A lot has been made of Michigan's 2012 schedule. Some are calling it the nation's toughest and CBS has even placed it at #4 in terms of schedule difficulty in the entire country. With non-conference opponents like Alabama, Air Force, and Notre Dame, there certainly aren't a lot of easy games on the slate for 2012. Add in some tough road games against teams like Nebraska, Purdue, and Ohio State and next year's schedule becomes one of the toughest in recent memory for Michigan.
Despite Michigan's tough schedule throughout the season, fans are still wondering about which games will be the toughest. For instance, Michigan has to go on the road to Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State, but Michigan beat all three teams last year. Results from last year don't guarantee anything for this season, but this has to be something going through the minds of Michigan fans and the teams. Yes, there are some tough challenges ahead, but how tough? What I've done is list the games that I believe are the most difficult for Michigan to win in 2012.
#5 - Nebraska
Michigan's first trip to Lincoln should be a tough challenge for the Wolverines. Yes, Michigan trounced the Cornhuskers in last year's game by a final score of 45-17, but there were several fluky plays and that was last year. The thing that will make this game even more challenging is the night atmosphere. Michigan has started to perform better on the road, but the Iowa game is a perfect example of what can happen to a team like Michigan. There is no way Iowa should have beaten Michigan last year, but the Wolverines came out playing weak in a tough road environment. Two things that usually spell defeat. To me, with Nebraska's big offseason losses, particularly on defense, this is going to be a team looking for an identity. Their offense was pretty good last year, but can Taylor Martinez win big games? He didn't show that last year. This is an opportunity for Martinez to show the country he can really move to the next level, but this is a game Michigan should still win, despite its high difficulty.
#4 - Notre Dame
Another trip "Under the Lights" against Notre Dame. In a long-standing tradition of the Irish attempting to steal Michigan's traditions, they are attempting to remake the "Under the Lights" game from last season. Michigan fans will hope for a similar result, after beating the Irish in the final minutes of the game. Notre Dame is going to have some major question marks next year, especially under center and in the secondary. After several years of horrible quarterback play, can Notre Dame finally find a quarterback that can lead them over good teams? I mean, it probably can't get any worse. They do return some solid players including Manti Tae'o and some experience on both sides of the ball, but with such a brutal schedule (Notre Dame was ranked #1 in schedule difficulty by CBS) this is going to become a "must win" for Notre Dame. Seriously, if Notre Dame comes out flat like they did in 2011, they may not go to a bowl game. With road games at MSU, Oklahoma, and USC, winning at home will be crucial. The Irish will be going "full out" to win this game, which probably doesn't bode well for Michigan. If Michigan can find a capable receiver that can punish the weak Irish secondary, they should be set for this game. If I was betting on this game, I would pick Michigan, but with the night game rivalry atmosphere coupled with a solid Notre Dame squad, this will still be a tough game to win.
#3 - Michigan State
Since 2007, Michigan has not beaten the Spartans in football. Just hearing that should give Michigan fans jitters. Things are lined up nicely for a win in 2012, but breaking a streak like the Spartans currently hold is never easy. Just look at the 2011 version of "The Game". Michigan should have stomped the Buckeyes, but they came out swinging and truly made it into a close game. This is what I expect from the Spartans in 2012. They return a very talented bunch, especially on defense. Bringing back players like William Gholston, Johnny Adams, and Marcus Rush will give offensive coordinators nightmares all year. However, there should be a drop in offensive production for the Spartans next year. They return their leading rusher and most of their offensive line, but they will be breaking in a new quarterback and several wide receivers. Michigan has the fortune of getting them in the Big House, but it is going to take a good game from the Wolverines to break the streak and bring Paul Bunyan home. The main reason I think this game will be more difficult than Notre Dame and Nebraska is the fact that MSU should have a better team. Notre Dame and Nebraska will have fiery home crowds on their side, but MSU should have a lot more talent and experience on the field, which is a lot more important. I think Michigan has a great chance at winning this game, but it will be one of the toughest fought and closest games of the season for the Wolverines. Along with this, the Bo (Legends) Division title will likely be on the line, making the game even more meaningful.
#2 - Ohio State
In most years, when the Wolverines travel to the Horseshoe, this game would occupy the #1 spot, but not this year. This will be a tough game for Michigan to say the least. Not only does Ohio State return 19 starters, but they return Freshman of the Year Braxton Miller and hotshot coach Urban Meyer. There are always going to be some question marks for a team coming off a 6-7 season, but the Buckeyes are lined up nicely for 2012. It's pretty rare that a team that returns 19 starters, including a quarterback doesn't take a step forward. Add in the fact that Miller should fit better into Meyer's spread offense than he did into Luke Fickell's offense (did he even have one?) and you have the makings for one of the conference's best teams. Of course, Ohio State is banned from going to the Big Ten Championship game and to a bowl game for the 2012 season, but that only will make "The Game" even tougher. They are also certain to go "all out", knowing that this is the last opportunity they have to play for the season. Michigan shouldn't feel out of this game by any means, as every team has a chance in "The Game", but I do think the odds will be in favor of Ohio State this November. Michigan hasn't won in Columbus since 2000 and the Buckeyes haven't had the chance to respond to a Michigan loss since 2004. They are going to be highly motivated in front of a home crowd to win Urban's inaugural game against Michigan and redeem themselves against Michigan. I won't count Michigan out, but this will be one of the toughest games of the year to win, as it always has been between the two rivals.
#1 - Alabama
Ah, the Cowboys Classic. The season opener in Dallas, Texas against the defending national champions. That last sentence alone should be reason enough to place this #1 on this list. Alabama is coming off its 2nd national championship in 3 seasons and returning a very good squad. In fact, many of the players that were lost in the offseason are now playing in the NFL and most of their new replacements will probably be joining them in a few years. I would like to talk about how Alabama only returns 13 starters including a kicker and a punter and about how that should be a major advantage for Michigan, but the problem with that argument is that it ignores the tremendous depth the Crimson Tide have created in the last few years. They have been recruiting at an elite level and now often have the ability to replace a starter with someone who is more talented. Not many programs can do that, but Alabama has shown they can. Can Michigan beat Alabama? Absolutely. Is is likely? I don't think so. I have been asked by many people this offseason if I believe that Michigan can beat Alabama and I always respond in the same way. I wouldn't bet on Michigan doing it, but if there is a time that Michigan can beat them, it's exactly when they're playing the Crimson Tide. As I explained, Alabama may have extremely talented players waiting in the shadows to replace the 11 lost starters from 2011, but what they don't have is experience. Some certainly do have some experience, but that will be a challenge for the first game. Michigan has a few more returning starters and should have an experience advantage, at least in the first game. So like I said, I wouldn't bet on Michigan in this game, but if there is a time Michigan can beat the Tide, it's in Dallas in week 1 of the regular season.