Squashing Michigan football's 'easy schedule' myth

Wolverines play 3 toughest games on the road

(Getty Images)

DETROIT – College football season is almost here, and it's time to set the record straight on Michigan football's "easy" schedule.

That's right, the common thought around the nation is that Michigan has a cakewalk schedule. Fans will argue that the Wolverines, "Should be 7-0" or, "Only play four road games."

But simply calling Michigan's schedule "easy" doesn't tell the full story.

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Before drawing any conclusions about the schedule, consider Michigan's goals.

When the season kicks off on Sept. 3, Michigan isn't hoping to qualify for a bowl game or put up double digit wins. Michigan's goal is to win the Big Ten and have a chance to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

What would Jim Harbaugh's team have to do to put itself in position to win the Big Ten? With elite competition like Ohio State and Michigan State battling for the same division, Michigan can't afford to lose even two games during the conference schedule.

Keep that in mind and take a look at Michigan's conference slate:

As you can see, Michigan's schedule is back loaded with three of the toughest games any Big Ten team will play this season.

Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa each finished the 2015 season ranked in the top 10 in every major poll. The three teams went a combined 20-1 at home, with the only loss coming on Nov. 21 when MSU knocked off OSU in Columbus.

Michigan is one of only two schools (Northwestern) that has to play all three of those teams on the road in 2016. Does Michigan have a relatively easy route to a 6-3 Big Ten record? Possibly. Does Michigan have an easy route to the 9-0 or 8-1 it needs to reach its goals? Absolutely not.

In fact, Michigan might have the toughest schedule in the Big Ten East, in terms of competing for the conference title.

Of the three contending teams in the East, only Michigan has to play both Iowa and Wisconsin -- the two best teams in the Big Ten West last season. Ohio State has to play both Northwestern and Nebraska from the West, but both games are in Columbus. Michigan State, like Michigan, plays Wisconsin and Illinois from the West, but instead of Iowa, the Spartans get a home date with Northwestern.

Some will argue that Ohio State and Michigan State lost so much talent that those matchups won't be as tough as they usually are. But while that may be true for the first several games, the schedule won't allow Michigan to take advantage of any sluggish starts.

When the Michigan-Michigan State matchup finally rolls around, the "inexperienced" Spartans will already have seven games under their belts, including matchups with Notre Dame, Wisconsin, BYU and Northwestern. By the time Michigan arrives in East Lansing, Mark Dantonio will have his team playing their best football of the season, no matter who fills the holes from last season.

Ohio State will be even more battle tested when it hosts Michigan on Nov. 26. The young Buckeyes will have played on the road against Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State by then. Those are some of the most hostile environments in college football, so Urban Meyer's team will grow up fast.

If the first two seasons of the College Football Playoff are any indication, Michigan can't afford to lose two games if it hopes to compete for a spot. With that in mind, it doesn't really matter whether the majority of the schedule is made up of average teams or terrible teams.

The games that should truly factor into schedule strength for a team with championship aspirations are the two or three toughest games of the season. For Michigan, those three games are as challenging as any trio featured on any other schedule in college football.

If Michigan doesn't win at least 10 games with this schedule, many will consider the season a disappointment. But to come out of November with more than 10 wins, Michigan will have to get through three of the toughest road games in the country.