Michigan football readies for tougher 2024 schedule: 'Love it. Need it. Want it.'

Michigan football, the winningest program in the history of the sport, is coming off its best-ever three-year stretch.

The Wolverines went 42-3 since the start of 2021 as they bulldozed their way to three consecutive Big Ten championships and three straight College Football Playoff appearances, which included last season's Rose Bowl and CFP title game victories to cap a program-record 15-0 finish.

But it is worth pointing out U-M had one of the easiest nonconference schedules in the country during that run. In 2021, Michigan beat Western Michigan and Northern Illinois by a combined 88 points and also throttled a Washington team that would go just 4-8 in a tumultuous season in Seattle.

Michigan defensive back Will Johnson celebrates after intercepting a pass from Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
Michigan defensive back Will Johnson celebrates after intercepting a pass from Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

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In 2022, Michigan faced Hawaii, Colorado State and UConn — three schooles that went 12-26 combined — and won those three games by a total score of 166-17.

And then, in 2023, the Wolverines racked up nonconference wins against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green by a combined 96-16 score. In total, U-M has not trailed in a September nonconference game since battling Army in a double-overtime nailbiter in Ann Arbor on Sept. 7, 2019.

All those nonconference cupcakes have left the season's first couple months feeling more like an afterthought, as U-M waited until late October and November to face Penn State and Ohio State and determine its East Division fate.

The 2024 season is more than two months away, but it's safe to say U-M will face a much tougher nonconference test. The Wolverines start with Fresno State, which went 9-4 last season and was ranked in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll four times.

Week 2 then brings a visit from Texas, a fellow 2023 CFP squad; on paper, it's the toughest game U-M has scheduled in more than a decade. The Longhorns lost several stars to the NFL draft, just as Michigan did, but return standout quarterback Quinn Ewers (and have Arch Manning waiting in the wings).

Even Week 3's opponent, Arkansas State, isn't a walkover; the Red Wolves made a bowl in their second season under coach Butch Jones, a former Central Michigan head coach.

"Love it. Need it. Want it," head coach Sherrone Moore said last month at a high school football camp when asked about the schedule. "We want competition, and it just makes you better, so that's all we want."

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Sherrone Moore, Michigan’s new head coach, speaks in front of family, media and University of Michigan faculty members during a press conference inside the Junge Family Champions Center in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.
Sherrone Moore, Michigan’s new head coach, speaks in front of family, media and University of Michigan faculty members during a press conference inside the Junge Family Champions Center in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

The Wolverines' Big Ten schedule will get an upgrade to its degree of difficulty, as well. With the conference adding four former Pac-12 schools — Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington — U-M will face new foes, with the Ducks, Trojans and Huskies on the slate in 2024.

"For me, I never really want anything but to be in a situation that challenges you," Moore said. "For us, it's just another chip on our shoulder, because people are just gonna say what they're gonna say about the schedule (in the past) and this and that, but we just block out the noise and go to work."

Michigan was a trendy pick to win it all last season, opening the year at No. 2 in the AP and Coaches polls and never falling below that. That may not be the case this season; U-M was spotted at No. 10 by ESPN in a post-spring ranking.

Some Wolverines, such as All-American cornerback Will Johnson, have noticed the change in tenor.

"I mean, there's a lot of people saying we won't be good," he said before hosting his own camp in Detroit. "We've got a very nice schedule this year. ... I really look at it in the same mentality that we've had before. Hard work is undefeated. No matter how hard we work, that's what's going to show on the field."

This will be Johnson's third fall in Ann Arbor, and he, too, will be facing a different challenge without head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale (both departed for the NFL). Johnson played less than a dozen September snaps against nonconference foes in 2023 while rehabbing his way back from arthroscopic knee surgery.

Michigan defensive back Will Johnson (2) tackles Ohio State tight end Cade Stover during the first half at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Nov.  26, 2022.
Michigan defensive back Will Johnson (2) tackles Ohio State tight end Cade Stover during the first half at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Nov. 26, 2022.

Johnson should be healthy this fall, but he and any Wolverine who get injured in camp won't have the luxury of a slow ramp-up to the season.

"It's a lot different," Johnson said of the tough schedule. "We're using this time right now to be where we want to be in shape. Get our mind right, get our chemistry together, keep that culture where it is. We've got a lot of things to do to get ready before the season.

"There's a lot of powerhouse teams on that schedule. But it's the same (mentality) we had before. Take it game by game, week by week. Trust in our coaches and our preparation. That's all it's about."

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football readies for loaded 2024 schedule

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