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The games that will define Michigan football’s 2019 season

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Spoiler alert: there are quite a few.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

As part of our lead-in to kick-off next month (!!!), one of the things we wanted to take a look at was Michigan football’s schedule. Today we answer the question: what games will decide and define the type of season the Wolverines have?

Looking at the slate, there are six teams scheduled that Jim Harbaugh has lost to in the last three seasons — Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Notre Dame and Penn State. Throw in an additional game against Army’s triple-option early on and it’s not difficult to see where this season could go south. I’ve taken these seven opponents and cut the list down to four that I believe pose the biggest threat. Here they are in chronological order:

9/17 vs Army - God, I hate this game. Last season, the Black Knights went into Norman and took Oklahoma down to the final wire. They eventually lost the game 28-21 in overtime but gave the Sooners all they could handle. At no point during the contest were the Sooners able to extend their lead beyond one score. It was truly a battle.

Army’s triple option presents a unique test that only a handful of schools offer. The Wolverines played the Air Force Academy in recent years and won both games without too much stress. In some ways, Don Brown’s aggressive, straight forward defense is built to overwhelm teams like Army. However, that’s a lot easier said than done.

The Black Knights controlled the ball for more than 44 minutes against Oklahoma. They ran for 300 yards and return their top two rushers from the game including quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. This could be the stat of the game. Similar to Oklahoma, Michigan is going to be adopting a very fast-paced offense under first-year coordinator Josh Gattis. #SpeedInSpace.

If early reports are to be believed, Michigan will not huddle and will relay calls in from the sideline via a mix of hand signals and posters. Against Army, this method will be put to the test. In year’s past, Michigan has dominated time of possession. Army will provide a unique opportunity to test out the new Michigan plan of attack against a team hell-bent on minimizing possessions and keeping control of the ball.

10/19 @ Penn State - This rivalry has gotten extremely petty over the last three years. First, James Franklin accused Michigan of running the score up in 2016. Then, Penn State ran the score up in 2017. Finally, last year, Michigan’s PA guy spent a good portion of two hours trolling the absolute hell out of Penn State in Ann Arbor.

Mere weeks after the Nittany Lions co-opted Shek Wes’ hit, Mo Bamba, the Wolverines threw it right in their face. After practically every stoppage of play, The Big House reverberated with the sounds of...yeah. Michigan Stadium’s sound system played other songs associated with Penn State in what was probably the high point of the Wolverines’ season.

This year presents a unique challenge due to the fact that it’s the only one of Michigan’s division rivals they’ll play on the road. Ohio State and Michigan State will both make trips to Ann Arbor. Franklin is still there, but the architects of the 2017 beatdown, Joe Moorhead and the aforementioned Gattis are gone. Two years later, Saquan Barkley and Trace McSorley are as well.

The Nittany Lions have a very talented front-seven and will provide a solid mid-season test for Ed Warinner’s unit before hosting the Irish the following week. Speaking of which...

10/26 vs Notre Dame - While last year’s matchup turned out to be a very sloppy slugfest, the 2019 rendition points towards a shootout. The Irish bring back quarterback Ian Book and four starters along the offensive line. Michigan brings back quarterback Shea Patterson and four starters along the offensive line. You see where this is going.

Neither team returns a majority of their running back production, but Michigan has the edge at wide receiver, presuming Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins are all healthy. The Irish struggled mightily against Clemson’s size at receiver in the playoff, so that’s something you expect Gattis and Patterson to target early and often.

Notre Dame’s defense lost a lot of talent at some important positions. Their defensive tackle depth is not what it used to, and their best corner, Julian Love is also in the NFL. Similar to Penn State, however, they return some very promising talent at defensive end and edge rusher. They have three seniors off the edge: Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes. All three could be headaches for Michigan’s tackles, who had somewhat of a roller coaster 2018.

It’s almost a foregone conclusion this game will be under the lights, and those games have been insta-classics. 2011’s miracle and Devin Gardner’s short-lived coming out party in 2013 are two of my favorite memories as a Michigan fan. The former is a major reason why I chose to attend U-M, and the latter was easily the greatest game I went to as a student. While a letdown after Penn State is possible, Ann Arbor’s energy should lift just about anyone up.

11/30 vs Ohio State - Dwayne Haskins is gone. Urban Meyer is gone. Al Benedict Washington and Greg Mattison Arnold are both now in Columbus. In an alternate simulation, this entire article is spent discussing why this is truly the only game that matters on the schedule. In two of Harbaugh’s four seasons, the matchup with Ohio State has determined whether Michigan would go on to play postseason football that matters. They’ve lost both games, in polar-opposite fashions.

Harbaugh has an additional pair of noncompetitive losses as well. All in all, it’s been seven straight seasons of Ohio State dominance. It’s even worse when you look further back with the 2011 game being the only victory for Michigan in quite some time. I’d argue this is probably the Wolverines’ best shot since that 2011 game.

Firstly, again, Meyer is gone. Ryan Day is probably a very good coach, but Meyer has a solid argument for being on the Mount Rushmore of college coaches of the modern era. In fact, until Dabo’s recent surge, he was likely the second best coach in the game behind Nick Saban.

Secondly, I am the biggest Josh Gattis Stan you will find. While the last few games against the Buckeyes have left me feeling like my tea’s gone cold and wondering why I get out of bed at all, 2019 should be different. For the first time, the Wolverines have a modern offense built to go blow for blow with Ohio State. Don Brown should adjust to last year’s mesh-pattern debacle as well.

Once again, Michigan will enter this game coming off the annual near miss against Indiana. The week before that is Michigan State. It will be important for Harbaugh and company to remain focused on their short-term tasks with this game looming. That’s why, beyond the tangible stuff, this game could be the most defining of the season. Can Michigan remain focused on the tasks at hand without getting caught up in another potential hype-fest? They failed in 2016 against Iowa. It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out as well. Hopefully with a trip to the Big Ten Championship.