We've said in this space that Michigan has the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. Is that really true? Let's break down the Wolverines' road in the latest installment of our Big Ten schedule analysis series:
Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Sept. 1: Alabama* (12-1)
Sept. 8: Air Force (7-6)
Sept. 15: UMass (5-6)
Sept. 22: at Notre Dame (8-5)
* at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Legends Division games
Oct. 20: Michigan State
Oct. 27: at Nebraska
Nov. 3: at Minnesota
Nov. 10: Northwestern
Nov. 17: Iowa
Oct. 6: at Purdue
Oct. 13: Illinois
Nov. 24: at Ohio State
Gut-check game: The schedule is full of gut-check moments, but the most important one comes against Michigan State at home on Oct. 20. The Wolverines have lost four straight to the Spartans and can't let that streak continue if they really want to win the Big Ten. Michigan State has gotten on a roll in this rivalry by being far more physical than Michigan, so it's up to Brady Hoke's team to punch back this year.
Trap game: The difference in talent between Michigan and Air Force is substantial. But the problem for the Wolverines is that the Falcons arrive in Ann Arbor just a week after what will surely be a highly emotional, highly physical confrontation with Alabama. Michigan could be beat up for that game while needing to deal with Air Force's option attack. Danger, Denard Robinson (and friends)!
Snoozer: Nobody can blame Michigan for scheduling one relative breather in its otherwise rugged nonconference schedule. UMass is that breather. The rest of us might be snoring.
Non-con challenge: Do you have to ask? Challenge is an understatement for the opener against the defending national champion. The Wolverines likely will start the season in the top 10 or just beyond it. They'll prove just how good they are against Alabama. The good news: if Michigan wins that game, it will immediately become a national title contender.
Telltale stretch: The Legends Division could very well be decided on the last two weekends of October, when Michigan plays Michigan State and then goes to Nebraska. Just about everybody agrees those are the top three teams in the division, and the ticket to Indianapolis could come down to head-to-head results. The Wolverines blew out the Cornhuskers last season at the Big House, but will have to deal with a revenge-minded Big Red this time around on the road.
Analysis: It's easy to see why this is the toughest schedule in the Big Ten, at least on paper. The season begins against the defending champs and ends on the road against chief rival Ohio State, which will be all-in for that game without a bowl on the horizon. There are also difficult road tests at Notre Dame and Nebraska, and while Michigan does miss Wisconsin and Penn State, it opens Big Ten play on the road against what should be a vastly improved Purdue squad. The Wolverines got some scheduling breaks last season, especially with the home schedule. This season, if they go 11-2 or better, they will have definitely earned every bit of it.
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