of all, Michigan will be coming off back-to-back games against Penn State and Notre Dame. The Wolverines will also be looking ahead to a bye week ahead of hosting Michigan State.
Maryland had to deal with a lot of outside noise last season after the death of Jordan McNair and the controversy surrounding D.J. Durkin and his coaching staff. Still, the Terrapins managed to win five games and nearly pulled a massive upset over Ohio State.
This year, with a new coaching staff in place and Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson at quarterback, Maryland will be much more dangerous. Anthony McFarland Jr. is back after rushing for 7.9 yards per carry last season, so this team could be a spoiler in the East Division.
This feels like the type of game that will give Michigan a major scare, but somehow the Wolverines find a way to escape with an ugly win.
Prediction: W, 27-24
Last season: 7-6 -- lost Redbox Bowl
What does Michigan State do after a disappointing season under Mark Dantonio? It bounces back and wins double-digit games.
That was the case in 2017, when the Spartans won 10 games after a surprising 3-9 campaign in 2016. This year's team appears to have the ingredients for a resurgence: a stout defense, a veteran quarterback and playmakers returning from injury.
Harbaugh hasn't beaten Michigan State at home yet, as the road team is 4-0 in this rivalry since he took over as Michigan's coach.
Michigan State doesn't have a bye week before the Michigan game, but it does have a home game against Illinois following a bye week, so some would say that's like having two weeks to prepare for the Wolverines.
This could be a matchup of an elite defense against a revamped offense, but we really don't know exactly what to expect from either team.
I'll say Michigan bucks the trend and finally wins a rivalry game at home.
Prediction: W, 24-20
Last season: 5-7 -- no bowl game
If the Maryland game is a tricky trap game, the Indiana game should be terrifying.
Not only have the Hoosiers given Michigan fits in Bloomington the last two years -- forcing overtime in both contests and coming one play away from winning the first -- they've also played tough at the Big House.
This year, the game is on the road once again, and it's sandwiched between the Michigan State and Ohio State games. That's the definition of a trap game.
Indiana could be playing for its bowl life at this point in the season, so Michigan can't afford to overlook this game. If these predictions hold true and Michigan is 9-1 heading into Bloomington, it will certainly be in the College Football Playoff picture.
As long as the previous trips to Indiana act as a warning, Michigan has enough talent to avoid an upset.
Prediction: W, 38-31
Last season: 13-1 -- won Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl
Well, if this whole scenario plays out, Michigan will go into the Ohio State game with a 10-1 record for the third time in four years. The first time, a double overtime heartbreaker smashed Michigan's playoff hopes. Last year, the Wolverines got run out of town.
This season, however, the game would be at home. It would be the most important game at Michigan Stadium in a decade, likely with a trip to Indianapolis on the line.
Michigan has a returning starting quarterback in Shea Patterson and a proven coaching staff. Ohio State has a new transfer starting at quarterback and a brand new head coach.
The signs have never pointed more in Michigan's favor.
But I can't do it.
Michigan would have to break so many trends to win this game. It has lost seven straight to Ohio State. It has lost every time it has a chance to win a Big Ten title. The Buckeyes have consistently put more of an emphasis on this game, and it has yielded dominant results.
Most importantly, Ohio State still has the most talented roster.
Yes, Harbaugh has certainly closed the gap, but Ohio State is absolutely loaded up and down the roster. The Buckeyes landed three straight top-four classes before last year, and even in 2019 brought in three five-stars and nine four-stars.
Do I think this is Michigan's best chance to beat Ohio State since 2011? Yes. But to predict it would be going against both the talent and the track record.
Prediction: L, 45-31
Bowl projection: Rose Bowl vs. Washington
With Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and either Oklahoma or Georgia off to the College Football Playoff, Michigan could land in the Rose Bowl against the Pac-12 champion.
Washington gets Oregon, Utah and Washington State all at home this season, with the only true road test at Stanford. They're my favorite to win the conference once again.
If this happens, the Rose Bowl will be a preview of the 2020 season opener, when the Wolverines will travel to Seattle to play the Huskies.
Jacob Eason is the new starter in Washington after Jake Browning graduated, so Chris Peterson didn't see any dropoff in talent.
Michigan hasn't fared well in bowl games under Harbaugh, losing three straight, but the Rose Bowl would have their attention, especially since it's been 13 years since the team's last trip to Pasadena.
Prediction: W, 34-27
This would be Harbaugh's best season at Michigan, but still a disappointment to many fans. A fifth straight loss to Ohio State would be a hard pill to swallow, especially with the game heading back to Columbus in 2020.
There's this narrative that Michigan will never be better set up for a championship run than this season, but that's not necessarily true. Harbaugh landed the Big Ten's top recruiting class for the first time in 2018, and the quarterback room looks loaded for the future.
Ohio State might be more vulnerable this season because of the coaching change, but it's still got, by far, the most talent in the Big Ten. If Ryan Day is as good a coach as Ohio State expects, he'll turn that talent into results.
Five years ago, Michigan fans would have given anything to go 11-2 with a Rose Bowl win. The fact that it sounds like a disappointment in 2019 is a testament to how much Harbaugh has elevated the program.
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