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The five games that will determine Michigan Football’s 2021 season

The Wolverines need some strong performances here.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Daniel Plocher Dan Plocher contributes to Maize n’ Brew in several areas including podcasts, game previews/recaps, and various YouTube videos.

The Michigan Wolverines had a less than ideal 2020 season that was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. New faces on the coaching staff and a team hoping to prove last year was a fluke should give optimism to a fan base that is desperate for it. Michigan has talent, they’re a team comprised of top-15 recruiting classes in each of the past three seasons. The question will be whether or not the coaching staff can put their talent in positions to win football games.

Five games could indicate the success of this football season. Here are the games that will stick out the most.

1. Michigan vs. Ohio State

The biggest bar of the season will always be how they stack up with the Buckeyes. The success of a Michigan football season runs through the team from Columbus. Jim Harbaugh has yet to win a game against the Wolverines’ arch-rival. They were lucky that the two teams did not meet last season when Ohio State was a team on the warpath.

Michigan will host the Buckeyes in consecutive meetings for the first time since 1902-03. The last time they met in Ann Arbor, Ohio State won 56-27. That kind of loss cannot be a reoccurrence this season especially when Harbaugh has a 1-6 record against OSU and Michigan State in the Big House.

If the Wolverines lose this game in 2021, they will have gone an entire decade without beating the Buckeyes. Their last win came in 2011, which snapped a seven-game losing streak. That’s one win for Michigan in the previous 16 meetings. At some point, this trend has to flip. It is beyond the point of being justifiable for a program that has the resources Michigan does. The burden has become so heavy that it is nearly impossible for a Michigan football season to be considered a success without winning The Game.

2. Michigan at Michigan State

Speaking of losing to rivals, Michigan fell to a Michigan State team that had a poor roster and a first-year head coach in 2020. Even with all of the blowout losses they have endured at the hands of the Buckeyes in the Harbaugh era, that 27-24 defeat was arguably as embarrassing and demoralizing as any other loss in his tenure.

The series moves back to East Lansing where the Wolverines have won the last two meetings. To make matters worse, it comes a week after Michigan takes on Northwestern, the team that won the Big Ten West a season ago. The Spartans will come with all the confidence in the world after last year’s win. The way the Wolverines respond this season could set a tone for the future.

3. Michigan at Wisconsin

This will be the sixth consecutive season the two Big Ten powerhouses have met and the Badgers have a 4-2 lead in the series. Michigan’s wins came in 2016, Harbaugh’s best season in Ann Arbor, and 2018 when the Wolverines went on the Revenge Tour. One could argue that those were two of the best seasons Michigan has had under Harbaugh.

This season, the Wolverines and Badgers will do battle in Week 5. This game is vitally important because it is Michigan’s first road game of the year. We all know just how bad Harbaugh has been in marquee games on the road in his tenure.

In 2020, Michigan’s defense was scorched by stud quarterback Graham Mertz. Now, Mike Macdonald and the Wolverines' new coaching staff on that side of the ball will have their work cut out for them in a likely full Camp Randall Stadium.

4. Michigan at Penn State

Another team out there trying to prove 2020 was a fluke is the Penn State Nittany Lions. Penn State finished 4-5 a season ago and beat the Wolverines 27-17 in the final game of the season for Michigan due to COVID. Meanwhile, Penn State went on to win their final four games of the season. After starting at 0-5, the Nittany Lions finished with a more respectable 4-5 record.

Starting quarterback Sean Clifford returns to the team as the offensive leader under his third coordinator in as many seasons. There is a real chance the Nittany Lions ride their momentum from last season into 2021.

Luckily, the Wolverines won’t see them until Week 11. At that point, this Penn State team will have its own identity. Still, many experts predict a turnaround season for this James Franklin-led club and they have the talent and experience to be among the Big Ten’s best.

5. Michigan vs. Washington

The final selection was a toss-up between Week 7 vs. Northwestern, Week 5 vs. Indiana, and what should be Michigan’s first real test in 2021 against the Washington Huskies. Cross-conference play is a lot of fun and it’s something that college football fans missed out on a season ago. This year, things are different as some of the nation’s best will collide with some Big Ten teams.

Ohio State takes on Oregon, Michigan against Washington, Wisconsin faces Notre Dame, Penn State will compete with Auburn, Michigan State will play Miami, the list goes on and on. We are going to know early in the season just how well the Big Ten stacks up with the remainder of the country.

That is why I chose Michigan’s matchup with Washington here. Not only will it tell us how good the Wolverines are, facing a team that is likely a Top-25 opponent. But, it will also indicate how good the conference is as a whole. An early-season win against a tough opponent could help propel this team into a brutal Big Ten schedule in 2021.