(Amber Ainsworth/MJ)

By JERAMY STOVER, Sports Editor

All tweets aside, this season will be looked at differently for Jim Harbaugh. It has to.

Last season, the University of Michigan football team was given a pass. A rightful one, I might add.

Don’t get me wrong, the Wolverines had a nice season. Going 10-3 and winning a January bowl game is a successful season for most programs. But Michigan doesn’t want to be like most programs.

Harbaugh wants his team to be in the conversation of elite programs in the country — a table which hosts teams such as Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Michigan State.

But it’s two of the teams listed that are keeping Michigan out of the picture. Two teams the Wolverines hate — its rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.

Michigan has lost seven of the last eight to the Spartans. And have only bested the Buckeyes once since 2003.

Even with losses to both schools last season, Michigan still had a successful season as it won nearly every other game on their schedule and finished strong in the final rankings.

But this season will be different. There are no more free passes. Michigan must beat at least one of its two rivals.

The task will have a slight elevated difficulty to it as the Wolverines will play both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road.

Not ideal, but not impossible.

The only two scenarios that would make not beating the Spartans or the Buckeyes acceptable is if Michigan wins the Big Ten title or it makes the College Football Playoff. But it is highly likely the Wolverines would have to beat at least one of the two rivals to achieve one of those two scenarios.

Looking ahead to next season and assessing the two rivals, Michigan State is the easier target. The Spartans have to replace three-year starting quarterback Connor Cook and a few other impact players. But the Spartans have reloaded multiple times in the past half-decade and should be strong again. But talent wise, they are not the Buckeyes.

It will be an emotional game next season in East Lansing – especially after the way last season’s game ended. The perfect storm of a coaching error and a fumbled snap allowed the Spartans to sneak out of Ann Arbor as victors in one of the most shocking endings Michigan Stadium has ever seen.

Ohio State will be replacing starters all over the field as many of the Buckeyes’ underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. But replacing talent has never been an issue for the Buckeyes. The scarlet and gray also have one thing Michigan doesn’t — a returning starting quarterback. J.T. Barrett will now be in his third season under center for Ohio State, and will most likely be in the Heisman trophy conversation at season’s end.

Michigan will be in a similar position as it was last year with a new starting quarterback. The difference is John O’Korn has been in Ann Arbor for a year, working on the Wolverines’ scout team last season. We saw the progression Jake Rudock made last year with just one season under Harbaugh. You can only imagine the progress O’Korn could make in his second.

Strong quarterback play will help the Wolverines, but they will need to play excellent on both sides of the ball in order to beat one or both of its rivals. Michigan State will more than likely boast another top-notch defense next season. While down south, Ohio State is known for always having an explosive offense and this year they will have a veteran leading the way.

Michigan is heading in the right direction. But the firm brick wall painted green and scarlet is keeping them from getting too far down the road. To reach the goal of being conference champions or eclipsing the ultimate goal of winning the national championship, the Wolverines will have to find a way to get over the wall.

But now that the free pass is gone, Harbaugh has used his get-out-of-jail-free card. Having a good record won’t be enough. Michigan will need to beat one or both of its rivals in order to have a successful season.