Jim Harbaugh over-delivered during his first season in Ann Arbor, raising the bar substantially at Michigan for the 2016 season. The Wolverines have a strong chance of going undefeated through the first half of the season. But Michigan’s relatively soft first half slate might be a curse, rather than a blessing.
Michigan’s first three non-conference opponents – Hawaii, UCF and Colorado – went a combined 7-31 last season, with the Knights going 0-12 in 2015. The Buffs represent some opposition from a Power Five conference, but they also haven’t been relevant in neither the Pac-12 nor the Big 12 since 2007.
Here’s a look at each of Michigan’s first six opponents, accompanied by their 2015 record:
Sept. 3 vs. Hawaii (3-10)
Sept. 10 vs UCF (0-12)
Sept. 17 vs. Colorado (4-9)
Sept. 24 vs. Penn State (7-6)
Oct. 1 vs. Wisconsin (10-3)
Oct. 8 at Rutgers (4-7)
That group combined to go 28-47 last year, or 18-44 if Wisconsin is thrown out of the mix. The Wolverines face a pair of quality Big Ten foes in the Nittany Lions and the Badgers, but also have the benefit of playing both games at the Big House.
There’s only so much a coach can do with a schedule, especially as Harbaugh enters his second year with past scheduling agreements in place. For example, Michigan’s tilt with Colorado was formulated in 2012. But it’s safe to say Michigan’s schedule is rather weak leading up to its bye Oct. 15.
The first half of its schedule lacks a true test and allows the Wolverines to spend the first month of the season on campus. Michigan’s first road game isn’t much of a road test at all, as Rutgers will probably be heading toward another sub .500 season and the crowd in Piscataway, N.J. won’t exactly resemble the rabid crowd of Ohio State fans in Columbus.
There are certainly some good things that come from a back-loaded schedule. Michigan’s new quarterback, whether it be John O’Korn, Wilton Speight, or Shane Morris, will get an entire month to acclimate himself into the starting role without a dangerous matchup along the way. An easier start to the season could help Michigan work out the kinks against lesser opponents and the Wolverines could ride into its bye week playing at its absolute best.
But, there are some perilous consequences attached to Michigan’s back-loaded agenda and the first half of the slate pales in comparison to what the Wolverines will deal with after the bye week. Michigan will be forced to travel to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State during its final five games. Those three contests will define Michigan’s season. The good news is none of those games are in back-to-back weeks. The bad news is each team could be in contention for the Big Ten title and without a legitimate road test in its pocket, the Wolverines could be susceptible to a letdown against any of these opponents.
The Spartans own a three-game winning streak over their in-state rivals and have won the last four contests played in East Lansing. The Hawkeyes are fresh off a rejuvenating season that featured a Rose Bowl appearance and have won the past three contests between the schools played at Kinnick Stadium.
And surely, no Michigan fan needs a reminder about the Maize and Blue’s four-game losing streak to the arch-rival Buckeyes, nor the fact that Ohio State has taken 11 of the past 12 meetings.
It’s fairly obvious that Michigan’s final five games will tell us more about them than their first seven. The question will be whether Michigan’s first seven games prepared the Wolverines properly for the arduous test that looms ahead in the final two months. The early answer is probably not.
Penn State could be better in 2016, but will have to show progress without the program’s all-time leading passer, Christian Hackenberg. Wisconsin rarely seems to go away easily, but could take a step back after losing defensive guru Dave Aranda (LSU), quarterback Joel Stave and leading receiver Alex Erickson from last year’s 10-3 team.
There’s a good chance the Harbaugh hype train churns along to a 7-0 start, as the Wolverines host mercurial Illinois for homecoming in its first week following the bye. But a 7-0 start will be quickly forgotten quickly if Michigan stubs its toe against the Spartans, Hawkeyes or Buckeyes.
Harbaugh did a tremendous job during his first season, but he will have to prove the program has turned a corner in 2016. Michigan’s loaded back-end of its schedule will likely reveal that answer.