Best case/worst case: Michigan football game-by-game in 2021

·10 min read
Best case/worst case: Michigan football game-by-game in 2021

It’s been a couple of years since we’ve done a best case vs. worst case scenario for Michigan football’s schedule, but with a few months before the season kicks off, considering that we’re starting to get odds and kickoff times, it’s a good moment to take a cursory look at what could happen in 2021.

The previous iteration had several games where Michigan was not in danger of losing, but given the 2-4 record in 2020, nearly every game is up for grabs.

With that in mind, here’s a general look at what could happen in every game as well as why.

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Western Michigan

josh metellus carlo kemp tackle michigan
josh metellus carlo kemp tackle michigan

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Best case

It's an old-school shellacking, and Michigan football fires on all cylinders. Reminiscent of the 2016 season opener against Hawaii, the Wolverines score early and often while the defense keeps the Broncos off the board until late -- if they score at all. The offense looks sharp and moves the ball down the field at will. There's no more than two punts in the entire game and special teams sees a solid return game.

Worst case

Let's be honest: worst case here doesn't equate to Michigan losing the game, as that, regardless of what happens in 2021 and what happened in 2020, would be an upset of gigantic proportions. The worst case in this game would be one that isn't decided until late -- think Akron in 2013. True worst case would also add one or more injuries that sees a star player sidelined for a significant amount of time, similar to Shea Patterson being injured on the first play from scrimmage in 2018 vs. MTSU.

Our prediction

A typical season opener against an overmatched opponent. Best case scenario wins out here.

Washington

Photo: Long Photography-USA TODAY Sports

Best case

Something similar to the 2013 Notre Dame game -- the second game of the year when the Wolverines pounce on their highly touted opponent. While that game had some struggles, and Michigan didn't fully pull away until late, there was no question who was the better team on the field. True best case would be a scenario where Michigan looks like it's playing another MAC team, as unlikely as that may be.

Worst case

Michigan gets blown out at home and doesn't look even close to competitive -- made even worse by this being a prime-time game on ABC and being where ESPN's "College GameDay" is a strong contender to be. But, the last time the Wolverines were featured in ABC's premier slot, it was against Wisconsin in 2020 -- the maize and blue didn't look competitive for a single second. A redux of that would be the worst-case scenario.

Our prediction

The middle ground. It's an evenly-matched game, and whoever has the ball last comes out on top.

NIU

Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Best case

Pretty much the same as the Western Michigan game, with the added bonus that someone who had started to come on in the first two weeks really shows out -- like a freshman or emerging underclassman. It's never a competitive game and Michigan rolls.

Worst case

Again, Akron 2013, but with the Washington game having happened the week before, if Michigan loses that game, then it's at danger of having lost its confidence and actually manages a second loss of the season.

Our prediction

NIU doesn't look very good, or at least it didn't this past year. Michigan wins by 20-plus points.

Rutgers

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Best case

While it's highly unlikely that a redux of the 2016 78-0 whipping of the Scarlet Knights will happen, given Greg Schiano appears to have Rutgers back on the right track, a game similar to the 2019 matchup would likely be the best case here. Imagine Rutgers actually is a .500 team but Michigan still rolls and shuts it out? That would be the ideal here.

Worst case

Regardless of what happened in the weeks beforehand, Rutgers comes to town and avenges its triple OT loss from last year, beating the Wolverines for the first time since 2014. We saw the Scarlet Knights jump to an early lead last year before the maize and blue stormed back, so the worst-case scenario is that that happens again, but Michigan falls flat in its attempt to even the score.

Our prediction

It'll look like the 2017 Rutgers game, where Michigan will win by multiple scores, but it will not look easy.

Wisconsin

cam mcgrone
cam mcgrone

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Best case

While we haven't seen a game like this on the road in recent memory, the 2018 version of the Michigan vs. Wisconsin game, but at Camp Randall. The Badgers looked susceptible after they trounced the Wolverines last year, so there's a chance that Wisconsin isn't very formidable. But that also indicates that the maize and blue were significantly worse last year. Best case would be Michigan gets back on track after having four games under its belt and takes it to Wisconsin on the road with a two- to three-score victory.

Worst case

Wisconsin's backs run all over the Wolverines defense and Graham Mertz looks every bit a five-star. The game looks exactly like it has the past two years.

Our prediction

The game looks like the 2017 iteration, where Michigan keeps it close until the fourth quarter, when the Badgers pull away.

Nebraska

Photo: Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Best case

It's a road version of the last time these two teams played: Michigan manhandled the Huskers up front and made Nebraska look like it's a low-level Group of Five team.

Worst case

Adrian Martinez is healthy and looks the part of the electric athlete he's expected to be. The Huskers skill position players make the Michigan defense look like they're playing a different sport. Scott Frost's team outhits the Wolverines.

Our prediction

Nebraska was competitive last year, but couldn't get over the hump. Still, there's little indication that it will get over the hump this year. We expect a back-and-forth game in which Michigan comes out on top.

Northwestern

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Best case

Michigan has significantly higher-end talent than Northwestern, and the Wildcats don't have Mike Hankwitz leading the defense any longer. The Wolverines exploit a new defensive coordinator while presumed starter Ryan Hilinski can't get much of anything going. It looks like the last time these two played in Ann Arbor in 2015.

Worst case

The first half of the 2018 game happens in both halves. Michigan plays an uninspired game. The Northwestern defense doesn't miss a beat, and a relatively inexperienced team throttles the Wolverines at home.

Our prediction

Northwestern is due for a step back this year, so it should be a relatively easy win.

Michigan State

Photo: Detroit Free Press

Best case

Michigan out-talents and out-coaches Mel Tucker & Co., making the in-state rival look as inferior as it did in 2019. True best case here would be MSU looks significantly better in 2021 than it did in 2020, but Michigan still whips the Spartans. Tucker brought in a ton of transfers and has truly revamped the roster, but it'll be difficult to discern what it will look like this season. Best case is it doesn't matter and Michigan does what it wants, moves the ball with ease while keeping MSU from scoring. Easy.

Worst case

Whoever the QB is manages the game and makes just enough plays to put points on the board. The defense looks like vintage Michigan State -- punishing up front and solid in the back. True worst case is Mark Dantonio heyday MSU comes back for this game. But, honestly, the worst case is any loss. Jim Harbaugh cannot abide a losing record to Michigan State in Year 7, so it's imperative he retains his undefeated record at Spartan Stadium.

Our prediction

This game returns to normal, as it's too-close-for-comfort, but Michigan pulls it out in the end.

Indiana

Photo: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Best case

Michigan has lost to Indiana once since 1987, but that loss came last year. The Wolverines are still much more talented and have former Hoosiers coach Mike Hart on staff. The maize and blue haven't had the types of close games -- they've still been close, just not as close -- in Ann Arbor as they've had in Bloomington. Considering how much of Indiana's talent is returning, such as Michael Penix Jr., and with the additions of Zach Carpenter and Stephen Carr, the Hoosiers could still be formidable. Best case is probably a two-score victory here.

Worst case

Michael Penix deals dimes to Ty Fryfogle and Peyton Hendershot. Stephen Carr rushes for over 100 yards and the defense keeps Michigan's offensive attack at bay en route to a second straight win.

Our prediction

Michigan returns to form and beats Indiana by 10 points.

Penn State

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Best case

Michigan blowing out Penn State on the road is quite unlikely, but the Nittany Lions also have yet another new offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich. This game coming later in the season indicates they'll have settled a bit, and, with Sean Clifford back, the offense could be formidable. However, it wasn't a year ago, so best case here is the defense does enough while the offense manages to start and finish drives in an extremely hostile environment. Best case scenario: Michigan wins by a touchdown or so.

Worst case

2017 all over again. Michigan comes out flat, as it's tended to in Happy Valley, while PSU builds a multiple-score lead. The Wolverines mount very little effort after that and are embarrassed in State College once again.

Our prediction

A combination of the two. Penn State starts fast, Michigan climbs back into it and shows heart. But the Wolverines lose by one score.

Maryland

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Best case

Let's face it: Outside of 2014, Maryland has put up very little resistance to Michigan. No, they haven't all been super-lopsided blowouts, but the Wolverines have managed to win by multiple scores every year. Mike Locksley has been recruiting very well, but the maize and blue are still much more stacked. This game being on the road doesn't help, but it's more of the same -- a three-or-more score victory.

Worst case

Taulia Tagovailoa looks how he did against Minnesota. But even that shouldn't be enough as Maryland still hasn't proven it's much better than a .500 team.

Our prediction

The best-case scenario.

Ohio State

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Best case

Ohio State didn't find an otherworldly quarterback on its roster to hit all of its otherworldly receivers. The attrition to the NFL draft takes a toll and the Buckeyes are just great instead of elite. Michigan has a repeat of the 2017 game where it scores early and often while holding OSU off the board. The Buckeyes are still too much, but a close loss makes the Wolverines and their fans feel like they're back on the right track.

Worst case

2018 and 2019 repeat themselves.

Our prediction

Michigan looks better than it did the last two times they faced OSU, but still loses by two or more scores.

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