Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Michigan football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our Crystal Ball series continues in the Big Ten East with Michigan. Coming Thursday: Indiana.
At this time last year, many in the media — myself included — convinced ourselves that 2019 was Michigan’s year to break through and beat Ohio State. We were very, very wrong.
There aren’t nearly the same expectations in 2020, and maybe that’s for the best for Michigan. No one outside the locker room expects Michigan to beat Ohio State, and not many expect the Wolverines to beat the two teams that passed Michigan in the Big Ten hierarchy — Penn State and Wisconsin.
What will 2020 bring? As with most programs, a lot depends on the quarterback position. Either way, it’s going to be an entertaining ride thanks to Michigan’s enigmatic head coach.
2019 record: 9-4 (6-3), 3rd in B1G East
All eyes on Jim Harbaugh, as usual
Jim Harbaugh just can’t help himself. When he’s not coming up with innovative ways to change the sport, he’s needling Michigan’s biggest rival. There’s never a boring day with Harbaugh. So what does he have in store for a season that is shaping up to be the most unique in modern history?
For one, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Michigan starts the season and how that impacts the chatter around Harbaugh. As you’ll see below, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Michigan start 2-2. Michigan got as bad of a draw as any Big Ten team with this new schedule, as Minnesota and Wisconsin are two of the top three teams in the West. If Michigan gets off to a rocky start and finishes 5-3 or 4-4, the national media will pounce. That’s a tough break for Harbaugh because if you add in an Illinois and a Purdue to the schedule, plus a few winnable non-conference games, Michigan is right at 9-3 like usual.
Michigan also still has not extended Harbaugh’s original 7-year contract that he signed in 2014. Harbaugh is entering the sixth year of that deal, which will expire after the 2021 season. He said that he was in talks with Michigan on an extension as late as February, but that was halted once the pandemic began. Maybe that’s true and there’s an innocent explanation, like that Michigan administrators have been focused on figuring out a way for its athletes to safely play this fall. Does that mean an extension wouldn’t come until after the season?
Michigan won’t let Harbaugh go into the final year of his contract as a lame duck. That would be a self-inflicted wound guaranteed to be used against the Wolverines on the recruiting trail. So if Michigan loses a few games early, or if Michigan limps to 5-3 or 4-4, Harbaugh and those around the program will be burdened with talk of the coach’s future in Ann Arbor.
Joe Milton’s chance
It feels like we never really got to track the QB battle between Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey. It would’ve been interesting to follow during spring practice and preseason camp, but the pandemic mostly wiped those out, and McCaffrey announced he was transferring. That means Milton was the winner, as McCaffrey wouldn’t be leaving if he thought he had a chance to start.
Even with a starting QB, there are still so many unanswered questions about Michigan. Can this offense take the next step under second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis? Can it finally compete like the best programs in the country?
Looking at teams that make the College Football Playoff every year, they almost all have elite quarterbacks. Aside from Notre Dame’s Ian Book and Washington’s Jake Browning, every other QB that has played in the CFP has been a stud. Is Milton a stud? Maybe, maybe not. Until Michigan gets a stud at QB, it’s hard to envision it winning the Big Ten.
Michigan is going to be up against time as practice begins. Since practice time has been limited, Milton won’t have very many reps as the clear-cut starter to get going against a very difficult schedule. On the bright side, Milton does have a year with Gattis. But, geez, he really would’ve benefited from spring reps.
Future is now?
If Michigan is serious about making a run this season, it will need some young, inexperienced players to become big contributors. The QB position is one of those. Aside from that, though, the Wolverines are replacing four starters on the offensive line. A few of the replacements are likely to be younger players such as redshirt freshman Zach Carpenter (center), redshirt freshman Karsen Barnhart (left guard) and redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes (left tackle). Nico Collins’ opt-out and Tarik Black’s transfer to Texas opens the door for dynamic sophomore WR Giles Jackson to break into the starting lineup. Zach Charbonnet, the No. 4 running back in the 2019 class, can become one of the best backs in the Big Ten.
On defense, expectations are high for first-time starters like tackle Chris Hinton (a former 5-star recruit) and redshirt sophomore Michael Barrett, who will likely play the Viper role. Can former 5-star recruit Dax Hill become one of the Big Ten’s best safeties?
Michigan can win now and also brighten its outlook for 2021 if some of these younger players can deliver.
Week 1: at Minnesota (L)
Michigan typically does not play well on the road against ranked teams. Whether that holds without crowds is TBD. Technically, it’s also TBD as to whether Minnesota gets ranked by the time this game is played, but the Golden Gophers were No. 19 in the preseason poll.
Anyways, maybe later in the season when Milton has more experience, this would go differently. But this early in the season, I’ll take the team with the experienced QB and experienced offensive line. That’s Minnesota.
Week 2: vs. Michigan State (W)
This is at Michigan for the second straight year, which is irrelevant because Michigan State simply does not have anywhere near the talent that Michigan does. Mel Tucker will still be learning about his team in Week 2. It would’ve been nice for this to be the opener for Michigan, so Milton could have eased into the season. The Wolverines were supposed to get Purdue in Week 1, which would’ve been the perfect defense to open against. Michigan State may be a mess early on, but its defense should be a strong suit.
If Michigan struggles against Minnesota, and I think it might, this will be a crucial game toward setting the tone for the rest of the season.
Week 3: at Indiana (W)
I was surprised at how easily Michigan handled Indiana last season, even with the Hoosiers playing their best ball in decades. This year’s game will be like the four meetings before that — a Michigan victory, but within two scores. Week 3 is the point of the 2019 schedule where it became obvious Michigan was not a Big Ten contender, as it was whipped by Wisconsin. If Michigan loses this game, 2020 could get ugly.
Week 4: vs. Wisconsin (W)
If these teams had played in November instead of September last season, I think it would’ve been much closer. If it was in Ann Arbor instead of Madison, it would’ve been much closer. Michigan has both of those things working in its favor in 2020. Even though this is only Michigan’s fourth game of 2019, I think it gives Milton enough time to get some experience under his belt.
I may be in the minority with this pick, but consider this: Michigan has 43 4-star or 5-star players on its roster; Wisconsin has 13. It’s not that big of a stretch, even if last year’s game was so ugly. Besides, Harbaugh is 2-0 against Wisconsin at home, and he’s 0-2 against Wisconsin in Madison. I think Michigan deals Wisconsin its first (and only) loss of the regular season.
Week 5: at Rutgers (W)
In researching another story, I stumbled upon 2014. Somehow Rutgers beat Michigan that year? I did not remember that. I know 2020 is unpredictable … but no, not happening.
Week 6: vs. Penn State (L)
If there were going to be 110,000 fans at the Big House, maybe I would’ve picked Michigan. Maybe. But without fans, that advantage is neutralized. Penn State simply has a better roster, even without star LB Micah Parsons. Michigan hung around last year at Penn State and really could have gone to overtime if not for a bad drop in the end zone, but I really believe Penn State has one of the best teams in the country and could be even better than last year. I cannot say the same for Michigan.
Week 7: vs. Maryland (W)
I’m more interested in what Maryland looks like at this point in the season. With Josh Jackson opting out, it’s either Taulia Tagovailoa or Lance Legendre (star of Netflix’s QB1: Beyond the Lights) as the starter at QB. That makes this game much more interesting as Maryland builds toward the future. By interesting, I don’t necessarily mean close, though.
Week 8: at Ohio State (L)
Even without a packed house in Columbus, it’s not happening. Talk to me in 2021, when Ohio State presumably has a redshirt freshman at QB and Michigan has either a junior, and it’s in Ann Arbor with a full stadium.
2020 projection: 5-3 (3rd in B1G East)
Predicting three losses for Michigan feels just like old times, doesn’t it? The Wolverines have finished three of Jim Harbaugh’s five seasons with three losses.
If Milton turns out to be really good — and we really won’t know that until we see him handling game reps — then I could see Michigan going 7-1. If Milton struggles, I could easily see 4-4.
Pegging Michigan at 5-3 is kind of the middle ground, and it also feels about where the Wolverines are as a program — pretty good, but not quite Ohio State or Penn State.