Michigan's must-win football games this year: UConn and Michigan State
For a coach on the hot seat and a storied program coming off two straight losing seasons, just about every game qualifies as “big.”
But for the Michigan football team, two games stand out this year as potential season changers, the Sept. 4 opener against UConn and an Oct. 9 date with Michigan State.
Which one is more important to Michigan? You be the judge and take our poll.Â
Michigan vs. UConn, Sept. 4
Despite three straight bowl trips, UConn is a football program that doesn’t get nearly as much respect as it deserves. The Huskies return a veteran quarterback in Zach Frazer, a 1,000-yard rusher in Jordan TodmanÂ and coach Randy Edsall is widely considered one of the best in the country.
Still, this isn't Notre Dame (a team UConn beat last year and is probably better than). Losing to a program that's in its first decade of Division I football won't sit well with the casual fan and won’t quiet the speculation about Rich Rodriguez's future.
More importantly, Michigan needs to get off to a hot start for its own good. The Wolverines weren’t resilient enough to recover from a couple of close losses last year, and there’s a genuine risk of meltdown if things go south early. Remember, Michigan travels to Notre Dame in Week 2, so an 0-2 start is not out of question.
The Wolverines have plenty of issues to sort out in camp. Several positions are up for grabs on a young, revamped defense; starters David Molk and Vincent Smith are coming off serious knee injuries; and there’s no telling who starts at quarterback, incumbent Tate Forcier or the more explosive (but less reliable) Denard Robinson.
But this is the first game in new-look Michigan Stadium, so momentum should be on the Wolverines’ side. If they start fast, there’s no telling how far they can go.
Michigan vs. Michigan State, Oct. 9
Like UConn, Michigan State is a team on the cusp of the top 25, coming off a so-so season and visiting Michigan Stadium. In most years, that wouldn’t cause fans to lose any sleep. This isn’t most years.
Rodriguez is the first Michigan coach to lose back-to-back games to his in-state rival since Bump Elliott dropped three straight to the Spartans from 1965-67. Another loss and it might be too much for Rodriguez to overcome.
Michigan actually opens Big Ten play the first Saturday of October against Indiana. While that’s by no means a gimme - not with Michigan’s defense, and not after the scare Indiana gave Michigan a year ago - this is the most important league game on the schedule. A home game against Iowa and a trip to Penn State are next, and Michigan might be favored just one more time the rest of the year.
Michigan State is in position to contend for a Jan. 1 bowl this year. Greg Jones is the Big Ten’s best linebacker and Kirk Cousins one of the league's best quarterbacks.
But the Wolverines were an overtime interception away from beating the Spartans last year, and by this point in the season their offense should have a clear leader and maybe a feature running back.
Michigan's recent track record against its three rivals - Ohio State and Notre Dame being the others - isn't good. Regardless of what else shakes out this season, the Wolverines need to reassert their dominance locally, and this would be a good place to start.
Dave Birkett covers University of Michigan football for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached by phone at 734-623-2552 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.