It's the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas yet. College football season is upon us.
Every fall, I get to embrace my greatest and most passionate sports fandom in my life: The Michigan Wolverines. I have bled maize and blue since I was four years old, loved the University of Michigan ever since, been to a number of games at The Big House as a fan and as a sportswriter covering the team for two seasons for The Michigan Times at UM-Flint, and even though I root for Michigan in every sport and competition it competes in, there's nothing like rooting for the football team. It is where the greatest passion for most Michigan fans is.
That passion was......severely tested for seven years. 2008 to 2014 to be exact, though I believe that it started even sooner on November 17, 2006......the day that the program's legendary coach and patriarch Bo Schembechler died, just hours before undefeated #2 Michigan was set to play undefeated #1 Ohio State in a titanic end of the season matchup to determine the winner of the Big Ten and who would play for a national championship.
With heavy hearts indeed, Michigan lost 42-39 that day, but they lost much more than just a game and a shot at a national championship. A year later after a lackluster 9-4 season that included what is known as the greatest college football upset of all-time, Appalachian State's 34-32 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor, longtime head coach Lloyd Carr retired, passing the coaching torch to Rich Rodriguez who came from West Virginia.
In three seasons at Michigan he was 15-22, including two losing seasons where Michigan didn't make a bowl game, and in Rich Rod's final season in 2010 they were destroyed 52-14 by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. He was replaced by Brady Hoke, former Michigan defensive line coach under Lloyd Carr and then head coach at San Diego State. His four year record at Michigan was better, 31-20, but his teams got progressively worse each season going from an 11-2 record with a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech in 2011 to a 5-7 record in 2014 with no bowl appearance.
To add insult to injury, Michigan was a combined 2-12 against hated rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. As a fanbase and a football program, we had reached our lowest point......so low that it took a home run hire, a true aligning of the stars to bring Jim Harbaugh in as head coach to give us hope again, and in one season he and his staff turned a 5-7 team in 2014 into a 10-3 team with a dominant Citrus Bowl win over Florida in 2015. Add to that a Top 5 recruiting class in 2016 that featured the unanimous #1 player in the country, defensive lineman Rashan Gary, and there's a reason why expectations are higher than they've been in a long time for Michigan fans.
Which leads us to the 2016 season, set to start this Saturday at noon for Michigan at home. It holds a #7 preseason ranking in the Associated Press Poll and a #8 preseason ranking in the Coaches Poll. Many think the Wolverines are good enough to win the Big Ten and get into the College Football Playoff this season, while others, most notably Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network, think they could lose three to four games this season and be a complete bust.
Without further ado, here's my official prediction on what Michigan football will do in 2016, game by game:
HAWAII vs. MICHIGAN - September 3rd @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
I'm too paranoid as a fan to say that this will be the easiest opponent Michigan plays this season, but the Rainbow Warriors probably will be. They're already 0-1 after losing to Cal by 20 last week and it's Michigan's home opener. Word is they are itching to get the season started and the coaching staff is not letting anyone get complacent. Expect Michigan to put this one on ice pretty early. MICHIGAN WINS.
CENTRAL FLORIDA vs. MICHIGAN - September 10th @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
I'm sure Central Florida head coach Scott Frost will try to have some surprises planned for Michigan in this game, but this one shouldn't be much different than Hawaii. Neither team is from a Power 5 conference. MICHIGAN WINS.
COLORADO vs. MICHIGAN - September 17th @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
Finally a Power 5 school, formerly of the Big 12 now from the PAC-12. If you're watching this one at home, get ready to see the 1993 Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook Hail Mary highlight played at least one thousand times during the game week and into the game itself. This Buffaloes team is nowhere near that, though. They haven't made a bowl game since 2007 and haven't had a winning season since 2005. Their current head coach, Mike MacIntyre is 10-27 in three seasons with Colorado. He's likely fired if they don't make a bowl game this year. Nothing is impossible, but I wouldn't count on a monumental upset here. MICHIGAN WINS.
PENN STATE vs. MICHIGAN - September 24th @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
This might also be a "warm-seat" year for Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin. He's only in the third year of his contract and Penn State has gone bowling, but a pair of 7-6 seasons isn't going to cut it in Happy Valley. He couldn't even beat Brady Hoke's Wolverines in 2014. Still, Michigan had to earn its win last year at Penn State with a ton of sacks and QB pressure through a pretty bad offensive line. The Nittany Lions are supposed to have a new offense this year with a new QB under center as well, but Michigan's defensive front might just be licking their chops to see if they can get more sacks this year than last year. This one will be a bit closer, especially being the first Big Ten game of the season, but it should still be a good day for the Wolverines. MICHIGAN WINS.
WISCONSIN vs. MICHIGAN - October 1st @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
This one won't be as easy as people think. The Badgers have always prided themselves on running the football and being physical with a QB that manages the game well and doesn't make too many mistakes. It's really no different with Paul Chryst at the helm for his second year as head coach of Wisconsin football. The Badgers went 10-3 last year too in the Big Ten West Division in eerily similar fashion to Michigan with a loss to Alabama in Week 1, a low scoring defensive loss to eventual division winner Iowa in October, and another defensive loss later at home to Northwestern. They edged USC in the Qualcomm Bowl 23-21. It's going to come down to how good and healthy Michigan's defense is at this point in the season. Wisconsin is going to try to match their physicality but just like Michigan, they will be breaking in a new QB as well in Bart Houston. In a game of who is going to outmuscle and outlast the other, I'll go with the home team despite the fact that Wisconsin was 4-1 on the road last year......same as Michigan was. I'll likely be nervous watching this one. MICHIGAN WINS.
MICHIGAN vs. RUTGERS - October 8th @ High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey
If not for a Janarion Grant kickoff return for a touchdown in last year's game, Michigan would have won by exactly 40 points. Rutgers is rebuilding with former Ohio State assistant coach Chris Ash leading the team, but his presence combined with this being Michigan's first road game of the year after five weeks in a row at home should make this one a bit stickier as well, especially if it becomes a night game. Even so, this is a game where talent level and experience should win the day and the die hard Rutgers fans might really be upset when a Michigan team full of highly talented New Jersey defectors including Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary beat them on their home ground. The team gets its first road win of 2016. MICHIGAN WINS.
ILLINOIS at MICHIGAN - October 22nd @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
This one will be interesting if for no other reason than to see what former NFL head coach Lovie Smith does now in charge of the Illini. He's familiar with Jim Harbaugh's work at San Francisco of course and has similar extensive NFL knowledge that you'd have to believe he's passing onto the Illinois players. The thing is, this is another program in the middle of a rebuild but in this case, the last two rebuilds under Ron Zook and Tim Beckmann didn't really work. Zook had one nine-win season with Illinois in 2007 and then didn't win more than seven games in one season in the next four years, which he did twice but missed bowl games the other two years. Beckmann was even worse, going 12-25 and failing to make a bowl game in three seasons before being replaced by Bill Cubit, who went 5-7 last year. It'll be interesting to see what Lovie does in his first year, but coming back home after a bye week should make this one pretty standard for the more talented and experienced Wolverines. MICHIGAN WINS.
MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE - October 29th @ Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan
This game has surely been circled since the dropped punt last year that gave the Spartans their seventh win in the last eight years over Michigan. Sickening to think about. Head coach Mark Dantonio is 7-2 against Michigan in his career as Michigan State's head coach, but he really should be 6-3 because that dropped punt is the only reason they won the game last year. Sure it sounds like sour grapes, but the Spartans needed 328 yards passing from Connor Cook and 132 yards receiving from Aaron Burbridge just to put them in a position to be down two points with ten seconds to go before the fluke of all flukes happened. Both Cook and Burbridge, two of MSU's best offensive weapons are gone now, and so are offensive linemen Jack Conklin and Jack Allen and defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun. With those players, Michigan State had 58 yards rushing against Michigan last year and held Michigan to 62 yards rushing. They're all gone, while Michigan returns their entire offensive and defensive lines minus Graham Glasgow and Willie Henry, not to mention all major offensive and defensive playmakers aside from Jake Rudock.
For once, Michigan is going into this game with an experience and potential talent advantage, which a lot of times can mean nothing in a heated rivalry game but MSU has enjoyed that advantage for awhile now and it will be nice to have that table turned this season for once. Michigan had this team dead to rights last year and beat itself in the final ten seconds. Don't expect that to happen again this time, even in East Lansing which is technically a road game, but is literally just down the road. Both Dantonio and Harbaugh will have their teams ready to play a tough, physical game and that alone could make it another close one, but here's hoping that it isn't a close one and that it's in favor of the good guys from Ann Arbor. No one is going to take their foot off the gas pedal here, especially Harbaugh and Michigan after what happened last season. This is where the Wolverines finally take the state back. MICHIGAN WINS.
MARYLAND vs. MICHIGAN - November 5th @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
This one is going to be interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which is former Michigan defensive coordinator and current Maryland head coach DJ Durkin. You can bet he will instill a consistent defensive intensity within this Terrapins team and while he's not privy to Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown's schemes, he does know a lot of those players on that defense. The question is, a year after being shutout at home by the Wolverines, does Maryland have the talent to beat them on the road? Doubtful, even with Will Likely as an all-world receiver and kick returner and Perry Hills leading the offense. The Terps are not going to get shutout again that's for sure, but in Week 9 facing a hopefully undefeated and confident Michigan team at The Big House, this one shouldn't be in too much doubt at all. MICHIGAN WINS.
MICHIGAN vs. IOWA - November 12th @ Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa
This game flat out scares me. Seriously. I've been a Michigan fan for far too long to forget the goofy things that have happened in games against Iowa, especially at Kinnick Stadium. This is also a team that just like Michigan is returning a good amount of players from the team that won the Big Ten West last year and took MSU right to the end in the conference championship game, except that unlike the Wolverines, Iowa brings back its QB, CJ Beathard. He's good, especially in that offense that head coach Kirk Ferentz likes to run. All-world cornerback Desmond King is coming back as well and he's no one that any quarterback should be throwing in the general direction of whatsoever. It's really easy to say that last year was an aberration for the Hawkeyes and they will go back to normal this year and underachieve in the Big Ten West, but I don't believe that at all. This is going to a be tight, close game that goes down to the wire and some craziness is going to happen especially since it's at night. If not for last year's cardiac arrest inducing wins at Minnesota on Halloween and Indiana a few weeks later, I don't know that I would give the Wolverines the edge here, but those players came up big when they needed it most in those games last year at night and I think with that under their belt and potentially even more talent on their side this season, they can get the job done no matter how nerve-wracking the 4th quarter is going to be. Michigan will EARN this game for sure. MICHIGAN WINS.
INDIANA at MICHIGAN - November 19th @ The Big House in Ann Arbor
Speaking of the Hoosiers, Michigan has been involved in some definite craziness against them in the last few years, whether it was the 63-47 Xbox shootout they played against each other in Ann Arbor in 2013 or last year's 48-41 double overtime thriller at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. In both cases Michigan won and has done so against Indiana for the last 28 years in a row, going all the way back to 1987 when Indiana beat the Wolverines 14-10 the year after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL as a player. Since then, Michigan is 20-0 against the Hoosiers and that's likely to continue here. Indiana is sure to score some points as they have done against quality teams before, but the 41 points the Hoosiers scored against Michigan last season, which included 307 yards rushing came a week after defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow went down with an injury, which meant that combined with defensive tackle Bryan Mone's preseason injury, the Wolverines were without their best nose tackles to stop the run and the loss of Mario Ojemudia on that defensive front helped Indiana as well. Provided they can stay relatively healthy, Michigan's defensive line is deeper than last season's was for certain and with Indiana breaking in a new QB to replace Nate Sudfeld, the passing attack may not be lights out either. Meanwhile, the Michigan offense should be able to put up enough points against a still-maligned Hoosier defense. MICHIGAN WINS.
MICHIGAN vs. OHIO STATE - November 26th @ The Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio
This one kills me. Seriously, it's going to hurt for me to say this but this is a really tough one for me to call because I'm not comfortable picking Michigan to win this one. It's not that I don't think they can or that they will, I just see too many question marks that I don't have with those other games. Urban Meyer is a snake in the grass but he's one of the best coaches in college football and the only one currently coaching other than Nick Saban that has won multiple national championships, two at Florida in 2006 and 2008 and one at OSU in 2014. He doesn't rebuild, he just reloads teams with the talent he gets, which is why despite losing 11 starters on both sides of the ball from last year, people still think the Buckeyes are the favorite to win the Big Ten. I hate that. I really, really hate that. It's a valid point though, and despite losing so much talent all around, the one guy they don't lose is QB J.T. Barrett, who now isn't competing with anyone for that starting QB job. He'll need a new running back to step up and help him, likely Mike Weber, but he's going to be dynamic as he always is and in Michigan's case, we've got to know if the linebackers are up to the challenge of dealing with that power spread offense.
Make no mistake, after last year's disastrous 42-13 score, Jim Harbaugh hired Don Brown and his scheme specifically for this matchup. Under no circumstances is what happened last year allowable to continue and while it likely won't, we just don't know how this defense will perform against what will be the most dynamic offense they face all season, under the command of one of the best coaches in the country. Ugh, I hate saying that crap. Offensively, I think Michigan can hold their own without having to worry about Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington or Eli Apple to terrorize them anymore. Sure the Buckeyes will have new studs on defense, but Michigan's offense will be much more experienced. The question is can they stop Barrett and that offense? I wish I could say yes for certain, but I just don't know and if I don't know, I can't say for certain that it's a win. Besides, picking a team to go undefeated in a year like this, while I pray to God that it happens, is just not a favorable thing to do in my opinion. I hate, hate, hate, hate with a burning passion the thought of dealing with yet another year of losing to these SOB's, but I don't know if Michigan is there yet. I really hope they are and I'm wrong as hell on this one.
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME - December 3rd @ Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana
This is going to greatly depend on how the season goes for the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big Ten. If OSU loses twice in conference before playing Michigan, then even a Michigan loss to them would mean Michigan at 11-1 would go to Indy, which is entirely possible considering how much the Buckeyes have lost in experience and talent and could struggle at times during the season. If Michigan were to lose their one game against OSU, as much as it would sting I would gladly get over it as best as I could to enjoy a trip to the Big Ten title game. The Wolverines have never played in it before and haven't won a conference title in 12 years, which is far too long. They really NEED to get here, even with an 11-1 record because a Big Ten title in Ann Arbor is sorely required, so here's hoping my OSU prediction is wrong or that Michigan would still go to Indy anyway even if it's right.
So there you have it. My prediction and minimum expectation for Michigan football this season is 11-1. Anything less than that for me, even 10-2, is a disappointment in my eyes, especially if both of those losses come to the rivals again. In Year 2 of the Harbaugh Era, you need to beat one of them without fail. I made my case for why MSU is the more likely target to take down this season.
11 wins for this team may seem very lofty with questions at QB and linebacker, not to mention the unpredictable nature of injuries that befall every team in the country. The thing is last year I said that Michigan would finish with a record no worse than 8-4 and that was because I felt they were an 8-4 team in 2014 talent-wise that couldn't put it together with substandard coaching. With Harbaugh and his staff, eight wins was the floor for me. Anything less would have been disappointing and I said that while so many others said 7-5, 6-6 and even 5-7 for a second year in a row, thinking that the team just didn't have any talent.
Well, they won 10 games, two ahead of my expectation, and when you do that then you raise the expectations for the following season. 11 is greater than 10, so there you have it. This Michigan team has the coaching, the talent and the schedule necessary to have a special year and here's hoping they put one together for us. We've been waiting a long time for it, that's for sure.