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Ranking Michigan’s schedule, from least to most difficult games

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No. 1 is predictable, but what about the rest?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before I get into it, a clarifier: this is not a pure power ranking.

The order in which the eight games on Michigan’s schedule are ranked has as much to do with location and timing than quality of opponent. As we’ve seen throughout the Jim Harbaugh era, the Wolverines usually end the season with a very different team than they began it with. And while fans won’t be allowed at Big Ten games this season, it’s never easy playing eight or more hours from home.

Taking all that into account, here’s Michigan’s schedule, broken down into which games will pose the biggest, and the smallest, challenge for the Wolverines. Let’s start from the bottom.

8. at Rutgers (Nov. 21)

I lied. Where the Scarlet Knights are concerned, this list is a power ranking.

Michigan will win this game, probably by a lot. I don’t feel like writing anything else here.

7. vs. Maryland (Dec. 5)

This one’s at home, in the seventh game of the season — a time when if the past few years hold true, the Wolverines will be playing their best football or close to it. Historically speaking, this is not a game Michigan has the slightest amount of trouble with.

Maryland gave up 42 points per game in Big Ten play last year, and on the offensive side of the ball, it has to replace its top two running backs. It’s hard to see the Terps being much better than they were in 2019. Maybe we’ll get a chance to see Tua Tagovailoa’s brother Taulia at quarterback, but he probably doesn’t have what it takes to make this one interesting.

6. vs. Michigan State (Oct. 31)

Ooh, spooky. A rivalry game in the second game of the season.

The Wolverines will likely be working out their share of kinks at this point. The Spartans should have it even worse. Brian Lewerke graduated. Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr., their two leading receivers, are gone too. On defense, new head coach Mel Tucker is tasked with replacing eight starters, including Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams. Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State was never downright incompetent at football, and it shouldn’t be this season, but this is still clearly the fifth-best team in the East.

This matchup, at this point in the season, isn’t ideal for a team as young as the Spartans. This game won’t exactly be pretty — for either team. But it’d be a fairly unpleasant surprise if Michigan finds itself in any actual danger.

4-T. at Indiana (Nov. 7)

We’re now into the realm of games which the Wolverines have a real chance of losing.

Indiana has been chaotic for years, inexplicably scaring the crap out of the Ohio States and Penn States whenever they go to Bloomington. Now, though, it appears the Hoosiers might be legitimately ... well, good? Big-armed quarterback Michael Penix Jr. returns along with top back Stevie Scott and top receiving targets Whop Philyor, Peyton Hendershot and Ty Fryfogle. On defense, Indiana might be sneaky strong behind linebacker Micah McFadden and Freshman All-American cornerback Tiawan Mullen.

The Hoosiers won eight games last season for the first time in 1993. They might have enough talent to snap another long skid this season — that being a 33-year, 24-game losing streak against Michigan. The Wolverines are still a better team, but as the years have shown, anything can happen against Indiana.

In only the third game of the season, and second road game, Michigan should get a real test. But at least on paper, the Wolverines should pass.

4-T. vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 14)

Maybe you’re surprised to see Wisconsin tied with Indiana. That’s valid. Last season’s debacle in Madison still stings as much for how the Badgers so thoroughly embarrassed the Wolverines than the fact that they did. They took a team still struggling to find its identity and stuffed the ball down their throats. That’s Wisconsin football at its best.

The Badgers are better than Indiana. Will the Badgers be better than they were last year? That’s a legitimate question.

This is a defense that allowed just 17 points per game last season and returns a majority of its starters, but two that are gone are Chris Orr and Zach Baun — linebackers who combined for 24 sacks and 33 tackles-for-loss. Quintez Cephus and, of course, 2,000-yard rusher Jonathan Taylor declared for the NFL. So did top offensive lineman Tyler Biadasz.

Wisconsin isn’t rebuilding. Jack Coan brings a steady hand at quarterback, and chances are that the rushing game and offensive line will be, well, Wisconsin. But it’s unlikely that the Badgers will be able to just steamroll the Wolverines like they did last season. Fans or not, I still think homefield advantage counts for something. And this should be a close-matched, smashmouth battle — the kind of game that Michigan generally finds success in.

3. vs. Penn State (Nov. 28)

This is another case of quality not totally equalling difficulty. The Nittany Lions are the second-best team in the conference, with quarterback Sean Clifford sure to be improved in his second season starting, top rushers Journey Brown and Noah Cain back, and tight end Pat Freiermuth returning as well. There are plenty of weapons behind what should be a deep offensive line.

On defense, though, the decision of Micah Parsons to opt out of the 2020 season figures to be a huge blow. Not that Penn State will be unable to defend, of course. This is a team that gave up just 16 points per game last season.

This ranking comes down to location and timing. Over the last two years, Penn State’s been known to implode in Ann Arbor — the Nittany Lions just seem to hit another gear in front of the White Out atmosphere that they won’t be able to find against Michigan. It’s also later in the season than the Minnesota game, giving the Wolverines a few more weeks and a few more games to find a rhythm. (Though that also works the other way around, too, especially with Penn State breaking in a new offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, from Minnesota.) Speaking of...

2. at Minnesota (Oct. 24)

While Penn State got an unfortunate COVID-19-related decision two days ago with Parsons’ decision, Minnesota got the opposite this week. Last year’s Big Ten Receiver of the Year, Rashod Bateman, was cleared to play after originally opting out of the season, giving returning quarterback Tanner Morgan a bonafide stud to throw to behind an experienced, absolutely massive offensive line that returns all five starters.

That pairs with a defense that returns only four starters, but features three of them in the secondary. Former Wolverine Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr, the Golden Gophers’ starting cornerbacks, are both seniors and will give Joe Milton and his receivers a formidable test to open the season.

Minnesota’s offense is loaded. Its defense is a bit unproven. But the Golden Gophers have definite and justified expectations of making it to their first-ever Big Ten Championship Game.

This matchup has an interesting strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness (well, uncertainty) character. To the former, Michigan’s pass rush against Minnesota’s 1,700-pound offensive line. To the latter, the Wolverines’ offensive line, which returns only one starter, vs. the Gophers’ front seven, which is in the same boat. Either way, it’s not an ideal season opener for Michigan.

1. at Ohio State (Dec. 12)

Like you were expecting anyone else here. This post is over.