The second half of Michigan’s schedule is difficult, but has a balance that spaces out the three most important games of their season.
While Indiana, Maryland, and Northwestern pose little threat on paper to the Wolverines, trap games and upsets do happen (see: Iowa, 2016). Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State have been circled on calendars since the spring.
Michigan has not beaten Penn State since 2018, Ohio State since 2011, and Jim Harbaugh is a disappointing 3-3 against Michigan State during his tenure.
How do these opponents stack up? Let’s rank the remaining challengers on Michigan’s schedule.
Northwestern is the worst team in the West Division of the Big Ten and has a case to be the worst team in the conference. While head coach Pat Fitzgerald is one of the best coaches in college football, he has developed a pattern of alternating good and bad seasons.
In 2018, the Wildcats won the Big Ten West and the Holiday Bowl with a 9-5 campaign. The next season Northwestern finished 3-9 with victories only over UNLV, UMass, and Illinois. Right on schedule in 2020, the Wildcats finished 7-2, again reaching the Big Ten title game, and going on to defeat Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
The pattern is holding true as the Wildcats are currently 2-3 and coming off a 56-7 beating by Nebraska before their bye last week. Northwestern is struggling on both sides of the ball: their scoring defense is ranked No. 79 and their scoring offense is ranked No. 108.
While those statistics digest, here’s dessert: Northwestern is No. 126 out of 130 FBS teams in rushing defense. This game will not be close.
In 2020, Indiana’s only two losses came on the road at Ohio State by seven and to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl by six. While they have played one of the toughest schedules in the country (three of the top seven currently), it’s safe to say the Hoosiers have come back down to earth this season.
Currently 2-3, the Hoosiers have a pivotal game against Michigan State this weekend in Bloomington. This game could change the narrative for Indiana, but with quarterback Jack Tuttle replacing an injured Michael Penix Jr. on a reeling offense, it is highly unlikely that they come out victorious.
But even before his injury, Penix Jr. wasn’t setting the world on fire. He was second-to-last in the Big Ten in completion percentage (53.7) and interceptions thrown (7). For a team that returned 19 starters (nine on offense), it is difficult to pinpoint the reason behind his drastic regression.
Maybe Tuttle could actually be an improvement and spark this team. But then again, a three-year backup taking over for a team with no running game more easily translates into the worst season of the Tom Allen era than a late season resurgence.
The Maryland Terrapins were rolling this season, until they started playing ranked competition. Maryland has now lost two weeks in a row after beginning the season 4-0. Respectfully, the losses came to Iowa and Ohio State, but in those contests the Terrapins were outscored a combined 117-31. Woof.
Quarterback Taulia (“Turtle”) Tagovailoa was in early-season Heisman talks with his efficiency and production. While he is still completing 72.1 percent of his passes (fifth nationally), Turtle has thrown seven interceptions in Maryland’s two losses.
But what really hinders the Terrapins is their defense. Maryland is currently dead last in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just below 30 points per game.
Maryland remains the gatekeeper in the Big Ten between the top and bottom tier teams. Fittingly, they should be able to win 6-7 games this season, but could they play spoiler and pull off an upset against Michigan, Michigan State, or Penn State?
3. Penn State
Penn State has a defense worthy of a national champion (fifth nationally in scoring defense), but the injury to quarterback Sean Clifford has drastically changed their trajectory. Clifford is far from John Elway, but his experience, command, and leadership, cannot be replicated.
The Nittany Lions went into Kinnick Stadium and held a 17-3 lead over Iowa before Clifford left the game. The Hawkeyes stormed back and won 23-20 ending Penn State’s bid for a perfect season.
Even with a receiver as talented as Jahan Dotson, backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson is a year away from being a year away. While the Nittany Lions will be a tough out in any game because of their defense, this season could quickly snowball into mediocrity if Clifford cannot return.
If Clifford can get healthy in time, the Nittany Lions still control their own destiny in the Big Ten East division.
Penn State has a similar back-half schedule balance as the Wolverines with its first test being on Halloween weekend in Columbus.
2. Michigan State
Head coach Mel Tucker is a national coach of the year candidate and has constructed a dangerous team in East Lansing. Michigan State is a combination of Spartans past and present, recruited talent and talent acquired via the transfer portal.
It begins with the leading rusher in the nation, Kenneth Walker III, who already has 913 rushing yards through six games. The Wake Forest transfer has been a welcomed asset for the Spartans who have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Jeremy Langford in 2014.
On the outside, Michigan State is explosive and balanced. Wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor have eerily similar numbers. Reed has 23 receptions, for 492 yards and five touchdowns. Nailor also has 23 receptions, for 490 yards and six touchdowns.
With this trio around him, quarterback Payton Thorne has simply been tasked with, “Don’t screw it up, kid” and thus far, he has not. Thorne is second in the Big Ten in passer rating and has only thrown two picks this season.
Defensively, the Spartans are physical in the front seven and average close to four sacks and seven tackles-for-loss per-game. But if there is one weakness on this team, it is their secondary.
Michigan State is ranked No. 124 in the country in passing defense. When the Spartans get pressure, they ease the burden on their secondary and smother opponents. But if they cannot get home, their secondary is exploited.
That defense sounds awfully similar to the strategy of Michigan teams from 2018 and 2019.
Halloween weekend for the Wolverines in East Lansing could very easily be 7-0 vs. 7-0, in what could be the most anticipated game in the history of the rivalry. While this is the second-most difficult opponent in my opinion, this will be the most important game of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure to this point.
1. Ohio State
Of course, it’s Ohio State at No. 1. Of course, the Buckeyes look like they have worked out all of their kinks and their offense is humming to the tune of 59 points per game over their last three contests. Of course.
The inevitability of Ohio State figuring things out was always more certain than tax season. Head coach Ryan Day may have publicly neutered defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, but for now, the move appears vindicated.
Wide receivers and projected first-round picks, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, remain the most dangerous tandem in the country. Even further, first-year starting quarterback C.J. Stroud seems to have found confidence and consistency as the Buckeyes enter their bye week.
However, despite the defensive improvements, the Buckeyes are still in the bottom half of the Big Ten in almost every defensive category. With a desperate Nebraska team, potentially desperate Penn State team (and perhaps a returning Sean Clifford), Michigan State, and Michigan remaining on the schedule, this defense’s toughest tests are ahead of them.
This is not the invincible Ohio State of recent memory, but they are still the toughest test remaining for the Michigan Wolverines.
With Michigan State in the rear-view by this point, this game will become the most important and defining game of Jim Harbaugh’s entire career.