When Michigan opens up its 2020 season on the road at Minnesota, the Wolverines will begin their first big test of the year. The Golden Gophers narrowly missed a ranking in the most recent AP poll, but the program will receive a jolt now that Rashod Bateman is coming back for the fall.
While that challenge will settle itself on Oct. 24, the Big Ten as a whole will need to battle a perception issue by only playing nine games this season when schools in the SEC are playing 10 games, the ACC 11 games and the Big 12 10 games. Though not an official arbiter on the situation, ESPN analyst Chris Fowler does not think that disparity will tarnish the Big Ten's postseason chances in 2020.
"I think all conferences are impacted," Fowler told Wolverine Digest. "They aren't impacted as much as the PAC-12 is, which will start later and have an even shorter season, but the Big Ten I think has equity built up. People understand the depth and the quality of the conference, so to me just winning the Big Ten is enough. Not having the non-conference tests that we would've loved to see, I don't think it will impact-- as long as the Big Ten team that wins it takes care of business-- I don't think it will be viewed as the complexion of the conference having changed because of the short schedule. The teams that are strong are still strong-- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin. I don't think that's going to change."
In theory, if Michigan has a strong initial eight games and wins the Big Ten Championship for its ninth contest, Fowler believes that the Wolverines should be in the running for a berth in the College Football Playoffs.
While that is certainly a lofty goal, it is one that would require a strict attention to detail from Michigan in order to move from a possibility to reality.
"I do think that you better have your focus from the start though," Fowler said. "There is no margin for error. Losing a game means more. We've seen it in other leagues already. Two top eight teams stumbled, and if that hasn't knocked LSU and Oklahoma out of it, it's close. It's very close. They are certainly way on the back burner. So, Big Ten teams need to come out and play to their own standard right from the start and not stumble. The schedule looks tasty though. When you check that out, there's a bunch of great matchups that you don't always get to see."
Some of Michigan's most pivotal matchups include the Oct. 24 meeting with Minnesota, a Nov. 14 game against Wisconsin, a Nov. 28 contest versus Penn State and finally a regular season-ending bout with Ohio State on Dec. 12. If the Wolverines can make it through that gauntlet unscathed, then Michigan will have rightfully earned all the praise that comes its way.
"The conference champion of the Big Ten, the champions of the leagues and then the National Champion if we eventually have that playoff, there is no asterisk to that," Fowler said. "There is no stigma attached. When you win this year, I don't care what the sport is. You see that the NBA, the NHL, I covered the US Open in Tennis, when you raise that trophy at the end, you've earned it because of what you went through. It meant some wear and tear and the physical component to it. There is just going to be a very deserving Big Ten opponent at the end of this season, and I don't think there's any asterisk attached to it."
Less than four weeks remain until Michigan will take the field to open the 2020 season. It's been a long offseason, but the Wolverines have their first opportunity to define how the Corona-season will be remembered down the line.
What do you expect out of the Wolverines this fall? Will a Big Ten team make it to the College Football Playoffs? Let us know!