Re-ranking Michigan football’s Big Ten matchups by difficulty heading into conference play

Pair of October home games look even more challenging

Michigan's A.J. Henning (3) celebrates his punt return for a 61-yard touchdown against Connecticut in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (Paul Sancya, The Associated Press 2022)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan football tore through the non-conference schedule and is now looking to defend last year’s Big Ten title. We haven’t learned a whole lot about the Wolverines yet, but my opinion about their conference matchups has changed drastically over the last three weeks.

Before the season, we ranked all 12 of Michigan’s regular season games from easiest to most difficult, and it’s no surprise that Connecticut, Hawaii, and Colorado State were right at the top in the “cupcake” tier.

In the game-by-game predictions, we predicted Michigan would win those three by a combined score of 143-44. Well, it turns out the Wolverines looked better than we thought (and the opponents looked even worse). Michigan won by a combined score of 166-17.

Now, all the attention turns to the nine Big Ten games that will determine whether Michigan returns to Indianapolis in December. Here’s how I ranked those games in the preseason, from most to least difficult:

  1. Ohio State
  2. Iowa
  3. Michigan State
  4. Penn State
  5. Nebraska
  6. Rutgers
  7. Indiana
  8. Maryland
  9. Illinois

Only one of these rankings will remain the same. The rest have been jumbled by the chaos that reigned throughout college football the first three weeks.

Here’s a re-ranking of those games.

9. Nebraska

  • Preseason ranking: 5th (⬇️4️⃣)
  • Record: 1-3 -- beat North Dakota, lost to Northwestern, Georgia Southern, and Oklahoma
  • Game details: Nov. 12 (Week 11) in Ann Arbor

Yikes. What a month it’s been for Nebraska.

The loss to Northwestern in “Week 0″ was surprising at the time. Now that Northwestern has gone on to lose to Duke and, ahem, Southern Illinois, it looks downright humiliating.

Humiliation is the least of Nebraska’s worries right now. Scott Frost got fired after a home loss to Georgia Southern, and many wondered if that would galvanize the team ahead of a rivalry game against Oklahoma.

Well, the Cornhuskers scored on their opening drive, but then Oklahoma dismantled them by a final score of 49-14.

Heck, even Nebraska’s lone win -- over FCS North Dakota -- felt a bit like a loss. The two teams were tied in the waning moments of the third quarter.

8. Indiana

  • Preseason ranking: 7th (⬇️1️⃣)
  • Record: 3-0 -- beat Illinois, Idaho, and Western Kentucky
  • Game details: Noon Oct. 8 (Week 6) in Bloomington

How is Indiana still undefeated? The Hoosiers were thoroughly outplayed by Illinois in their opener, failed to score in the first half against Idaho, and then gave up 545 yards to Western Kentucky.

Yet here they are, unblemished heading into a tough road matchup in Cincinnati. If they can survive that, only a game at Nebraska stands between Tom Allen and 5-0.

It’s hard for me to rank a Big Ten road game behind a pair of favorable home matchups, but I just haven’t seen much from Indiana so far.

7. Illinois

  • Preseason ranking: 9th (⬆️2️⃣)
  • Record: 2-1 -- beat Wyoming and Virginia, lost to Indiana
  • Game details: Nov. 19 (Week 12) in Ann Arbor

The West as a whole is worse this season, but Illinois is not. Bret Bielema just knows how to win in the Big Ten, and it hasn’t taken him long to start doing so in Champaign.

Other than that strange loss at Indiana, Illinois has been a pleasant surprise. Last week, the Illini went on the road and overpowered Virginia, holding the Cavaliers to 222 yards and three measly points.

Tommy DeVito is completing two-thirds of his pass attempts, and Chase Brown is a star in the backfield, racking up 496 yards -- 6.6 per attempt -- in three games. Converted quarterback Isaiah Williams is a real weapon on the other side of the passing game, with 19 catches for 157 yards.

6. Maryland

  • Preseason ranking: 8th (⬆️2️⃣)
  • Record: 3-0 -- beat Buffalo, Charlotte, and SMU
  • Game details: Noon Sept. 24 (Week 4) in Ann Arbor

There are two main reasons I consider this game more dangerous than before: Maryland is a better team than expected, and Michigan’s non-conference opponents were worse than expected. The jump in competition Saturday will be steep.

Maryland has allowed twice as many yards per game as Michigan thus far, but the offense is electric. Taulia Tagovailoa has completed 77.3% of his passes for an average of 10.2 yards per attempt. He and Roman Hemby form a dangerous rushing duo -- Hemby has 294 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 9.2 yards per carry.

The Terrapins are legitimately dangerous on offense this season, and the first three games didn’t do Michigan any favors in terms of preparing for Big Ten competition. This is a tricky game to keep an eye on.

5. Rutgers

  • Preseason ranking: 6th (⬆️1️⃣)
  • Record: 3-0 -- beat Boston College, Wagner, and Temple
  • Game details: Nov. 5 (Week 10) in Piscataway

Greg Schiano is eyeing his first legitimate bowl berth since returning to Rutgers, and he’s off to a great start. The Scarlet Knights already have two true road victories out of conference and feel good about Evan Simon under center.

Simon has completed 27 of 40 pass attempts without an interception, which is exactly what Schiano is looking for to compliment the Rutgers rushing attack. Six different players have carried the ball more than 10 times, and the team has eight rushing touchdowns compared to just four through the air.

When Michigan went to Rutgers during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, it took three overtimes to escape unscathed. The Scarlet Knights are even scrappier in their third year of Schiano’s tenure.

4. Iowa

  • Preseason ranking: 2nd (⬇️2️⃣)
  • Record: 2-1 -- beat South Dakota State and Nevada, lost to Iowa State
  • Game details: Oct. 1 (Week 5) in Iowa City

The public ridiculing of Iowa’s offense is well-deserved, but Michigan can’t overlook that Oct. 1 game at Kinnick Stadium.

It certainly helps the Wolverines that the game is being played at noon, rather than at night. But it will still be the team’s first trip outside of Ann Arbor, and Iowa’s receiving corps is starting to get healthy.

After scoring just 14 points in the first two games combined -- the only touchdown drive by the offense started at the opposing 16-yard line -- Iowa dropped 27 on Nevada. Yes, it came against a team that lost to Incarnate Word, but still, maybe it’s a sign of progress.

Even though I moved it behind the Penn State and Michigan State home games, I refuse to dismiss a meaningful game in Iowa City.

3. Penn State

  • Preseason ranking: 4th (⬆️1️⃣)
  • Record: 3-0 -- beat Purdue, Ohio, and Auburn.
  • Game details: Oct. 15 (Week 7) in Ann Arbor

The best win for the Big Ten so far belongs to Penn State, which traveled to Auburn and throttled the Tigers by 29 points. “It Just Means More.”

Sixth-year quarterback Sean Clifford has been excellent since that pick-six against Purdue in the opener. He led his offense down the field to win that game and hasn’t looked back since, completing 63.9% of his passes for an average of 8.1 yards per try. He’s thrown for five touchdowns and rushed for three more.

Freshman Nicholas Singleton is one of the league’s top breakout players, with 334 yards rushing and four touchdowns on just 30 attempts.

James Franklin will have revenge on his mind after Jim Harbaugh went into Happy Valley last year and came out with a win for the second time.

2. Michigan State

  • Preseason ranking: 3rd (⬆️1️⃣)
  • Record: 2-1 -- beat Western Michigan and Akron, lost to Washington
  • Game details: Oct. 29 (Week 9) in Ann Arbor

If you disagree with this ranking, you might want to look back at the Michigan vs. Michigan State games of the Harbaugh era.

Yes, I know the Spartans struggled out West against Washington, but there were also plenty of positives to take away from that game. On defense, Michigan State is stout up front, holding the Huskies to just 2.9 yards per rush and stuffing them twice at the goal line.

Jalen Berger has reached the end zone four times, and Keon Coleman joined Tre Mosley and Jayden Reed to form a dangerous trio of wideouts. Payton Thorne threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns to give Michigan State a chance after a terrible start at Washington.

Other than 2019, every game between these teams in the Harbaugh era has been tight, and Mel Tucker is 2-0. No matter what happens between now and Oct. 29, this will be the toughest home game of the season for the Wolverines.

1. Ohio State

  • Preseason ranking: 1st
  • Record: 3-0 -- beat Notre Dame, Arkansas State, and Toledo
  • Game details: Nov. 26 (Week 13) in Columbus

Any concerns about Ohio State’s offense after the Notre Dame game have been completely put to rest after a 763-yard, 77-point outburst against Toledo.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming make up by far the most dangerous wide receiver group in the nation, and the Buckeyes also have a two-headed monster at running back with TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams.

Oh yeah, and there’s a top Heisman Trophy candidate running the show in C.J. Stroud.

Michigan popped Ohio State in Ann Arbor a year ago, but the Buckeyes are better defensively and focusing on toughness this year. I expect the rematch in Columbus to be twice as difficult, and maybe three times as vicious.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.