In the days of Bo Schembechler, the emphasis was always put on winning your conference. And the man succeeded at that, winning the Big Ten 13 times. Today, however, winning your conference isn’t enough. In a world of college football that has escalated to extreme exposure and scrutiny, every game matters — including those early non-conference matchups.
There was a time when non-conference games meant lining up against four small schools, padding your stats and record and then heading into the conference games for the first real competition of the year. Some schools, like Iowa (see Colin Cowherd rant below), are still being criticized for doing so. Others, like Michigan, have gone out of their way to schedule at least one tough opponent outside of the Big Ten as an early season test. Typically that meant playing Notre Dame, but Michigan has also faced Alabama in the opener (2012) and gone to Utah (2015). In future years, Michigan already has non-conference matchups scheduled with the likes of Washington, Virginia Tech, UCLA, Texas and Oklahoma, to go along with 2018-19 games against Notre Dame.
Scheduling a tough non-conference isn’t as easy as it used to be, since the Big Ten went from eight to nine conference games last season, leaving only three games for other opponents. But every November as the season is winding down and the debate about the College Football Playoff rages, the strength of the non-conference schedule inevitably is brought into conversation. It happened last year with Washington, with some feeling they played weak opponents. It also happened with Oklahoma in 2016, a team that lost two tough non-conference games early and then won out, finishing 11-2 and winning both the Big 12 and the Sugar Bowl — but missing a chance at the playoffs.
As Jim Harbaugh heads into his third season at the helm, Michigan looks to rebound from losing a number of starters on both sides of the ball. Fortunately, the team will face some good competition in the non-conference to help prepare for the Big Ten slate. Unfortunately, the toughest will come in Week 1. Let’s take a look at how the non-conference schedule shakes out in 2017.
Get to know the foes
Florida - Sept. 2 (Time TBA) - Dallas, Texas
First and foremost, let's talk about the Florida game on neutral turf in Dallas. It's the season opener, the AdvoCare Classic (if that means anything), and in the non-conference slate it is by far the most difficult contest. Florida has done one thing extremely well since head coach Jim McElwain arrived prior to the 2015 season, and that’s keep its opponents out of the endzone. The Gators join Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State as the only schools that ranked in the Top 10 nationally in points per game surrendered for each of the last two seasons. Last year, the Gators held opponents to just 156 yards and 17.9 points per game. From that stout defense, they are losing several serious playmakers. There is talent waiting in the wings, but it will be mostly untested heading into the season opener. What 2017 holds for Florida may be a shift from defensive dominance to an effective and efficient offensive team. In 2016 and 2017, the Gators garnered the No. 12 and No. 11 recruiting classes, respectively, according to 247 Sports. Much like Jim Harbaugh is doing at Michigan, McElwain is building a program around his own system and finding talented players to buy in.
Cincinnati - Sept. 9 (Time TBA) - Ann Arbor, Mich.
In week two, Michigan heads back to Ann Arbor for its home opener -- the Big House will be rockin' when the Bearcats from Cincinnati come to town. For years it seemed the University of Cincinnati was the perfect school for head coaches looking to advance their careers. Consecutively, Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State, Brian Kelly took over before leaving for Notre Dame, and then Butch Jones led the program before leaving for Tennessee. It wasn’t until Tommy Tuberville was named head coach in 2013 that the program shifted. He compiled back-to-back nine-win seasons, but then went 7-6 in 2015 and 4-8 last season. The Bearcats limped to the finish line in 2016, losing their final five games and seven-of-eight. But teams change from year to year. Former head coach Tommy Tuberville resigned at the conclusion of the season and the Bearcats looked in-state to find his replacement, with former Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell signing a six-year, $13.4 million deal. The defense wasn’t entirely the problem and Fickell will likely only make this unit better, being a defensive guy himself. The struggle lies with the offense. The Bearcats ranked 123rd of 128 programs in points scored last season at just over 19 per game. In fact, there were four contests where UC failed to put up double digits, including three weeks in a row near the end of the season. The revitalization will depend on if new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, the former Notre Dame offensive mind, can make an immediate impact.
Air Force - Sept. 16 (Time TBA) - Ann Arbor, Mich.
In the final non-conference matchup, Air Force comes to town looking to out-perform its 2012 squad that nearly took down the Wolverines in the Big House. If you want to beat Air Force, you need to learn how to stop the triple option. Last season, they were 36th nationally with 452 yards per game. Those yards were far from balanced, however, as 317 came on the ground with only 135 through the air. Air Force will grind you down. They play hard-nosed football. Opponents actually outscored the Falcons by 29 points in the first quarter last season, but they made up for that deficit as the games played out, only allowing five points per contest in the fourth quarter. They play disciplined, sound football. The question with the Falcons comes down to the amount of talent they can put on the field.
Names to know
Florida - Jordan Scarlett
With the quarterback position still up in the air, and therefore doubt about the effectiveness of the wide receiving corps, look for junior running back Jordan Scarlett to carry the load on the ground for the Gators, especially with an offensive line that returns four starters. In his freshman season, Scarlett played backup to junior starter Kelvin Taylor, who garnered over 1,000 yards and subsequently declared for the NFL Draft, opening the door for Scarlett to claim the No. 1 slot as a sophomore. And he didn’t disappoint, leading the team with 889 yards on 179 carries, which, according to the Florida Athletics website, was “the most by a Florida freshman or sophomore running back since 1995.” It’s scary to think 2016 might not have been this guy’s breakout season. Look for him to take the lead for the Florida offense in 2017.
Cincinnati - Mike Boone
Make no mistake about some of the talent on the offensive side of the ball: there is potential, and with the right coaching they may have some real playmakers. Running back Mike Boone is the first who stands out. As a true freshman in 2014, Boone led the team in both rushing yards (650) and touchdowns (9). In his sophomore campaign he upped the rushing yards total to 717 with an average of 7.5 yards per carry. Last season was a setback, only tallying 388 yards before going down with a foot injury against BYU, missing the final three games. The Michigan defense will have its eye on Boone every play, as he is a true multipurpose back, not only rushing but also catching passes out of the backfield and from the wideout position. Oh, and he also returns kicks.
Air Force - Tim McVey
Michigan fans should acquaint themselves with Tim McVey. As a junior in 2016, the 5-9 running back did a little bit of everything for the Falcons. He rushed for 708 yards and 10 scores, while also notching 193 yards and two touchdowns receiving. And don’t forget about his kickoff return for a touchdown. Though not the most physically intimidating back, McVey is a hard runner and can lineup all over the field — a quality that can be dangerous in the Air Force offense.
OK, time to make some picks (even though the games are still a few months out).
Like Michigan, Florida had a rough close to its 2016 season, losing two of its final three contests. Unlike Michigan, which lost its three games by a total of five points, Florida was outscored by 87 points in its four losses. These teams should produce an interesting matchup, with a young Michigan defense facing a largely unproven Florida offense, and a talented Michigan offense testing a continuously tough Gators defense. The contest between the Wolverines and Gators will mark the fourth time the schools have met, with Michigan winning all three of the previous games, most recently in the 2016 Citrus Bowl when Michigan hammered the Gators, 41-8, to cap Jim Harbaugh’s first season at the helm. Can Michigan keep its perfect record alive in its 2017 season opener? It won't be easy. This one will likely go back and forth, with each team seizing momentum for periods throughout. In the end, Michigan's program is still a step ahead of Florida's and the Wolverines offense finds a way to score late to claim the victory.
Michigan 27, Florida 21
In Luke Fickell’s sole year as head coach in 2011, the Buckeyes finished 6-7 for the school’s first losing season since 1988. The regular season finale also saw Fickell march Ohio State into the Big House for a 40-34 loss. Unless something drastic happens from now until September, Fickell will once again walk out of Michigan Stadium after suffering defeat. Even a young and relatively inexperienced Michigan roster should take care of business against the Bearcats. Cincinnati took too big of a step backward the last two years and has too much to replace from last season’s squad to challenge the Wolverines in the second week of 2017. Michigan’s new starters will get thrown into the fire in the season opener in Dallas, and the following week when Cincinnati comes to the Big House for the first home game, the entire Maize and Blue roster should be amped. Look for Michigan to jump out to an early lead and ride that momentum into the second half, when some younger guys will get a chance to see the field for the first time on the season. Michigan wins easily.
Michigan 38, Cincinnati 13
Air Force will face the Virginia Military Institute in its first game and then will have a bye week before traveling to Ann Arbor. In other words, they will be fresh and ready to play the underdog role. That said, Michigan will have a strong offense in 2017 facing a depleted Falcons defense. That won’t bode well for the road team. On the defensive side of the ball, Michigan should be able to handle the mostly one-dimensional Air Force offense. But they’ll have to stop the triple option. Sounds easier than it actually is. On paper, this should be a solid win for the Wolverines as they close out the non-conference slate. It’ll be about taking care of business at home. Look for Air Force to score early in this ballgame as the young Michigan defense adjusts to the unique triple option attack, but as the team settles in the Michigan offense will takeover and the defense will have enough talent to slow down the Falcons rushing attack.
Michigan 42, Air Force 20
If the Michigan defense can develop quickly, the Wolverines could be sitting at 3-0 heading into its first Big Ten matchup on the road at Purdue. At that point, the odds would be strongly in the Wolverines favor to make a serious run at the conference title.