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Ranking and tiering the games on Michigan Football’s 2021 schedule

One stands out above all the rest, as is tradition.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines have their work cut out for them this season in attempting to rebound from a 2-4 record last year, as well as major changes on both sides of the ball. The schedule is always going to be difficult in the Big Ten East but feels just a tad bit more unforgiving this year given what Michigan faces in getting things back on track under Jim Harbaugh.

Here is an attempt at tiering and ranking the opponents on Michigan’s schedule to get a sense of the type of campaign they could have.

The should-be-easy wins

Sept. 4 vs. Western Michigan, Sept. 18 vs. Northern Illinois, Sept. 25 vs. Rutgers

There is not much debate here with the MAC opponents. A loss to either of those teams would be devastating. Any of them being close games would be disheartening. Some would disagree that Rutgers belongs given they took Michigan to multiple overtimes last year. Things feel a little more stable heading into 2021 and it is a home game. There’s no excuse to not win that game.

The sneaky-tough matchups

Oct. 9 at Nebraska, Oct. 23 vs. Northwestern, Nov. 20 at Maryland

These are the games that might give us a sense of where Michigan’s floor is. Nebraska’s rebuild under Scott Frost has been slow, but the program is hungry for a signature win. Northwestern won the West last season and is always a threat under Pat Fitzgerald. Maryland has one of the best QB/WR tandems in the conference in Taulia Tagavailoa and Rakim Jarrett. Good teams take care of business in all three games.

The “make or break” games

Sept. 11 vs. Washington, Oct. 2 at Wisconsin, Oct. 30 at Michigan State, Nov. 6 vs. Indiana, Nov. 13 at Penn State

The games in this category make up the largest tier. They will ultimately be what tells the story of where this program is headed in the “Harbaugh 2.0” era. A win over Washington feels like it would create a smooth transition into the meat and potatoes of the schedule. Things get especially tough on the back end. Anything more than a 3-2 record in this crop of games feels like it would be a big development.

A win would be stunning

Nov. 27 vs. Ohio State

I do not like the idea that winning a game would be stunning for a program of Michigan’s caliber. However, we know the recent history between these two teams. The biggest thing in the Wolverines’ favor is that OSU loses a ton from last season and this is a home game. They have to be competitive and it has to show on the scoreboard. A win would still be a more than welcome surprise but it does not feel likely.

Here is how I would rank them from toughest to easiest:

  1. vs. Ohio State
  2. at Wisconsin
  3. at Michigan State
  4. at Penn State
  5. vs. Indiana
  6. vs. Washington
  7. at Nebraska
  8. at Maryland
  9. vs. Northwestern
  10. vs. Rutgers
  11. Tie — Western Michigan/NIU

Michigan finishing 8-4/9-3 feels doable given how everything tiers out. What will determine if those games are a success would be how competitive they appear in losses. Looking lifeless and listless, especially on the road, cannot be an acceptable outcome this year.

How do you feel about this year’s schedule and how it tiers out? Join the discussion on Discord and sound off in the comments section.