When it comes to offseason reading material, all sports fans have differences in what they enjoy most. If there’s one thing they all have in common, though, it’s their love for preseason predictions.
Around these parts, the discussion of said predictions begins the day after the bowl game and ends the moment the Wolverines touch the banner Week One.
These discussions are simple.
Who will Michigan struggle against? What will their record be? Is this finally the year it beats Ohio State?
As we near this weekend’s Week Zero (usually lame, but less lame this year), the AP Poll has laminated its first rankings of the season. The initial rankings have six U-M opponents ranked.
The AP Poll is out. #Michigan is the No. 7 team in the land to begin the year.
U-M will play:
No. 5 Ohio State (home)
No. 9 Notre Dame (home)
No. 15 Penn State (away)
No. 18 Michigan State (home)
No. 19 Wisconsin (away)
No. 20 Iowa (home)
Army – who U-M hosts Week 2 – ranks 27
— Brandon Justice (@BrandonBJustice) August 19, 2019
While the latter holds true — Michigan plays six ranked teams; Alabama and Clemson play five combined — there’s more to the story than just who U-M plays. It’s when & where the Wolverines play the ranked opponents that should help ease the minds of the faithful.
Let’s first and foremost address that this schedule is far away from easy. I’m a firm believer that if you’re playing Division I FBS football, there’s no such thing as an easy schedule. Not all schedules are made equal. There are schedules that are easier than others. But there’s no such thing as an easy schedule.
Alabama and Clemson’s schedules are cake for them, because that’s how good those teams are. Again … are those schedules easier than Michigan’s? Absolutely. Are they easy? Nope.
Now that we’e cleared that up, on to the topic of timing and how it affects Michigan’s schedule. Considering the amount of ranked and could-be-ranked-soon opponents on U-M’s schedule — it couldn’t have gone much better.
Michigan won’t face an elite air attack until Week 8
Michigan’s biggest question mark is its passing defense.
David Long is in the NFL. Junior cornerback Ambry Thomas’ status (illness) for the early weeks remains unclear. All that remains from last year’s unit is senior Lavert Hill.
Hill, a top-notch CB1, needs a supporting cast. And until Thomas is healthy, that cast is still auditioning.
The CB2 battle, from what I’m told, is between redshirt freshman Vincent Gray and true freshman DJ Turner. While both are talented, a Week One battle against a team like, say, Notre Dame is far more challenging than one against Middle Tennessee State.
What stands out most about this schedule is the first seven games include zero opponents with a passing offense that ranked inside the top 40 in 2018.
The highest-ranked passing offense among Michigan’s first seven opponents is none other than Middle Tennessee State.
Middle Tennessee State – No. 43
Army – No. 127
Wisconsin – No. 114
Rutgers – No. 125
Iowa – No. 76
Illinois – No. 111
Penn State – No. 74
Wisconsin and Iowa’s should get better. Penn State’s could get better — but I don’t see Sean Clifford outperforming Trace McSorley Year One, despite the hype.
Point being: Michigan’s biggest question mark, its passing defense, won’t face an elite opposition until Notre Dame comes to Ann Arbor for the eighth game of the season. That’s more than enough time to gel under Mike Zordich — who has proven to be one of the game’s best secondary coaches.
The when & the where
Michigan will only have to face back-to-back (currently) ranked opponents once. The Wolverines travel to Penn State Oct. 19 then host Notre Dame Oct. 26. That’s the most fearful part of the season for U-M, especially if Beaver Stadium has a whiteout in primetime.
Other than that, the schedule works out nicely given the list of opponents.
U-M gets a bye before going on the road against No. 19 Wisconsin. Faces Rutgers at home before hosting No. 20 Iowa for homecoming. Then a second bye(!) before hosting No. 18 Michigan State. And travels to Indiana before hosting No. 5 Ohio State.
Draw up a schedule where a team faces six ranked opponents. There are a lot worse scenarios than this one.
Location, location, location.
Of Michigan’s six ranked opponents, only two will be played on the road. That includes all three rivals (MSU, OSU, ND) at home.
Traveling to Madison to face the Badgers and State College for the Nittany Lions isn’t easy, but hosting all of your rivals at home — plus Iowa for homecoming — isn’t a bad trade-off.
Reiterating to what this started with, preseason predictions are usually premature and often wrong from the inevitable outcome.
When the clock hits zero following the season, U-M likely will have faced less than six ranked opponents.
The home games are kind to U-M and the schedule’s structure gives them ample time to prepare with no back-to-back ranked opponents on the road and only four total away games on the schedule — two of which against lowly Indiana and Illinois.
Again, that’s still more difficult than Alabama and Clemson’s slate. You could argue it’s more difficult than most others in the Top 25. But it’s far from an impossible gauntlet.
It’s a challenge that Michigan could walk out of 11-1 or 10-2 and find itself in a Big Ten Championship and possible College Football Playoff semifinal due to the perceived strength of its schedule.