The reason the division layout and scheduling have become so important is because of the way the Big Ten has divided the teams. This may seem obvious, but it's important to note how this process has occurred and the impact of the change. Since the Big Ten has attempted to divide the conference based on long-term winning percentage, it has effectively separated the good and the bad teams. On average, there should be two really good teams, two average teams, and two bad teams in each division. In the long run, this will probably be true, but that's not always how it works out, especially when we're analyzing just one year.
Along with unequal divisions, each team in the Big Ten must now face three teams from the other division. For instance, Michigan will be facing Ohio State, Illinois, and Purdue from the Woody (Leaders) Division. This is also an interesting thing to watch because it means that there can be some large variations in schedule difficulty based on these three games. Every team has a "guaranteed" cross-over opponent (Michigan's is Ohio State) so there are really only two Big Ten opponents that change on a team's yearly schedule. There are differences in cross-over opponents though, which can also create permanent schedule variations for Big Ten teams. For instance, Michigan State gets to play Indiana every year, which is traditionally a bad football program, and Michigan has to play Ohio State every year, which is traditionally one of the best football programs in the nation. It's not too hard to see some long-term schedule difficulty variation occur within that scenario.
Basically, even though the Big Ten conference has made it a goal to make sure things are fair for all the teams in conference play, they have installed some long-term variations that will ultimately make for some big scheduling discrepancies on a year-to-year basis. In some years, teams will avoid playing the top teams in the Big Ten (Michigan did not play Big Ten Champion Wisconsin last year), but sometimes teams will be forced to play all the top opponents (Nebraska faced all the top 4 teams in the Big Ten last year). In other words, a ton is up in the air on a year-to-year basis in terms of Big Ten opponent difficulty.
This brings us to today's topic, Michigan's 2012 Big Ten schedule. Most analysts do one of two things in their schedule analysis. They either look at the schedule as a whole or do a game-by-game analysis. For the most part, these are solid techniques that will give you just about all the information you need to understand the team's chances and the schedule. However, in a season like this, where so much of Michigan's success is dependent on conference play, I think it's important to look solely at the Big Ten schedule.
With that, let's take a look at Michigan's Big Ten schedule overall:
- 10/6 - @ Purdue
- 10/13 - vs. Illinois
- 10/20 - vs. Michigan State
- 10/27 - @ Nebraska
- 11/3 - @ Minnesota
- 11/10 - vs. Northwestern
- 11/17 - vs. Iowa
- 11/24 - @ Ohio State
At first glance, nothing jumps too far out of line, but after a little bit of analysis, one can see that this is actually a pretty difficult slate for Michigan. Not just because it features two rivalry games, two very tough road environments, and two teams with a combined 7-0 record against Michigan over the last four years, but also for the fact that out of the 4 Big Tens teams (not including Michigan) ranked in the AP preseason Top 25, Michigan will be playing 3 of them, including 2 on the road.
So that means that if the preseason poll is anywhere near accurate, Michigan will be facing just about all of the top competition in the Big Ten this season and primarily on the road. What is also challenging about this year's schedule is that the remaining 5 opponents should be difficult as well. Every team on Michigan's Big Ten slate made a bowl game last year except Minnesota and even the Golden Gophers were halfway decent by the end of the season with wins over Iowa and Illinois.
Michigan's 2012 Big Ten opponents had a combined regular season record of 53-43 in 2011. Not exactly earth shattering, but pretty impressive considering that many of the games they played last season were against one another. Add in the fact that 3 of the teams won bowl games and 6 of them defeated a ranked team and you have the makings for a very difficult schedule. Even the games against the teams with the weakest returning records (Minnesota, NW, Purdue, Illinois, OSU) could be quite difficult. The majority of the games are on the road, OSU has been ranked in the preseason, and teams like Purdue are lined up to make a pretty good run.
So the schedule is difficult, we get it. Just about all the teams Michigan faces in Big Ten play should be decent, but Michigan is supposed to be pretty good this year, right? Yes. In all likelihood, Michigan will be favored in at least 5 of these games and has a good shot at even more as we get closer. This is no guarantee of victory, but it's at least a positive note. Along with this, Michigan will be getting the only teams it lost to last season (MSU & Iowa) at home this year. Even if Michigan swaps those losses for games like Nebraska and OSU, the Wolverines should still be in good shape.
With the schedule lay-outs for teams like MSU and Nebraska, I find it doubtful that any team in the Bo (Legends) Division will go to the Big Ten Championship game with a 7-1 conference record or better. MSU has Michigan and Wisconsin on the road, Nebraska gets MSU and OSU on the road, and Michigan gets Nebraska and OSU on the road. These clearly seem to be the best teams in the Bo Division and I think all of the previously listed games are pretty big chances for losses. Using this logic, I only think it will take a 6-2 conference record to make the Big Ten title game, assuming the team can win the tie-breaker.
So, as I said, although the schedule is quite difficult, it's not impossible given the circumstances. The important thing will be winning the divisional games. Yes, all the Big Ten games are important, but if Michigan can win games against teams like MSU and Nebraska, the odds are pretty great that Michigan will get a bid to the Big Ten Championship game. Can they do it? I certainly think so. They beat the Cornhuskers in dominating fashion last year and get MSU at home this year.
The three game stretch that will determine Michigan's chances at the Rose Bowl will be the games against MSU, Nebraska, and Minnesota. All three are divisional games, two are against teams that Michigan will likely be competing with for the Bo Division Title, and two are on the road. If Michigan can come away with a 2-1 record or better, they should be a virtual lock for the Big Ten title game. However, if Michigan stumbles in this stretch and loses to more than one of these teams, I don't see the trip to Pasadena happening.
Michigan's 2012 Big Ten schedule is difficult from the top to bottom with three teams ranked in the AP preseason Top 25, two road games against AP Top 25 teams, seven teams that went to bowls last year, three combined bowl wins, and six teams that defeated at least one ranked team in 2011. Despite this, I think Michigan has a great shot to take a 6-2 conference record and make the Big Ten Championship game. The big question mark will be around the three game stretch including what I highlighted as the most important game for Team 133; MSU vs. Michigan on October 20th in the Big House.