As the Big Ten enters its first nine-game conference schedule, Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener.
ANALYSIS: The Wolverines are fourth in the nation in scoring, inside the top 20 in scoring defense and the No. 1 team in the nation in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ analytics-based rankings. The offense has been very good and diverse, but not fourth in the nation good. Michigan has been outstanding on special teams and scored five non-offensive touchdowns. The defense scuffled a little against Colorado, but defensive end Taco Charlton and cornerback Jourdan Lewis have combined to play one game so far. If healthy, this could be one of the top defenses in the nation.
KEY GAME: at No. 8 Michigan State, Oct. 29, Spartan Stadium
Obviously the Ohio State game is huge, and this could be one of the biggest in series history if both teams continue to play at this level. That said, coach Mark Dantonio’s Spartans have won three in a row and six of seven against the Wolverines. Michigan needs to reclaim the state, and then worry about the conference and the college football playoff later in the season.
KEY PLAYER: Jabrill Peppers, LB
Peppers does a little bit of everything for Michigan. He leads the nation in tackles for loss with 9.5, leads the team in tackles with 20, has returned two punts for touchdowns, returns kicks and plays on offense as well. He’s only touched the ball twice on offense, but with the competition increasing he should get more involved. Adding some offensive highlights will help bolster his Heisman Trophy resume.
FIRST MATCHUP: vs. Penn State, 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Michigan Stadium, ABC
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Michigan’s four-game winning streak dating back to the bowl game last season reaches 16. The Wolverines roll through the schedule, then roll into The Horseshoe and leave with a division title. They win the Big Ten title game, Peppers collects several individual trophies including the Heisman, and then Michigan players lift the most important one at the end of the season at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Michigan looks great at The Big House, but plays poorly away from home. Losses at Michigan State and Ohio State leave coach Jim Harbaugh winless against the two most important rivals, and a stumble at Iowa in between leaves the Wolverines outside the New Year’s Six Bowl picture. The team gets a trip to Florida in late December/early January, not the one it hoped for in mid-January.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: The Wolverines split with Michigan State and Ohio State and finish the regular season 11-1. Michigan is No. 4 in the college football playoff poll heading into conference championship weekend, but the idle Wolverines get passed by a conference champion and left out of the playoff. Their plight becomes the chief rallying point for everyone who wants an eight-team playoff.