If Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines are finally to make it to the Big Ten title game, Ohio State remains their biggest hurdle
The Michigan Wolverines finished the 2018 season in all-too-familiar territory as they were run out of the stadium in the finale against Ohio State, and followed that up with a lackluster performance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Florida in a 41-15 blowout defeat.
If Michigan is to finally breakthrough in 2019 and make its first appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wolverines will have earned it with this year's upcoming schedule. Non-conference bouts are on tap against rival Notre Dame and an Army squad that finished last year with an 11-2 record. Big Ten cross-divisional matchups are against Iowa and Wisconsin, two teams that have given the Wolverines trouble in recent years. And there's still the annual matchups with Penn State, Michigan State and of course, Ohio State.
That slate is not for the faint of heart as you will see below as we rank the Wolverines' opponents this season from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 28 vs. Rutgers
After winning the first-ever matchup between the two teams back in 2014, Rutgers has been outscored 204-37 in the last four meetings with the Wolverines. It's unlikely the 2019 version will be much of a contest.
11. Aug 31 vs. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders generally have one of the top offenses among Group of 5 teams but have to replace a four-year starter at quarterback in Brent Stockstill, who topped 3,000 passing yards in three of his four seasons. Middle Tennessee has talent returning at the skill positions in sophomore running back Chaton Mobley and leading receiver Ty Lee, but that won't be enough to seriously threaten this Wolverines defense.
10. Oct. 12 at Illinois
The Wolverines might be facing a familiar foe when they travel to Champaign with former quarterback Brandon Peters transferring to the Illini earlier this offseason. Illinois has one of the best rushing attacks in the Big Ten that brings back four starters on the offensive line along with the top four rushers from last season, so this won't be a cakewalk for the Wolverines. Illinois and Michigan have met just once in the last six seasons with the Wolverines dominating the last matchup back in 2016, winning 41-8 in Ann Arbor.
9. Nov. 2 at Maryland
Michigan has won seven of the eight matchups with Maryland since the Terrapins joined the Big Ten with only one contest (Maryland win in 2014) being decided by fewer than 10 points. Former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley takes over as head coach and will need to find a new starting quarterback if the Terps are to challenge in a highly competitive Big Ten East division. Former Virginia Tech QB Josh Jackson could be that guy.
8. Sept. 7 vs. Army
Remember last season when Army went into Norman and pushed Oklahoma to overtime, eventually suffering a narrow seven-point defeat? I suspect Michigan coaches will be pushing that game film towards the forefront during weekly prep. Triple-option teams are never to be taken lightly, especially an Army squad that finished 11-2 a year ago and brings back its dynamic starting quarterback in Kelvin Hopkins.
7. Nov. 23 at Indiana
Michigan is now on a 23-game winning streak against the Hoosiers after a 31-20 victory in 2018. If recent history is any indication, though, this year's contest will be extremely competitive as the last two trips to Bloomington for the Wolverines have gone into overtime. Indiana is stocked with talent at the skill positions with 1,000-yard back Stevie Scott and four of their top six receivers all returning. The staff just needs to settle on a starting quarterback between Peyton Ramsey, Michael Penix Jr., and Utah transfer Jack Tuttle.
6. Oct. 5 vs. Iowa
Michigan fans still have nightmares about that fateful night back in November 2016 as the Wolverines rode into Iowa City with a perfect 9-0 record before falling to the Hawkeyes by one point on a last-second field goal. The Hawkeyes lose their two best players from last season in tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, but the return of starting quarterback Nate Stanley and defensive end A.J. Epenesa should keep them in contention in the Big Ten West in 2019.
5. Nov. 16 vs. Michigan State
The Wolverines took care of business against their in-state rivals last season, holding the Spartans to 94 yards of total offense in a 21-7 victory. Head coach Mark Dantonio reshuffled his entire offensive staff this offseason after ranking 126th in the nation in scoring, while the defense returns the majority of the starting lineup from a unit that ranked eighth in the nation in points allowed per game. If the offense makes significant strides, the Spartans will be a major factor in the conference title race.
4. Sept. 21 at Wisconsin
The home team has won in each of the last three matchups between the Wolverines and Badgers, with Michigan winning in blowout fashion 38-13 last year. Does that trend continue for a fourth season? Wisconsin will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, whether that be veteran Jack Coan or true freshman Graham Mertz, but should still have the dominant ground attack we are all accustomed to with reigning Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor back for his junior year.
3. Oct. 19 at Penn State
If Penn State was bringing back proven commodities at quarterback and running back, you could make the argument this game should rank No. 1 on the list given Michigan's troubles in Happy Valley of late. There seems to be plenty of confidence in new starting quarterback Sean Clifford and the wealth of talent at running back, but we haven't seen how any of them perform on the big stage yet. In the last three meetings between the two teams, the average margin of victory has been 37.7 points, with the home team winning all three.
2. Oct. 26 vs. Notre Dame
Michigan fans have a sour taste in their mouth following last year's debacle against the Irish after seeing Shea Patterson get hit, harassed and beat up all night long in a 24-17 loss to open the season. Notre Dame has some retooling to do up the middle at linebacker and defensive tackle, but will return starting quarterback Ian Book, and has a formidable pass-rushing combo in Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem (collective 12.5 sacks last season). Expect another competitive matchup between the two bitter rivals.
1. Nov. 30 vs. Ohio State
62-39. Michigan exorcised a few demons last season, but the Ohio State obstacle still hangs over the heads of the Wolverines. With Urban Meyer no longer the head coach, is this the best chance Michigan will have at beating their biggest rival? The Buckeyes lose their starting quarterback, best defensive player, and a former 1,000-yard rusher, but the roster is still littered with 5-star talent across the board.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.