There are three days left until the first college football Saturday of 2012, and the Michigan Wolverines are coming off their best season since 2006, when they went into the last game of the season undefeated and No. 2 in the country.
The Wolverines finished that season 11-2, and after a complete revival, Michigan finished last season with the same 11-2 mark, defeating Ohio State and winning the Sugar Bowl.
Michigan enters the 2012 campaign with high expectations, ranked No. 8 in both the Associated Press and USA Today preseason polls.
The Wolverines face the toughest schedule they have had in recent memory with six games away from Ann Arbor, including the vaunted season opener against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
Michigan is a heavy underdog against the Tide at the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 1, but the Wolverines should be favorites in almost all of their remaining games.
Here are the eight games Michigan must win to have any chance of returning to a BCS bowl this season.
2011 Record: 7-6 (3-4 Mountain West Conference)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: N/A
The Air Force Falcons out of the Mountain West Conference travel to Ann Arbor, attempting to spoil the Wolverines' home opener on Sept. 8.
Head coach Brady Hoke has said the Wolverines can't overlook the Falcons, who went 7-6 last year, and their triple-option offense, but according to the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Falcons removed five key returning players from the team.
Safety Anthony Wooding, receiver Mikel Hunter, receiver Brandon Hirneise, linebacker Jamil Cooks and tight end Devin Durden will not be in uniform against the Wolverines, according to the report, which will give Michigan an easier chance of escaping with a win.
2011 Record: 5-6 (3-5 Colonial Athletic Association)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: N/A
Michigan hosts UMass in Week 3 at home, and although the Wolverines didn't play the Minutemen last season, UMass gave Michigan a huge scare in 2010.
UMass, which is in its first year in the Football Bowl Subdivision, scored 20 points in the fourth quarter two years ago in Ann Arbor and just barely fell short, losing 42-37.
The Minutemen left the Colonial Athletic Association for the Mid-American Conference and host Big Ten opponent Indiana before the matchup against Michigan.
Charley Molnar has taken over as head coach at UMass after spending the last two seasons as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator. And after having to shut down starting quarterback Kellen Pagel due to post-concussion symptoms, Molnar should lose to Michigan again, as he did last year with the Irish.
2011 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: Michigan won at home, 36-14
Michigan trounced Purdue last season in Ann Arbor by 22 points.
The Boilermakers finished last season 7-6, narrowly defeating Western Michigan in the Little Caesar's Bowl, but several prognosticators are picking Purdue to be a surprise team in 2012.
Senior quarterback Caleb TerBush returns for his second year starting under center. After a full year as the No. 1 guy in West Lafayette, where he completed 171 of 277 passes for 1,905 yards and 13 touchdowns, TerBush looks to make the next step in his career, garnering national attention.
Purdue's bread and butter last season was the run game. The Boilermakers boasted the No. 33 rushing attack in the country, averaging more than 181 yards per game, and this year, senior running back Akeem Shavers will start in place of injured senior Ralph Bolden.
Bolden, who ran for 648 yards and six touchdowns last season, is out with a knee injury. Shavers transferred to Purdue before last season and rushed for 519 yards and six touchdowns in 111 attempts last year. He will start in the season opener for the third time in his career.
The Wolverines will have to stay honest against the running game and force TerBush and a young receiving corps to beat them. Michigan should come away with a relatively painless road victory.
2011 Record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: Michigan won, 31-14
Illinois returns starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for 2,110 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season.
The dual-threat junior added 624 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground last year, and with almost 4,000 career passing yards, Scheelhaase looks to lead the Fighting Illini out of the mediocre funk they've muddled through the past several years.
Illinois will be better this season, but this is a must-win game for Michigan, who hosts MSU the next week.
The Wolverines will be heavy favorites to defeat the Illini, and a loss before MSU week would be mentally devastating for Michigan—and tough to get over in time for the matchup against the Spartans.
2011 Record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: MSU won, 28-14
Michigan's so-called "little brother" has defeated the Wolverines four straight times.
2011 Record: 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: Michigan won, 58-0
Michigan thumped Minnesota last season, dominating the Golden Gophers with a 58-point shutout for the biggest win either way in the 92-game series, and once again staking claim of the Little Brown Jug.
The Wolverines have won the last four games in the series and are 20-1 in the last 21 games.
Dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray returns for his senior season, after leading the Golden Gophers in passing and rushing yards last year. Gray threw for 1,495 yards and eight touchdowns last season and added 966 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
If the Wolverines can contain Gray, keeping him from having a monster game, they'll go home with one of the oldest trophies in sports for the fifth consecutive season.
2011 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: Michigan won, 42-24
Northwestern, breaking in new starting quarterback Kain Colter, visits Ann Arbor on Nov. 10. The Wildcats are coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and can't seem to turn the corner to crack national prominence and consistent success.
Colter is a multi-threat QB in every sense of the term. Last season, he split time between QB and receiver and fell 34 receiving yards shy of 500 yards passing, rushing and receiving.
Because Colter isn't a proven passer, the Michigan secondary will have the opportunity to load up the box and take away the running game.
Colter will get his yards, but because of the stout secondary and unproven players at every NU position, he won't be able to break off big gains, and Michigan will come away with the win.
2011 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
2011 Head-to-Head Result: Michigan won, 40-34
Nothing else really matters if you don't beat Ohio State.
Michigan finally defeated OSU last season for the first time since 2003, ending eight years of misery.
Because of the lopsided results for the better part of the last decade, the greatest rivalry in all of sports lost a little bit of its luster, but the BCS-bound Wolverines eked out the six-point victory over the Buckeyes last season, retaking bragging rights and restoring order to the 108-year tug of war.
Michigan must show it can win at the Horseshoe and continue momentum in the series with another possible BCS berth on the line.
The Wolverines have finally gotten back to national relevance, and back-to-back wins over OSU would be a huge step to get back to national dominance.