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Ranking every 2017 Michigan football game from easiest to most difficult

4 toughest games will define Jim Harbaugh's third season in Ann Arbor

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – College football is less than a month away, and for sports fans in Michigan, it can't come fast enough.

It's been a rough year for professional teams in the state. The Red Wings, Pistons and Tigers have all disappointed in 2017, and the Lions still aren't close to Super Bowl contention. Other than Michigan basketball's Big Ten Tournament and Sweet 16 run in March, there hasn't been much for sports fans in the area to cheer about.

Fans in Ann Arbor are expecting that to change when fall rolls around, as Jim Harbaugh begins his third year at the helm. Before the season kicks off in Dallas, we need to take a look at this year's schedule.

In the summer of 2016, we took a look at Michigan's schedule and determined it would come down to three games: one at Michigan State, another at Iowa and lastly at Ohio State. For the most part, that turned out to be true. Michigan looked to be headed for a playoff appearance before a shocking loss to Iowa and an overtime defeat in Columbus.

On the other hand, some of what we expected in the preseason turned out much differently. For example, Colorado wasn't the pre-conference pushover everyone expected, giving Michigan an early scare and eventually playing in the Pac-12 championship game. Meanwhile, Michigan State wasn't the powerhouse rival the Wolverines expected to see in East Lansing.

Breaking down the schedule in the preseason is an inexact science, but it does give us an early idea of which games to keep an eye on.

Here are all 12 of Michigan's regular-season games, ranked from easiest to toughest.

No sweat

12. Rutgers Scarlett Knights

Details: Oct. 28 at home

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We all remember what happened last season in Piscataway, when Michigan laid one of the biggest beat-downs of the entire college football season.

The Wolverines rushed for 481 yards, picked up 23 first downs and scored 78 points. Rutgers, meanwhile, went 0-17 on third down, gained just 39 total yards and failed to score.

Yeah, it was that bad.

There's almost no way it can get worse this season, even though Michigan will play at home. But if Rutgers pulled off an upset, it would be a huge shock.

11. Purdue Boilermakers

Details: Sept. 23 at Purdue

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Purdue was almost as bad as Rutgers last season, finishing 3-9 and winning only one conference game.

Michigan and Purdue haven't played in five seasons (Oct. 6, 2012), since the Wolverines spanked Purdue by 31 points in West Lafayette.

It hasn't gotten much better for the Boilermakers since then, and Jeff Brohm is taking over a program that hasn't had a winning record since 2011. In its final seven games last year -- all loses -- Purdue was beat by an average of 19.6 points per game.

10. Cincinnati Bearcats

Details: Sept. 9 at home

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Michigan shouldn't have much trouble in its home opener this season, as long as there isn't a hangover from the high-profile season opener against Florida.

Cincinnati was terrible last season, finishing 4-8 with only one win in the American Athletic Conference. The four wins came against UT Martin, Purdue, Miami (OH) and East Carolina.

A familiar face will be at the helm when the Bearcats arrive in Ann Arbor, as former Ohio State coordinator and head coach Luke Fickell was hired in December. The last time Fickell was a head coach at Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines beat Ohio State en route to the Sugar Bowl in 2011.

Tricky tests

9. Maryland Terrapins

Details: Nov. 11 at Maryland

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Former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin got off to a hot start in his first season at Maryland, but a 2-7 finish made September feel like a distant memory.

The Terrapins were not competitive when they visited Ann Arbor, falling behind 45-0 before kicking a weak field goal in the fourth quarter just to get on the scoreboard.

But Maryland should get a little better with another year of Durkin's system under its belt, and the game is on the road for Michigan. This shouldn't be circled on the schedule, but the Wolverines can't afford to look ahead to Wisconsin and Ohio State before taking care of business in College Park.

8. Indiana Hoosiers

Details: Oct. 14 at Indiana

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Indiana has been a difficult game for the Wolverines in the Harbaugh era, as they came one play away from an upset the last time these teams met in Bloomington.

Indiana has built a reputation as a pesky team in the Big Ten, even though it hasn't competed for a division title. But now it has to maintain its positive momentum under new head coach Tom Allen, who was promoted from his defensive coordinator position in December.

Under Kevin Wilson, Indiana was known for its high-flying offense, which kept the Hoosiers in most games. That mindset might change under the defensive minded Allen.

7. Air Force Falcons

Details: Sept. 16 at home

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Michigan's non-conference schedule is flying under the radar because of marquee matchups like Alabama-Florida State and Texas A&M-UCLA. But Florida isn't the only tough test in September.

Air Force quietly won 10 games last season, with its only three losses coming in October by a combined 21 points. It's always tricky to prepare for a game against one of the service academies, and Michigan will have to be prepared for a team that rushed for over 4,000 yards a year ago.

6. Michigan State Spartans

Details: Oct. 7 at home

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Considering Michigan State was in the playoff two years ago, it's surprising to see the Spartans this far up the list. But last season's disaster, paired with a tumultuous offseason, has put Mark Dantonio's squad in a tough spot.

Michigan knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing last year, but the game was much closer than most fans anticipated. Michigan State also came within a two-point conversion of knocking off Ohio State.

Dantonio is facing a rebuild, but just as last season showed, this rivalry game can often be much closer than it should be. Harbaugh remembers all too well what happened last time the Spartans came to Michigan Stadium.

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Details: Nov. 4 at home

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It seems like most people didn't notice, but Minnesota turned out to be a very good team last season, winning nine games and coming close to victories at Penn State, at Nebraska and against Iowa.

After threatening to skip the Holiday Bowl due to player suspensions, Minnesota picked up a huge win over Washington State to enter the offseason on a high note. Tracy Claeys was fired due to off-the-field problems, and the Golden Gophers hired the hottest coaching prospect in the country: P.J. Fleck.

Football fans in Michigan know all about Fleck, who led Western Michigan to an undefeated season and a Cotton Bowl appearance last year. He's taking over a team that's already built to win, and he's proven he can make the most out of what he's given.

The battle for the Little Brown Jug has been very one-sided in favor of Michigan, but this year's contest might be a sneaky tough game for the Wolverines, even at home.

Defining games

4. Florida Gators

Details: Sept. 2 at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas

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It's no secret that college football seasons are defined by one or two games on each team's schedule, especially for a program with championship aspirations. Last year, Michigan's season was defined by losses to Ohio State and Iowa, which kept the Wolverines out of the College Football Playoff.

This year, one of those games is week one.

Michigan and Florida will square off in the AdvoCare Classic with a chance to notch a signature win before most of the country steps foot on the field. On the flip side, a loss would likely eliminate Michigan from playoff contention.

Florida has won the SEC East Division two years in a row as head coach Jim McElwain continues to build a defensive powerhouse. When the Gators were coming off a loss in the SEC championship game in 2015, Michigan spanked them in the Citrus Bowl, 41-7.

This time, Florida is coming off a 9-4 season and an Outback Bowl dismantling of Iowa. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is hoping to solve the Gators' problems at quarterback in time for Don Brown's aggressive defense.

3. Penn State Nittany Lions

Details: Oct. 21 at Penn State

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The college football world is heaping praise on Penn State as the season draws near, and deservedly so. The Nittany Lions won 11 games last season, including the Big Ten championship game. They came three points shy of a Rose Bowl win against USC, and finished the year with two wins over ranked teams.

Why is Penn State only No. 3 on this list? Well, to put it lightly, Harbaugh hasn't had much trouble with James Franklin.

Penn State finished the 2016 season ranked top 10 in the country, but when it traveled to Michigan in September, it didn't look like a top-10 team in the MAC. Michigan outgained Penn State 515-191 and completely dominated for 60 minutes. Franklin's decision to kick a field goal in the red zone while down 28 points in the third quarter tells you all you need to know.

Penn State will be one of the top teams in the conference this season, but Michigan has had success in Happy Valley. Two years ago, the Wolverines coasted to a 28-16 win. In 2013, it took three missed field goals and four overtimes for Penn State to beat Michigan at home.

Penn State will be out for revenge in this game, and it will be one of three Big Ten games that determine the winner of the East Division.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

Details: Nov. 18 at Wisconsin

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This would be the toughest game on the schedule for most college football teams, but it's not even the toughest game in November for Michigan.

Wisconsin came one fantastic Jourdan Lewis interception away from possibly taking Michigan to overtime in Ann Arbor last season, and still finished the season with 11 wins. The Badgers blew a 21-point lead in the Big Ten championship game and settled for a Cotton Bowl victory over 13-0 Western Michigan.

Michigan has always struggled to win at Wisconsin. In fact, the Wolverines haven't won in Madison since 2001.

The Badgers are returning a lot of pieces from last year's top-10 team, and the schedule sets up very favorably. It's possible Wisconsin could be 10-0 and ranked in the top five at the time of this matchup.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Details: Nov. 25 at home

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This shouldn't come as a shock, but Michigan's toughest game will come against its most hated rival.

Even though this year's matchup will be in Ann Arbor, Ohio State is the greatest challenge facing Michigan this season. Ohio State is expected to win the Big Ten this season and return to the College Football Playoff, and Urban Meyer's elite recruiting classes indicate there's no let-up in sight.

Harbaugh turned Michigan around as soon as he stepped in the door, but he needs to do what he was brought back to Ann Arbor for: beat Ohio State. A loss in this year's game would make him 0-3 heading back to Colombus next season.

The Wolverines outplayed the Buckeyes for most of the game last year, even holding a brief two-score lead. But turnovers and a failure to execute late handed Ohio State its fifth straight victory in the series.

Michigan needs a win, but it won't be easy.