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Ranking the Toughest Games on Michigan’s College Football Schedule in 2016

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You know the overused saying, "the schedule does them no favors" that gets applied to almost every team prior to the start of a college football season? Well, that doesn't really apply to Michigan this year. 

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Jim Harbaugh's team begin 2016 with five consecutive appearances at the Big House, giving them eight home games in all. The non-conference schedule is a cakewalk as the three foes combined for a 7-31 record in 2015. That said, Michigan's three toughest matchups (Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State) will all be on the road, two of which come in November when the weather turns cold and conditions can potentially play a factor in the outcome.

Related: Michigan Wolverines 2016 Preview and Prediction

If the Wolverines do somehow come out of those three games unscathed, they could be looking at their first-ever trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. 

Here is a look at Michigan’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to the most difficult matchup.

12. Sept. 3 vs. Hawaii

These are not your Colt Brennan-led Hawaii Rainbow Warriors of old coming into the Big House. Projected starting quarterback Ikaika Woolsey has yet to throw for a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio in each of his three years with the team. Talent deficit aside, Hawaii has one of the most challenging starts to the 2016 season of any team as it kicks things off a week earlier in Australia against Cal before hitting the road again to face the Wolverines. This will likely be a three-or four-score game after just the first quarter.

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11. Sept. 10 vs. UCF

After finishing 2015 winless for the second time in 11 years, UCF should be much improved this upcoming season, due in large part to new head coach and former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost bringing his up-tempo offense to Orlando. The Knights better hope they can take care of business against South Carolina State in Week 1 to end their winless streak, though, because a W is not the likely outcome against the Wolverines. UCF’s talented group of receivers will pose a challenge for new defensive coordinator Don Brown, but the Michigan secondary is one of the best in the country Jourdan Lewis leading the way.

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10. Sept. 17 vs. Colorado

If we knew for certain that Colorado starting quarterback Sefo Liufau would be available for this matchup, it could move up a few notches on the list. But as Liufau continues to recover from a fractured left foot he suffered against USC late last season, the Buffs are unsure as to who will be under center to start the year. That does not bode well for a team that will need all hands on deck on the road against Michigan, which should have their quarterback situation figured out by Week 3.

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9. Oct. 22 vs. Illinois

The only difficult part about this matchup with the Illini for the Wolverines will be keeping their focus as they will travel to East Lansing that next week. There is finally some excitement surrounding the Illinois program with new head coach Lovie Smith at the helm, but not many pieces for him to work with on either side of the ball as the Illini return just 11 total starters. Michigan should win with ease in its Homecoming game.

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8. Nov. 5 vs. Maryland

Don’t expect Jim Harbaugh to take it easy on former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who is now the head man at Maryland. Michigan completely dominated the Terrapins last season, holding them to just 105 yards of total offense in a 28-0 victory, and Maryland really hasn’t improved all that much on the offensive side of the ball in terms of personnel. Unless star cornerback William Likely can provide multiple interceptions or a special teams touchdown, the Terps are unlikely to generate enough offense against the Wolverines’ defense.

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7. Nov. 19 vs. Indiana

The Wolverines have completely dominated the all-time series with the Hoosiers, winning 86 percent of the 64 total meetings (55-9), including last year’s 48-41 thrilling overtime victory. Despite having the No. 4 defense in the entire country, Michigan was gashed by Indiana, giving up more than 500 yards of total offense. Did Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson figure out the Wolverines’ defense? He will have to do so again this year – this time on the road and without his starting quarterback and running back from a season ago. Don’t expect a repeat performance from the Hoosiers in the Big House.

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6. Oct. 8 at Rutgers

Rutgers is one of the two or three worst teams on Michigan’s schedule, so why is this game ranked sixth? For one, this is a primetime matchup on the road where Michigan did not fare so well the last time, losing 26-24 in Piscataway in 2014. Night games on the road are never an easy task in college football. Secondly, the relatively new rivalry between both coaching staffs on the recruiting trails adds another element of intrigue as Harbaugh continues to poach high school players (Jabrill Peppers, Rashan Gary) out of the New Jersey area. Rutgers will be highly motivated for this one.

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5. Sept. 24 vs. Penn State

The Penn State matchup kicks off the Big Ten slate for the Wolverines in what will be their fourth consecutive game at home to start the season. Michigan’s defense dominated the Nittany Lions last season in Happy Valley, holding them to just 207 total yards of offense. Penn State figures to be improve on offense with new coordinator Joe Moorhead installing a form of the spread offense, but expecting the Nittany Lions to be clicking on all cylinders this early in the year may be a stretch. Michigan’s defense should be able to put the clamps on the Penn State offense once again.

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4. Oct. 1 vs. Wisconsin

The Badgers and Wolverines have not played each other since 2010 despite their 63 all-time meetings, and while Michigan leads the series by a considerable margin (49-14), the Badgers have won the last two. Expect the Wolverines to focus solely on stopping the run, as Wisconsin will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but should have star running back Corey Clement at full strength following a injury-plagued 2015. If this game was in Madison, it may have a different outcome, but this will be the Wolverines’ fifth consecutive home game to start the year.

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3. Oct. 29 at Michigan State

This spot was a tossup between the Spartans and Hawkeyes, but Iowa gets the nod as its quarterback position looks to be much more settled heading into 2016. Not to say that Sparty will not be sufficient on offense with senior Tyler O’Connor at the helm, but one career start in four years does not exude a ton of confidence. With both of the games in questions coming on the road, most would take their chances against the team with an unproven quarterback, though that could change by Week 9 of the season. Either matchup is a tough one for Michigan.

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2. Nov. 12 at Iowa

Most expect there to be a slight drop off this year for the Hawkeyes after finishing the 2015 regular season undefeated, but with eight starters back on defense and an improving offense under the direction of senior quarterback C.J. Beathard, Iowa should once again be a factor in the Big Ten West. That alone makes this a difficult challenge for the Wolverines, which have lost four out of the last five matchups against the Hawkeyes. Now add in that this game takes place in mid-November at Kinnick Stadium in prime time. If Michigan is to escape Iowa City with a win, it will have been earned.

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1. Nov. 26 at Ohio State

Regardless of the year, regardless of the other teams on the schedule, Ohio State will likely always rank at the top of this list as long as Urban Meyer is still around. Despite losing the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Taylor Decker, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Taylor Decker and other starters, the Buckeyes recruit with the best of them in college football and still have a roster chock full of four- and five-star prospects. Most importantly, starting quarterback J.T. Barrett is fully healthy and back under center as one of the top returning players in the entire country. With this game possibly determining who plays in Indy for the Big Ten championship (and the driver’s seat for a spot in the College Football Playoff), this is far and away the toughest task the Wolverines will face in 2016.

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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2