ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Michigan football season is already off to a rocky start.
It's only one game, but the loss to Notre Dame certainly damaged Michigan's hopes to compete on a national scale. The Wolverines would likely have to win their last 11 games to get into the Big Ten championship and earn a chance at the playoffs.
But the next several weeks set up well for a Michigan team that has plenty of issues to work through.
To be clear, the next five weeks won't be a cakewalk for the Wolverines. But since Michigan plays four top-15 teams in the second half of the season, this next stretch becomes even more critical.
Michigan hosts Western Michigan and SMU the next two weeks to finish out the non-conference schedule. Then, a new-look Nebraska team comes to town to kick off the conference slate.
The next road test will come against Northwestern, which will likely bring an 11-game winning streak into its matchup.
The five-game stretch concludes with a home game against Maryland.
Can Michigan build a winning streak?
Jim Harbaugh's team shouldn't have a problem against Western Michigan or SMU, but the first three Big Ten games each offer unique challenges.
Nebraska's opener against Akron was canceled due to weather, but Scott Frost is known for leading fast turnarounds.
Frost took over as Central Florida's head coach in 2016 after the team went 0-12 the previous season. In Frost's first year, UCF qualified for a bowl game with six wins. Last year, the Knights went 13-0 with a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
Nebraska obviously won't be at that level by Sept. 22, but it won't be a pushover like last year's team.
The most difficult game in this stretch will come, unsurprisingly, on the road. Northwestern is coming off a 10-win season and opened the year with an impressive victory at Purdue in a night game. With Duke and Akron next on the schedule, Northwestern has a great chance to be 3-0 when it hosts the Wolverines.
The Wildcats are also on the fringe of the AP rankings, currently at No. 30 overall. There's a chance Northwestern will be ranked when Michigan comes to town, and the Wolverines haven't won a ranked road game since 2006.
Maryland could also be undefeated when the Michigan game rolls around, and with a win over No. 23 Texas already on the resume, the Terrapins could sneak into the rankings.
For the second season in a row, Maryland knocked off a ranked Texas team in the opener. But this time, the Terps didn't lost their starting quarterback in the process. The D.J. Durkin situation didn't seem to be a distraction as new offensive coordinator Matt Canada got the season started with a win.
Michigan has more talent than Maryland, and the game is in Ann Arbor, so the Wolverines will be a significant favorite. But that's what Texas thought, too.
Michigan's biggest problem has been beating good teams on the road, so the game against Northwestern definitely appears to be the most dangerous in this stretch.
Would five straight wins prove anything?
After being the center of attention last week because of the hype surrounding the Notre Dame game, the Wolverines should fly under the radar for most of the month.
The games against Western Michigan and SMU will only move the needle if Michigan struggles, and it's difficult to know what to expect from Nebraska before it takes the field.
Northwestern's football environment won't be as hostile as the one Michigan faced in South Bend, but it will still be a good barometer of how much Harbaugh's team improves over the next three games.
If Northwestern is ranked on Sept. 29, Michigan will have a chance to end the 17-game losing streak to ranked teams on the road. That doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of the season, but it's a small step toward the type of wins Michigan needs to climb toward the top of college football.
Even if Michigan wins the next five games, which, again, won't be an easy task, the season will be defined by the three-game stretch of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, and the finale against Ohio State.
A hypothetical 5-1 Michigan team would probably be ranked in the top 15 once again, and there would be plenty of excitement heading into the Wisconsin matchup. But if Michigan loses the biggest games on its schedule, the next five games will be largely forgotten.
The Wolverines need to rack up wins over the next month in order to salvage the 2018 season. More importantly, they need to improve during that stretch in order to compete with the best teams in the conference.
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