The Wolverines came into the latest AP Poll as the No. 23 team in the country despite not touching the field in the first three weeks of the college football season. How can their stock rise as they pursue their first playoff run?
In a season of just eight games, there is little room for error, and Michigan unfortunately has some pretty gaping holes on both sides of the ball. With a lot to prove, here are the three games that will determine the fate of the Wolverines in 2020.
3. The Little Brown Jug
It all starts with their Week 1 opponent, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers were one of the surprise teams last season as they began the year 9-0 and finished with a bowl win over Auburn, earning them a top 10 placement on the final AP Poll.
The battle for the Little Brown Jug will be a real test for Michigan on many levels. The young secondary will face one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in Tanner Morgan and potentially Rashod Bateman, a top wide receiver in the conference if he opts back in. It will be a struggle for Don Brown to slow down one of the Big Ten’s top offenses from a year ago.
It will also be Joe Milton’s first career start as a Wolverine, and we will get a taste of the high expectations set for him and the offensive line that lost four starters from 2019. Josh Gattis will be called upon to lead the group as he begins year two of calling the plays. The measuring stick for the season is whipped out in the inaugural week of the 2020 season.
2. The Badgers come to town
Moving down the schedule, let’s visit the contest between Michigan and Wisconsin in Week 4. Hosted in Ann Arbor, this could be the first top 25 matchup for either team, and its conclusion will mark the midway point of the Big Ten schedule.
Wisconsin lost some major pieces on both sides of the ball, including one of the top rushers to ever come through the Big Ten in Jonathan Taylor. But the Badgers still have a smart head coach in Paul Chryst and a returning starter at quarterback, Jack Coan.
Looking at the history of this game, the winner usually wraps up their season as one of the top teams in the country. Back in 2017, Michigan went into Camp Randall to face an undefeated Wisconsin team toward the end of the year. It was the first of three straight losses to end the year for Michigan. The Badgers lost the Big Ten Championship game but finished 13-1 after an Orange Bowl victory.
Two seasons ago, Michigan won the top 15 matchup in the seventh game of the season which prompted the ‘Revenge Tour,’ an impressive winning streak over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State in consecutive weeks. The Wolverines would be embarrassed by Ohio State at the end of the year and played in a New Year’s Six Bowl (the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl) losing to Florida. Wisconsin would lose three of its next six to end the year.
Last year, Wisconsin crushed Michigan, 35-14, in Week 3. The Badgers went on to win the Big Ten West and nearly won the Big Ten Championship. They ended the year with a Rose Bowl bid. Michigan finished 9-4 and lost its final three “big games” of the season against Penn State, Ohio State and Alabama.
The matchup between these two teams seems to have massive implications for both programs as their seasons progress. A win over Wisconsin could be the forward momentum desperately needed in this grueling schedule.
1. “The Game”
It’s no surprise this is No. 1 game on Michigan’s schedule because that is the case every year. There is no groundbreaking analysis on this one. It’s a simple fact everyone in the conference knows: The Big Ten runs through Columbus.
If the Wolverines ever have conference championship or playoff aspirations, they have to break through the nearly impenetrable wall Ryan Day and Urban Meyer have built at Ohio State. They have been the class of the Big Ten for the last decade and have neutralized any and all Michigan runs.
The Buckeyes boast a National Championship-caliber roster with the return of Heisman candidate Justin Fields and one of the toughest defenses in the conference. It’s going to take everything — and then some — for this Michigan roster to pull out a win.