Spring practices have come and gone as the Michigan Wolverines held their spring game this past weekend, and will now turn their attention towards the summer as they look to rebound from a disappointing 2020 season.
One reason the Wolverines could be in store for a bounce-back year is the manageable schedule on tap for 2021. The first four contests to begin the year will all be at home, including a non-conference bout with the Washington Huskies. Michigan will have a pair of back-to-back road games later in the year, but three of the four opponents had losing records in 2020. The bye week occurs right in the middle of the season in Week 7. And the yearly matchup with Ohio State will be in Ann Arbor after last season's meeting in Columbus was canceled.
Below is a breakdown of the Wolverines 2021 slate.
Bye: Week 7
Week 1 – Sept.4 vs. Western Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
The Wolverines kickoff the 2021 campaign taking on an in-state directional school in Western Michigan that boasts arguably the top offense in the MAC with returning quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who threw 18 touchdown passes in just five games last season. The Broncos also will feature a rushing attack that averaged nearly 200 yards per game. The opening line will likely put Michigan as a double-digit favorite, but this won't be a cakewalk by any stretch.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Washington (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
This matchup was supposed to take place last season in the Pacific Northwest before COVID altered everyone's schedule. This will be the first meeting since 2002 between the Wolverines and Huskies, with both teams entering this offseason with major quarterback battles on hand. For Washington, incumbent Dylan Morris will have to fend off former Colorado State transfer Patrick O'Brien and five-star recruit Sam Huard. Michigan is in an almost identical situation with Cade McNamara also having to fight off a transfer in Alan Bowman and five-star recruit in J.J. McCarthy.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Northern Illinois (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Good news here for NIU – their likely starting quarterback in 2021, former Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi, torched the Wolverines for 323 yards and three touchdowns last season. No one is really expecting a similar outcome, though, this year as the Huskies from the MAC are still in rebuilding mode under third-year head coach Thomas Hammock.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. Rutgers (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
After being outscored 256-37 in their previous five meetings with the Wolverines, Rutgers took Michigan into triple overtime last season before eventually falling 48-42. Head coach Greg Schiano is already working his magic again with the Scarlet Knights, finishing last year with the most wins (3) since 2017, and he just reeled in a four-star quarterback recruit this past weekend.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 at Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.)
A lot went wrong for the Wolverines last year, but the performance against the Badgers was easily their worst of the season, outgained 468-219 in a 49-11 blowout. Wisconsin should once again be a formidable opponent in 2021 with second-year starting quarterback Graham Mertz returning, along with his full complement of pass catchers and an emerging star in the backfield in Jalen Berger. Michigan hasn't won in Madison since 2001.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 at Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb.)
Remember when Jim Harbaugh to Michigan and Scott Frost to Nebraska were thought to be slam-dunk hires? Good times. Excuses will be out the window for Frost if the Cornhuskers don't succeed in 2021 as the defense returns mostly intact and the offense added a couple of talented playmakers via the portal in former USC running back Markese Stepp and former FCS All-American receiver Samori Toure. Results might rest on the shoulders of returning quarterback Adrian Martinez and how he develops entering his fourth year in Lincoln.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 vs. Northwestern (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
What a bounce-back statement for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats after a disastrous 2019 season, winning the Big Ten West and finishing 7-2 with a convincing Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn. There will be some fresh faces on the sidelines for Northwestern in 2021 with a pair of transfers expected to play major roles in quarterback Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina) and wide receiver Stephon Robinson (Kansas). Fitzgerald also will have a new defensive coordinator (former Las Vegas Raiders defensive backs coach Jim O'Neil) following the retirement of Mike Hankwitz, who had been in the role the past 12 years.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 at Michigan State (East Lansing, Mich.)
There were numerous low points for the Wolverines last season, with one undoubtedly coming at the hands of in-state rival Michigan State in a 27-24 upset in the Big House. Second-year head coach Mel Tucker hit the transfer portal hard this offseason, bringing in 11 new players, several of which are expected to play integral roles immediately, including former Temple quarterback Anthony Russo and Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 vs. Indiana (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
The Hoosiers ended that dreaded 24-game losing streak to Michigan last season with a convincing 38-21 victory in Bloomington. Should Indiana notch back-to-back wins over the Wolverines, it would be the first time that's happened since 1958-59, and the first victory in Ann Arbor since 1967.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Penn State (University Park, Pa.)
Penn State is in a similar spot to Michigan, hoping to rebound from a dismal 2020 season. Head coach James Franklin decided that one year of Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator was enough, opting to make a change by hiring former Texas OC Mike Yurcich. He will have an intriguing collection of pieces to work with on offense, including potential All-Big Ten receiver Jahan Dotson and a deep stable of running backs.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 at Maryland (College Park, Md.)
Michigan has won eight of the nine matchups with Maryland since the Terrapins joined the Big Ten with only one contest (Maryland win in 2014) decided by fewer than 10 points. Third-year head coach Mike Locksley has this program trending in the right direction if their recent recruiting success is any indication, and he has a collection of talented playmakers on offense, led by quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and receivers Rakim Jarrett and Dontay Demus.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 vs. Ohio State (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Might the Wolverines actually have a chance this year against their bitter rivals, considering the Buckeyes will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and this game will take place in Ann Arbor? Probably not considering how Ohio State continues to replenish its roster year in, year out. Ohio State will likely be a double-digit favorite once again entering The Game.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.