If Michigan is to make some noise in the Big Ten in 2018, the Wolverines will have to earn it with this loaded schedule
The 2018 schedule for the Michigan Wolverines does them no favors with road trips to three of their biggest rivals in Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Additionally, the home slate provides few cakewalks with the likes of Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana all coming to town.
If Jim Harbaugh is to have his Wolverines in position to challenge for a berth in the Big Ten title game -- something Michigan fans are craving at this point in his tenure -- his team will have earned it. In all, Michigan faces seven teams that went to a bowl game in 2017, but has just five true road matchups.
Here is a look at how Michigan's opponents rank from easiest to most difficult in 2018.
12. Sept. 15 vs. SMU
New head coach Sonny Dykes will have SMU lighting up the scoreboard in 2018 with an experienced quarterback in Ben Hicks along with a trio of talented running backs with him in the backfield. That said, don't expect points to be easy to come by against the No. 1 scoring defense in all of college football last season in a Wolverines unit that returns nine starters.
11. Nov. 10 at Rutgers
The last time the Wolverines traveled to Piscataway, it was a 78-0 beatdown by the Maize and Blue. Rutgers appears to be headed on the right track under head coach Chris Ash, but the Scarlet Knights may still be a year or two away from respectability in the Big Ten. The scoreboard disparity won't be quite as substantial compared to two seasons ago, but Michigan should cruise to an easy victory here.
10. Sept. 8 vs. Western Michigan
Despite the two campuses being so close in proximity, the Wolverines and Broncos have only met six times since the year 1917, with the last meeting coming back in 2011. Western Michigan is coming off a 6-6 season in the first year under head coach Tim Lester, but this will be an uphill climb against a Michigan team that it has never beaten in school history.
9. Sep. 22 vs. Nebraska
Many anticipate new head coach Scott Frost to have Nebraska back among the elites in college football at some point, but expecting such results in Year 1 would be a tough ask. First order of business for Frost this offseason is settling on a new starting quarterback between redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and true freshman Adrian Martinez -- both of which looked very comfortable leading the offense in the spring game. Regardless of who wins the job, this will be their first true road start. The Michigan defense will be licking its chops.
8. Sept. 29 at Northwestern
Most anticipate that Clayton Thorson will be back under center at some point during the season after suffering a torn ACL in the bowl game last year against Kentucky. That could perhaps be as early as Week 1, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald has yet to set a firm timeline. Matchups with Michigan have been extremely close over recent years, but the Wolverines hold a commanding 57-15 series lead over the Wildcats and are currently on a five-game win streak.
7. Oct. 6 vs. Maryland
The last three matchups against the Wolverines have not gone particularly well for the Terrapins, who have been outscored by a combined 109 points. Maryland could be one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten this fall, especially if it can catch a break at a quarterback position that has been devastated by injuries the past several seasons. The Terps also have to replace leading receiver DJ Moore, who was a taken in the first round of this year's NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers.
6. Nov. 17 vs. Indiana
My lifetime has yet to see a Hoosiers victory in football over the Wolverines, as Michigan's 22-game winning streak in the series dates all the way back to October 1987. The last time Indiana won in Ann Arbor was 1967. Each of the last three years, though, has featured competitive contests with as the Wolverines have won by an average of eight points.
5. Oct. 13 vs. Wisconsin
After going five years without facing off, this will now be the third consecutive meeting between the Wolverines and Badgers, and there is little reason to think this won't be another tightly-contested matchup. Each of the past two games has been within one score heading into the fourth quarter. Michigan will need a good performance at home as this is the first of a brutal three-game stretch.
4. Oct. 20 at Michigan State
The Wolverines will have plenty of motivation heading into the matchup with their in-state rivals as most feel they gave the game away to the Spartans last year due to five inconceivable turnovers once the downpour of rain began. Michigan State will be a formidable foe once again in 2018 with 19 returning starters, including quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back LJ Scott.
3. Nov. 3 vs. Penn State
Two years ago, Michigan blew out Penn State at home. Last year, it was the opposite with the Nittany Lions dominating in Happy Valley. What does Round 3 have in store? Penn State has to replace nine starters on defense as well as do-everything running back Saquon Barkley, but the offense should remain potent with senior quarterback Trace McSorley leading the charge.
2. Sept. 1 at Notre Dame
After a three-year hiatus, the two winningest programs in college football history renew their historic rivalry right off that bat in a primetime season opener. Both the Wolverines and Irish enter 2018 with high expectations and will look to this game as a springboard for the rest of the season. While both teams have talented rosters, quarterback play has been the downfall for each in recent seasons. If those questions get sorted out, we could have a classic to open the year.
1. Nov. 24 at Ohio State
As with each and every season, The Game could very well end up deciding who comes out on top in the Big Ten East Division to secure a spot in the conference title game in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes need to replace J.T. Barrett at quarterback, but this will once again be the most talented roster in the Big Ten and Ohio State enters 2018 as the prohibitive favorites.
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-- 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.