Does Michigan football have the toughest schedule of any top-25 team?
Wolverines play 5 teams ranked in Coaches Poll top 12
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – College football season is still nearly a month away, so nobody has a clear idea of which teams are true contenders for conference and national titles.
The Coaches Poll gave us our first glimpse of which teams those around the sport expect to be the best, and Michigan checked in at No. 14 overall.
With a new star quarterback in Shea Patterson and a strong defense returning, the Wolverines are expected to be one of the top contenders in the Big Ten, but getting there certainly won't be easy.
Jim Harbaugh's team is staring down a gauntlet schedule in 2018. In fact, it might even be the most difficult schedule in the country.
We can't truly know which schedules are the most difficult in August because we don't if teams are as strong as they're expected to be, but we can take our best guess using the newly released Coaches Poll.
Let's break down all the schedules for top 25 and see which is the toughest.
For years, the Big Ten East has been one of the strongest divisions in college football, and 2018 doesn't figure to be any different.
To get to the Big Ten Championship Game, Michigan would have to go through three teams ranked in the top 12 of the Coaches Poll, with two of those games coming on the road against heated rivals.
Michigan's toughest test will come in the final game of the regular season, as it always does, with No. 3 Ohio State. Nobody has success as a visiting team in Columbus, and that's especially been the case for the Wolverines.
The Wolverines will host a Penn State team that's ranked No. 9 in the country and won 11 games last year, and travel to No. 12 Michigan State.
Those three games alone would make Michigan's schedule one of the most difficult in the nation, but the Wolverines also have a game against No. 7 Wisconsin and a season-opening trip to South Bend against No. 11 Notre Dame.
Michigan will play nearly half of the Coaches Poll top 12 this season, with three of those games coming on the road.
Full top-25 schedule breakdown
Here's a look at every top 25 team's games against ranked opponents:
Teams with four top-25 opponents
For the sake of this argument, we'll narrow down the field to teams with at least four games against teams ranked in the preseason Coaches Poll. Teams with three or fewer matchups against ranked opponents can't stack up with Michigan in terms of schedule strength.
There are five teams with four games against top-25 opponents: Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Florida State and West Virginia.
We can eliminate Oklahoma, which doesn't play a single team in the preseason top 15. The Sooners have tough games at TCU and West Virginia, but Michigan has five games against teams ranked higher than Oklahoma's highest-ranked opponent.
West Virginia has to play No. 5 Oklahoma, but that's the only top-12 game on its schedule. Ohio State has top-12 games at Penn State and at Michigan State, but Michigan trumps those games with games at Ohio State and at Michigan State.
Penn State and Florida State have the toughest schedules in this group.
Penn State has four games against top-14 teams, including home dates with No. 3 Ohio State and No. 7 Wisconsin. The knock on Penn State's schedule is it only has one road game against a ranked team: at No. 14 Michigan.
Florida State has three top-12 games and a game against No. 17 Virginia Tech. The Seminoles play at Miami and at Notre Dame, both of which trump Penn State's toughest road game. FSU also plays No. 2 Clemson.
The two schedules are very similar, but Florida State's road games against top-12 teams give it the slight edge. Still, it doesn't quite match up with Michigan's road games against No. 3 Ohio State, No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 12 Michigan State.
Teams with 5 top-25 opponents
There are seven teams with five games against top-25 opponents, including Michigan.
We can immediately eliminate Notre Dame from the discussion because it doesn't have any games against the top 12.
Texas has a game against No. 5 Oklahoma at a neutral site, but no other games against teams in the top 12. Since Michigan's road game against Ohio State trumps the Oklahoma matchup, Texas can also be eliminated.
Oklahoma State has to play at No. 5 Oklahoma, but its other four ranked games are against teams outside the top 15.
TCU is in the top four because it has two games against top-five teams. It will play No. 3 Ohio State at a neutral site and No. 5 Oklahoma at home. Michigan has to play Ohio State in Columbus, and while it doesn't have another top-five game, it plays No. 7 and No. 9 at home.
TCU's other three top-25 games come against No. 20, No. 21 and No. 25. Since all five of Michigan's top-25 games come against the top 12, with three of them on the road, TCU's schedule falls just short.
Finalists: 3 toughest schedules
The final three teams all have extremely difficult schedules, and each could make an argument for having the toughest schedule in the top 25.
LSU has four games against the top 10, which no other team in the top 25 can match. The Tigers have to play No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Georgia at home and No. 8 Miami at a neutral site, while their toughest road test comes at Auburn. Their other top-25 game will come at home against No. 18 Mississippi State.
How does Michigan match up? The Wolverines have three games against the top 10, but the games against No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 12 Michigan State are both on the road, so they might be even more difficult than a home or neutral game against teams with similar rankings.
The average ranking of Michigan's top-25 opponents is 8.4, while LSU's average is 8.2. Those are nearly identical, but Michigan has to play three of those five games on the road, while LSU plays three at home, one on the road and one at a neutral site.
Is it too close to call? Let's take a glance at the other seven games on each team's schedule.
LSU's toughest non-top-25 games are against Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech -- two teams that finished 7-6 last season. Rice went 1-11 as a Conference USA team, and Southeast Louisiana is an FCS team. Ole Miss went 6-6, while Florida and Arkansas each won only four games.
The Tigers only play four road games all season.
Michigan's schedule features four teams coming off losing seasons -- Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers all went 4-8, while Indiana went 5-7. Western Michigan and SMU both lost six games.
There's one sneaky game on Michigan's schedule that won't be easy: A road game against Northwestern, which is coming off a 10-win season. Is that enough to definitively say Michigan's schedule is tougher than LSU's schedule? Maybe not, but there certainly aren't games as easy as Southeast Louisiana or Rice on Michigan's slate.
The other finalist is Auburn, which plays two massive road games against Alabama and Georgia. The Tigers also plays at Mississippi State, meaning they have as many top-25 road games as Michigan.
Auburn also plays a neutral-site game against No. 6 Washington, giving it three games against the top six teams in the country. With two of those games on the road, Auburn has a strong case for the toughest schedule.
Michigan's schedule could still be tougher. Playing at Ohio State is in the same realm as playing at Alabama or at Georgia, but not both. Home games against No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 9 Penn State are similar to a neutral-site game against Washington. But Auburn gets the edge in both cases.
Michigan makes up ground with its road games against No. 11 Notre Dame and No. 12 Michigan State. Those should be tougher than a road game against No. 18 Mississippi State and a home game against No. 24 LSU.
Auburn does have two cupcakes on the schedule in Alabama State, an FCS team with a losing record last season, and Liberty, a team that just moved up to FBS and doesn't have a conference.
Southern Miss is a solid mid-major team and Texas A&M is no pushover, but neither is coming off a 10-win season like Northwestern, and Auburn gets to play them both at home. The Wolverines also play an extra road game, although it comes against Rutgers.
Michigan probably has a slight edge in schedule strength outside the top-25 games, but again, the difference is minimal.
Michigan, LSU and Auburn have the toughest schedules in the top 25, and the debate between the three is a good one. I would lean toward LSU at No. 3 because it doesn't have as many difficult road tests, Michigan at No. 2 and Auburn at No. 1.
The Wolverines play half of their games against teams that won double-digit games last season. They have five games against top-12 teams, three of which come on the road, and they also have to play at Northwestern.
Auburn has two absolute cupcakes on the schedule, but it has to play road games against the two teams that played in the national championship last season, in addition to a neutral-site game against the Pac-12 favorite. For a team hoping to make the College Football Playoff, Auburn has an extremely difficult road.
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