Michigan football: Toughest game on the schedule that most people aren't talking about

Wolverines haven't won in Madison since 2001

Donovan Peoples-Jones escapes the tackle of T.J. Edwards during a punt return on Oct. 13, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Michigan football team is heading into yet another season with sky-high expectations and a difficult path to meet those expectations.

The Wolverines were picked as preseason favorites to win the Big Ten championship, yet they also have undoubtedly one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

When fans talk about the upcoming season, they usually point to the three home games against rivals Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame. Considering Ohio State has won seven straight in the series, Notre Dame is coming off an undefeated regular season and Michigan State has beaten Jim Harbaugh twice in Ann Arbor, it makes sense that those are the highlighted games.

Shea Patterson #2 of the Michigan Wolverines takes the field to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Penn State is another game people are pointing to as a possible roadblock for Michigan's playoff hopes. The Nittany Lions have been in the thick of the Big Ten title race the last few years and crushed Michigan in Happy Valley two years ago.

Even Army, coming off an 11-win season and bringing the unique triple-option offense into Ann Arbor, has been mentioned as a potential upset game for the Wolverines, likely because the Black Knights nearly beat Oklahoma in Norman last season.

But why isn't anyone talking about the Wisconsin game?

The Badgers admittedly took a step back last season, going 8-5 and finishing in a tie for second place in the Big Ten West Division. But Michigan was coming off an 8-5 season in 2018 and came one game away from a possible conference title and playoff appearance.

Wisconsin won 45 games the previous four seasons and was 34-7 under Paul Chryst before last year.

Possible improvements

People seem to be using Wisconsin's quarterback change as a reason to discount the Badgers, but in reality that might be a reason to expect an improvement.

Alex Hornibrook threw for just 1,532 yards last season with 13 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 59.5% completion rate. With former backup Jack Coan and star freshman Graham Mertz competing for the starting job, the quarterback position should be stronger for Wisconsin.

Alex Hornibrook throws a pass while playing Michigan on Oct. 13, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Jonathan Taylor also returns as a top Heisman candidate after rushing for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true sophomore. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry and was a workhorse for Chryst, carrying the ball 307 times.

With an elite running back, an improved quarterback situation and one of the best offensive lines in the country, Wisconsin should be a formidable offensive team. The Badgers also finished top 30 in total defense last season and allowed just 3.2 points per game more than Michigan's elite defense.

Struggles in Madison

Michigan hasn't had much trouble with Wisconsin at home, but Madison has been a house of horrors since the turn of the century.

Michigan's most recent victory at Camp Randall came in 2001, which was also Wisconsin's only losing season over the last 23 years.

Since that game, Michigan is 0-4 in Madison, including losses by 16, 21 and 14 points in the last three matchups.

Brandon Peters #18 of the Michigan Wolverines drops back to pass during the third quarter of a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The Wolverines played tough in 2017 and even had a chance to win if quarterback Brandon Peters hadn't been knocked out of the game, but the tide was turning in Wisconsin's favor even before the injury, and Michigan's offense couldn't get anything going.

Michigan dismantled Wisconsin in the Big House last season, but this rivalry has heavily favored the home team over the last 10 matchups.

Other factors

The Michigan-Wisconsin game comes at sort of an odd time in the schedule for both teams.

Michigan plays two nonconference games against Middle Tennessee State and Army before a rare mid-September bye week. Wisconsin plays at South Florida and then returns home to play Central Michigan before a bye that same weekend.

Both teams will only have two games under their belts and will have two weeks to prepare for the matchup.

Karan Higdon escapes the tackle of Rachad Wildgoose during a run on Oct. 13, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

For Wisconsin, the following week brings defending Big Ten West champion Northwestern into Camp Randall while Michigan gets to host perennial punching bag Rutgers.

It will be the first Big Ten game for Mertz if he wins the starting job and also the first time Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis pits his offense against a Big Ten defense.

It will also be Michigan's first game away from Ann Arbor. The road has been a dangerous place for Michigan teams with title aspirations.

The rivalry games will be challenges for Michigan, and white out games at Penn State are no joke. But don't forget about Wisconsin just because of one down season.

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