The Michigan Wolverines wrap up fall camp this week and turn their full attention to the Western Michigan Broncos with game prep officially starting on Monday. It will be the first chapter in one of the most critical seasons of the Jim Harbaugh era.
In fact, there’s never been a more important one.
Harbaugh is back on a contract extension, but one that offers stability only on paper. His salary was reduced by half with a very low buyout, so the team struggling this year is not much of an option. Michigan needs to win for him to stay.
They made big changes by overhauling the entire defense, which is now led by former Baltimore Ravens assistant Mike Macdonald. The offense is breaking in a new quarterback in Cade McNamara under third-year coordinator Josh Gattis.
So what type of season will this wind up being? Time to go on the
Sept. 4 vs. Western Michigan
The Wolverines open the year against the Broncos, who are considered one of the better teams in the MAC heading into the season. There could very well be some hitters here and some things to still iron out on both sides of the ball, but there is no reason Michigan shouldn’t win this game.
Result: Win (1-0)
Sept. 11 vs. Washington
This is the game I am least confident about. The Huskies come to town for a primetime game under the lights in a contest that could set the tone for the rest of the season. We are going to find out quickly if the struggles of last year bleed over into this game or if Michigan can get back to its winning ways at home. I slightly lean loss here because of so many unknowns, but there are at least two other games in this category on the schedule. More on that later on.
Result: Loss (1-1)
Sept. 18 vs. Northern Illinois
Another MAC opponent, and this time it brings forth a Rocky Lombardi revenge game. The former MSU passer transferred here this offseason. It will be the only thing that adds any juice to this game, which will otherwise be a laugher for the Wolverines.
Result: Win (2-1)
Sept. 25 vs. Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights showed they are ready to compete under Greg Schiano in 2020 and will be improved this year. Despite that, it would be pretty stunning if Michigan found a way to lose this homecoming showdown. It might not be of the blowout variety that they used to be in, but Michigan grabs another victory.
Result: Win (3-1)
Oct. 2 at Wisconsin
The Wolverines have not beaten Wisconsin at Camp Randall since the 2001 season and Harbaugh teams have struggled in big games on the road. The Badgers had a rough go of it after blowing out Michigan last year, but the Big Ten West favorite projects are to be much improved. The expectation is more of the same in this series until proven otherwise.
Result: Loss (3-2)
Oct. 9 at Nebraska
Nebraska is not a good football team and Scott Frost is a long way from building his alma mater to what it used to be. But hey, maybe they might still outhit the Wolverines. Losing this one would be a disaster for Michigan. Go get it done.
Result: Win (4-2)
Oct. 16 — BYE
Relaxation, or will the fanbase be on fire at this point? Either way, I will be enjoying the time off.
Oct. 23 vs. Northwestern
The Wildcats won the West last year and then made Justin Fields look mortal. However, they lost a lot from that team and there’s not much of an excuse to lose this one at home. This is where we start to see the defense start clicking.
Result: Win (5-2)
Oct. 30 at Michigan State
If you lose this game again to a very-clearly-still-rebuilding Mel Tucker program, everyone should be served their walking papers before getting on the bus. The good news is that Harbaugh and Michigan are 2-0 in East Lansing in this series and I think they have the better football team. But heck, they did last year too. Who knows? Call me a homer, but I don’t think they let it happen again.
Result: Win (6-2)
Nov. 6 vs. Indiana
This could be a coin flip game, but the same logic applies as MSU above. Losing to the Hoosiers for the second year in a row only fans the flames of Tom Allen’s rise through the Big Ten East. Michigan will get the job done at home, though.
Result: Win (7-2)
Nov. 13 at Penn State
The same deal applies to the Wisconsin game. The Wolverines have not beaten Penn State in Happy Valley since the 2015 season, though I do not expect this to be a blowout. We still cannot give them the benefit of the doubt to get things done on the road against equal or superior teams.
Result: Loss (7-3)
Nov. 20 at Maryland
This might be a Maryland team that can score a lot of points through the air, but I’m not sure they are much good at anything else. This will be a revenge game for Mike Locksley, who has a little bit of bad blood with Gattis. Michigan is more talented and better coached, regardless of how you feel about Harbaugh.
Result: Win (8-3)
Nov. 27 vs. Ohio State
Just be competitive. That’s all we ask. A massive upset would be great, but you cannot get blown out again. Send a message that this is not a pushover game.
Result: Loss (8-4)
The bowl game — which we will not predict here — should not have much weight to it. We will know what direction this program is going in long before then. If 8-4 is indeed their outlook, that number alone will not tell the full story.
Michigan winning eight games and getting blasted in all four of its losses would do nothing to inspire anyone that this program is back on the rails. Even if they lose a few close games, a bad mistake or terrible decision could mask an otherwise admirable effort. The overview of what the 2021 season will ultimately be lies in the body of work from start to finish.
Harbaugh has to have his team competing and in a position to win its toughest games. Period. That includes Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State. Is there a chance they could surprise us and rattle off 10-plus wins? There’s a better chance of that than them going 4-8 or 5-7 it feels like.
Michigan fans are tired of waiting until next year, but that simply is the type of group this is in 2021. The changes that were made this offseason mixed with the youth and inexperience in key areas make this the most realistic outcome. Ideally, this winds up being a 2015 2.0-type of season with nine good victories and an elusive bowl win, but we have five years of data since then to suggest that might be a rosy outlook. I’m hoping to be proven wrong.