Several Michigan players ranked among the Big Ten leaders, including the following:
Running back Butch Woolfolk led the conference with 1,459 rushing yards, 5.8 rushing yards per attempt, and 1,514 yards from scrimmage.
Quarterback Steve Smith led the conference with 12 rushing touchdowns and 27 total touchdowns, ranked fourth with a 125.7 passing efficiency rating, fifth with 674 rushing yards, and 2,335 total yards.
Wide receiver Anthony Carter led the conference with 11.5 yards per punt return and ranked second with 27.1 yards per kickoff return and eight receiving touchdowns, and third with 50 receptions and 952 receiving yards.
Placekicker Ali Haji-Sheikh ranked second in the conference with 35 extra points made, third with a 61.5 field goal percentage, and eighth with 59 points scored.
Michigan was ranked #1 in the pre-season poll. On September 12, 1981, Michigan opened its season losing to unranked Wisconsin by a 21–14 score in front of a crowd of 68,733 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. It was the first loss in a season opener under Bo Schembechler and Michigan's first loss to Wisconsin since 1962. Quarterback Steve Smith scored on a two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to give Michigan the lead, but Wisconsin scored twice in the second quarter. Butch Woolfolk rushed for 119 yards on 14 carries, including an 89-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Woolfolk's touchdown tied the game at 14–14, but Wisconsin retook the lead on a 71-yard touchdown pass from Jess Cole to John Williams. Wisconsin's All-Big Ten safety Matt Vanden Boom intercepted three of Steve Smith's passes. After the game, Schembechler told reporters: "Our offense wasn't any good; our defense wasn't any good; our kicking game wasn't any good, and our coaching was poor. It's a miracle we only lost by 7 points."
Anthony Carter 71-yard pass from Steve Smith (Haji-Sheikh kick)
Carter 15-yard pass from Smith (kick failed)
Lawrence Ricks 1-yard run (run failed)
Smith 6-yard run (pass failed)
Masztak 8-yard pass from Koegel (Oliver kick)
On September 19, 1981, Michigan defeated #1 Notre Dame by a 25–7 score in front of a crowd of 105,888 at Michigan Stadium. The only points scored in the first half came on a 71-yard pass and run from Steve Smith to Anthony Carter. Michigan scored three touchdowns in the second half and led 25–0 in the fourth quarter before Notre Dame scored. After the game, Michigan coach Schembechler said: "This was a great win for us, because we came back from our poorest performance I can ever remember. We're not there yet -- we've got a ways to go -- but that looked a whole lot better than a week ago." Michigan's 18-point margin of victory over top-ranked Notre Dame was one of the largest margins of victory over a #1 ranked team to that point in history.
Anthony Carter 17-yard pass from Steve Smith (Haji-Sheikh kick)
Nichol 30-yard field goal
On October 17, 1981, Michigan lost to Iowa by a 9–7 score before a crowd of 105,915 at Michigan Stadium. Iowa's freshman place-kicker Tom Nichol accounted for all nine of Iowa's points, kicking two field goals in the first quarter and the game-winner in the third quarter. Nichol's first field goal was set up when Michigan's Evan Cooper fumbled a punt early in the first quarter, with Dave Stroebel recovering the ball for Iowa. Michigan scored in the second quarter on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Steve Smith to Anthony Carter.
On October 24, 1981, Michigan defeated Northwestern by a 38–0 score before a crowd of 104,361 at Michigan Stadium. Quarterback Steve Smith threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third touchdown. Lawrence Ricks rushed for 126 yards on 13 carries and scored two touchdowns, including a 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Butch Woolfolk rushed for 106 yards on 18 carries to break Rob Lytle's Michigan career record of 3,317 rushing yards.
Hassel, 6-yard pass from Dickey (Haji-Sheikh kick)
On November 7, 1981, Michigan defeated Illinois by a 70–21 score before a crowd of 105,570 at Michigan Stadium. Illinois took a 21-7 lead in the first quarter, but Michigan scored nine unanswered touchdowns in the remainder of the game. Anthony Carter caught six passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Steve Smith rushed 15 times for 116 yards and also completed 9 of 15 passes for 224 yards.
On November 21, 1981, Michigan lost to Ohio State by a 14–9 in front of a crowd of 106,043 persons, the second largest crowd up to that point in the history of Michigan Stadium. Michigan was limited to three field goals by Ali Haji-Sheikh, while Ohio State scored on two touchdown runs by quarterback Art Schlichter.
Anthony Carter, 50-yard pass from Steve Smith (Haji-Sheikh kick)
Jojo Townsell, 17-yard pass from Tom Ramsey (Norm Johnson converts kick)
Haji-Sheikh, 47-yard field goal
Butch Woolfolk, 1-yard run (run failed)
Tim Wrightman, 9-yard pass from Ramsey (Johnson kick)
Smith, 9-yard run (Haji-Sheikh kick)
B. J. Dickey, 5-yard run (Haji-Sheikh kick)
On December 31, 1981, #16 Michigan defeated #19 UCLA by a 33–14 score in the 1981 Bluebonnet Bowl, played before a crowd of 40,309 at the Houston Astrodome. Michigan touchdowns were scored by Anthony Carter (50-yard reception in the first quarter), Butch Woolfolk (1-yard run in the fourth quarter), Steve Smith (9-yard run in fourth quarter), and B. J. Dickey (five-yard run in fourth quarter). Ali Haji-Sheikh also kicked two field goals for Michigan. Woolfolk rushed for 186 yards on 27 carries and was selected as the game's Most Valuable Player.
A total of twenty-three (23) members of the 1980 Michigan football team went on to play professional football. They are: Kurt Becker (Chicago Bears, 1982–88, 1990, Los Angeles Rams, 1989), Marion Body (Michigan Panthers, 1983), Keith Bostic (Houston Oilers, 1983–88), Cleveland Browns, 1990), Don Bracken (Green Bay Packers, 1985–90, Los Angeles Rams, 1992-93), Anthony Carter (Michigan Panthers, 1983–84, Oakland Invaders, 1985, Minnesota Vikings, 1985–93, Detroit Lions, 1994-95), Milt Carthens (Indianapolis Colts, 1987), Evan Cooper (Philadelphia Eagles, 1984–87, Atlanta Falcons, 1988-89), Jerry Diorio (Detroit Lions, 1987), Tom Dixon (Michigan Panthers, 1984), Craig Dunaway (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1983), Stanley Edwards (Houston Oilers, 1982–86, Detroit Lions, 1987), Paul Girgash (Michigan Panthers, 1984), Ali Haji-Sheikh (New York Giants, 1983–85, Atlanta Falcons, 1986, Washington Redskins, 1987), Mike Hammerstein (Cincinnati Bengals, 1986–90), Stefan Humphries (Chicago Bears, 1984–86, Denver Broncos, 1987-88), Eric Kattus (Cincinnati Bengals, 1986–91, New York Jets, 1992), Ed Muransky (Los Angeles Raiders, 1982–84, Orlando Renegades, 1985), Bubba Paris (San Francisco 49ers, 1983–90, Indianapolis Colts, 1991, Detroit Lions 1991), Lawrence Ricks (Kansas City Chiefs, 1983–84), Carlton Rose (Washington Redskins, 1987), Rich Strenger (Detroit Lions, 1983–87), Robert Thompson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1983–84, Detroit Lions, 1987), and Butch Woolfolk (New York Giants, 1982–84, Houston Oilers, 1985-86, Detroit Lions, 1987–88).