Ranking every game on the Michigan football schedule from easiest to most difficult

Michigan opens 2019 season at home against Middle Tennessee State

Head Coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines watches his team warm up before a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 24, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan football is entering the fifth season of the Jim Harbaugh era, and once again, the Wolverines are expected to compete at the top of the Big Ten.

Harbaugh came within one game of taking Michigan to the conference title and possibly the College Football Playoff. His team had to navigate a difficult schedule highlighted by three road rivalry games.

Those teams will travel to Ann Arbor this season, but the schedule is still very difficult, especially with a trio of nonconference opponents that finished last year a combined 31-9.

Last season, ClickOnDetroit ranked Michigan's toughest games and had one definite mistake: Notre Dame at No. 3 behind Michigan State. The Fighting Irish ended up being Michigan's only loss after Ohio State.

Here's a look at Michigan's full 2019 schedule, ranked from what should be the easiest games to the most difficult.

12. Rutgers

Game details: Sept. 28 in Ann Arbor

Rutgers head coach Chris Ash has not had success against Michigan. (Getty Images)

The Chris Ash photo is back for 2019!

Most Power Five teams wouldn't have a conference opponent as their easiest game, but that appears to be the case for Michigan.

After beating Texas State in their first game of last season, the Scarlet Knights went 0-11 the rest of the season, including a 41-point loss to Kansas and a 29-point loss to MAC foe Buffalo.

Rutgers wasn't a complete pushover in Big Ten play, staying within a score of Indiana, Northwestern and Michigan State. Ash's team needs to start finishing some of those games, though, if he hopes to stick around.

11. Middle Tennessee

Game details: 7:30 p.m., Aug. 31 in Ann Arbor

Brent Stockstill #12 of the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders runs with the ball against the Florida International Golden Panthers on Oct. 29, 2016, at FIU Stadium in Miami, Florida. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Middle Tennessee was a very solid team last season, winning eight games and coming two points away from a Conference USA title.

But the Blue Raiders are the second-easiest game on this list because the quarterback in the above photo, Brent Stockstill, graduated and won't be making the trip to the Big House.

Stockstill completed 70.5% of his passes last season for 3,214 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He only averaged 7.5 yards per pass, but he was extremely efficient through the air.

MTSU wasn't a very good running team, so the offense will likely take a significant step back in 2019.

This isn't only the 2019 season opener for Michigan, it's also a night game at the Big House. The Wolverines are tough to beat in that situation, so this should be a victory.

10. Illinois

Game details: Oct. 12 in Champaign

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)

No, this photo isn't a mistake. Former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters is now with Illinois, and he'll likely be the Day 1 starter this season.

Peters has two years of eligibility remaining and Illinois will break in a new quarterback after A.J. Bush graduated.

Illinois was terrible last season, winning just four games. Lovie Smith's team lost by a combined 98 points during a three-week span against Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland. A 55-point outburst against Minnesota was the lone highlight.

Peters should be an upgrade and the game is on the road. Michigan can't just show up and win this game, but the talent gap is wide.

9. Maryland

Game details: Noon, Nov. 2 in College Park

Interim head coach Mike Locksley of the Maryland Terrapins looks on before a game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at High Point Solutions Stadium on Nov. 28, 2015, in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Last off-season was clouded with controversy, but now Maryland can try to move forward under Mike Locksley, who returned as the full-time head coach this off-season.

There will be a little added spice to this year's matchup, as Maryland and Michigan went head-to-head for the services of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.

Gattis was reportedly on his way to take the job at Maryland when Harbaugh called and snatched him up for the Wolverines.

Considering the circumstances -- playing without a true head coach and constantly dealing with off-the-field distractions -- Maryland put up a good fight in 2018. Despite finishing with a 5-7 record, the Terps beat eventual Sugar Bowl champion Texas in the opener and came within a two-point conversion of upsetting Ohio State.

This year, there should be more stability and improved coaching. Plus, Michigan has to travel to College Park.

8. Army

Game details: Noon, Sept. 7 in Ann Arbor

Head coach Jeff Monken of the Army Black Knights reacts while taking the field against the Houston Cougars to start the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium on Dec. 22, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Tom PenningtonGetty Images)

Why do teams with possible College Football Playoff aspirations schedule Army? We might never know the answer.

Michigan will host the Black Knights after they went 11-2 last season and came a play away from beating No. 5 Oklahoma on the road. Yes, the same Oklahoma team that went to the playoff for the second year in a row and was led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Kylar Murray.

Army finished the season by stomping Houston 70-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl.

It's obviously difficult to prepare for Army's triple option attack, especially since Michigan has to focus on Middle Tennessee State the week prior. It wouldn't be a shock to see Army give Michigan a big scare, especially coming off such a great season.

Defensive line is a question mark for Michigan after losing Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Aubrey Solomon this off-season, so stopping the Army rushing attack will be a challenge. Harbaugh needs to be extremely careful with this under-the-radar Week 2 game.

7. Indiana

Game details: Nov. 23 in Bloomington

Kwity Paye #19 of the Michigan Wolverines tries to sack Peyton Ramsey #12 of the Indiana Hoosiers at Michigan Stadium on November 17, 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 31-20. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Indiana game has been a bit of a nightmare for Michigan since Harbaugh arrived, especially when the Wolverines have to travel to Bloomington.

In 2017, Michigan blew a 10-point lead in the final four minutes and needed overtime to survive the Hoosiers. In Harbaugh's first season, Michigan faced a fourth down that would have ended the game, but converted and eventually won in double overtime.

For the fourth time in five years, Michigan will play Indiana in November. It's also the third time in four years that the Michigan-Indiana game is the week before Michigan plays Ohio State.

Peyton Ramsey is a solid dual-threat quarterback who completed 66% of his passes for 2,875 yards while rushing for 354 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in 2018.

This is always a tough test for Michigan, and it won't be able to look ahead to Ohio State again in 2019.

6. Iowa

Game details: Noon, Oct. 5 in Ann Arbor

Head coach Kirk Ferentz of the Iowa Hawkeyes waits with his team prior to a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 11, 2017, in Madison, Wisconsin. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

It's been a long time since Iowa visited the Big House, and it's been just as long since the Wolverines won a game in this matchup.

After beating the Hawkeyes in 2006, Michigan took a 40-10-4 lead in the all-time series. Since then, Iowa has won five of six matchups, including the only two meetings since 2012.

Michigan's last meeting with Iowa came in 2016, when the undefeated Wolverines had a chance to rise to No. 1 in the country with a win. Instead, Michigan lost 14-13 on a last-second field goal and eventually missed the College Football Playoff with two losses.

Even during Michigan's most successful season since 2006 -- an 11-2 year in 2011 -- Iowa was one of the two losses.

Kirk Ferentz had another sneaky good year in 2018, winning nine games and coming a few plays away from winning the Big Ten West Division. Iowa went 5-4 in Big Ten play, but lost two tough road games against Penn State and Purdue by a combined eight points before dropping its home game against Northwestern 14-10.

If two of those three games went the other way, Iowa would have been looking at another double-digit win season.

5. Wisconsin

Game details: Noon, Sept. 21 in Madison

Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers tries to outrun the tackle of Devin Bush #10 of the Michigan Wolverines during the second half on October 13, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 38-13. (Photo by…

Wisconsin might end up being one of the two or three toughest games for Michigan this season, but for now, it lands at No. 5.

The Badgers will likely get an upgrade at quarterback as veteran Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State. Four-star true freshman Graham Mertz is expected to win the job.

While Mertz looks to be a potential star, Michigan will be his first taste of Big Ten play, and that should be an advantage for Harbaugh's team. He'll get his feet wet against South Florida and Central Michigan before taking on the Wolverines.

Both teams have a bye week heading into the matchup, so there shouldn't be any advantages in that regard.

Even though Wisconsin is coming off a rare five-loss season, it should be one of the best teams in the Big Ten West. Star running back Jonathan Taylor comes into his junior season as one of the Heisman frontrunners, and he'll have a much less experienced Michigan defensive line to contend with this year.

Wisconsin will be an extremely difficult road test for Michigan, especially so early in the season. A loss would likely dash any playoff hopes considering Michigan's schedule gets even tougher.

4. Michigan State

Game details: Nov. 16 in Ann Arbor

Quarterback Brian Lewerke #14 of the Michigan State Spartans drops back to pass during the first half of the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun…

The 2018 season was brutal for Michigan State fans, who had to watch a discombobulated offense and terrible quarterback play. It as similar to the 2017 Michigan team that relied on an elite defense, but couldn't pass the ball enough to compete at the top of the Big Ten.

Two factors are working heavily in Michigan State's favor this year. The first is that there's no way MSU's injuries can be as bad this season, as nearly half the starting roster missed time. The second is Mark Dantonio's knack for turning things around when the program is struggling.

After a 3-9 campaign in 2016, MSU appeared to be in trouble. All Dantonio did was win 10 games and finished ranked in 2017.

Harbaugh is 2-2 against the Spartans, but he's never beat them in Ann Arbor. This year, he will have to do so in the middle of November, when pressure will likely be at its peak.

Even though this game is at home, Michigan always struggles with Michigan State. It's a great rivalry game, and the Spartans always bring their best to this matchup.

3. Penn State

Game details: Oct. 19 in University Park

Saquon Barkley celebrates with Trace McSorley after catching a 42-yard touchdown pass in the second half against Michigan on Oct. 21, 2017 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Michigan's toughest road test will likely come in Happy Valley, where Don Brown's defense got rocked in 2017 behind the heroics of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley.

Neither of those players are still on the roster, but James Franklin has had the Nittany Lions near the top of the national recruiting rankings the last several years, so Penn State will certainly reload.

Michigan has owned this rivalry three of the last four years, winning by a combined 86 points in 2015, 2016 and 2018. This year will be much tougher, though, as Penn State looks to bounce back from a four-loss season.

Other than the 42-7 loss in the Big House, Penn State's only hiccups were a one-point loss to Ohio State, a four-point loss to Michigan State and a three-point loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.

The Nittany Lions were close to another special season, but finishing big games has been a problem for Franklin's team.

McSorley and backup quarterback Tommy Stevens are gone, so now four-star redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford is expected to take over.

Clifford was the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class, and he'll have plenty of season to prepare for Michigan. The teams don't meet until Week 8, so Clifford should be leading another potent Penn State offensive attack.

The last four meetings have been blowouts, but this season's game figures to be much more competitive, especially since the Michigan game is typically at night.

2. Notre Dame

Game details: Oct. 26 in Ann Arbor

Ian Book #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on late in the game against the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by…

Fresh off an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the College Football Playoff, Notre Dame will look to get back in the mix behind breakout quarterback Ian Book.

Notre Dame struggled offensively before Book took the reins, but now it's his team and the Fighting Irish should be a playoff contender once again.

Michigan played a terrible offensive game in South Bend last season, but only lost by a touchdown. Now that Shea Patterson has spent a full year with his teammates and Ed Warriner has solidified the offensive line, the matchup should look completely different.

It will be strange for Michigan to host Notre Dame in October after playing five Big Ten games, but that doesn't make the game any less important. If the Wolverines hope to be playoff contenders, they need to take advantage of opportunities to beat elite teams at home.

Notre Dame should be a top 10 team most of the season. Could it be the third time Michigan hosts Notre Dame under the lights? The first two night games were classics, so the opportunity for part 3 sounds too good to pass up.

1. Ohio State

Game details: Noon, Nov. 30 in Ann Arbor

Acting Head Coach Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes watches his team from the sidelines in the fourth quarter against the Oregon State Beavers at Ohio Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Oregon State 77-31.…

It should be no surprise to see Ohio State atop this list for a third straight season. Not only is Ohio State Michigan's greatest rival, it's also the team that has kept the Wolverines from two Big Ten Championship Game appearances and two possible playoff berths in the last three years.

Even though Urban Meyer is gone, Ohio State shouldn't see much of a drop-off. Ryan Day is qualified for the job and the Buckeyes have been ridiculously good on the recruiting trail for a decade.

Ohio State has a more talented roster than Michigan, and even though the game is in Ann Arbor, there's no reason to believe the Wolverines can get over the hump until they actually win this game.

The Buckeyes might have been in trouble at quarterback if not for the transfer of former Georgia backup Justin Fields. While he couldn't beat out Jake Fromm for a starting spot at Georgia, Fields was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class and the No. 8-ranked recruit of all time.

There's only one player in all of college football who was ranked higher as a recruit than Fields, and that was Clemson starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Ohio State added an elite talent at quarterback to a roster loaded up and down the depth chart. OSU is once again the favorite to win the Big Ten title and play in the College Football Playoff.

No matter what Michigan does the first 11 games, the season will ultimately be defined on Nov. 30.

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