Michigan will open the season on Saturday against defending champion Alabama as the eighth-ranked team in the nation. While the Wolverines have a navigable schedule for the most part, there will be a couple major tests along the way.
Now that the season is finally set to begin, let's take a look at the three matchups Michigan fans should circle on the calendar. The results of these games will ultimately decide exactly how successful the 2012 version of the team is.
Alabama (Sept. 1)
There are always two different ways to view a tough opener. An optimist will say it's a chance to make a gigantic impact on the college football landscape. A pessimist argues the game has the potential to immediately derail a promising season.
In reality, Michigan should view it as a golden opportunity. If the Wolverines consider themselves legitimate contenders for the national championship, there's no better way to become a part of the early-season conversation than knocking off last year's winner.
The key will be slowing down Eddie Lacy and the Crimson Tide rushing attack. Lacy has been battling a sore ankle, but Alabama has plenty of depth at the position. Michigan's defensive line will be crucial in pulling off an upset.
Nebraska (Oct. 27)
Following a tricky home game against Michigan State, the Wolverines will immediately have to go out on the road to face Nebraska. The quick turnaround after a rivalry game makes the task even tougher for the Wolverines.
Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead will once again give the Cornhuskers a dangerous one-two punch on offense. So Michigan won't be able to afford a letdown. It will be a tremendous test of the team's mental toughness.
It's also high-profile games like this where Denard Robinson can gain some serious Heisman hype if he's still in the race. He scored four touchdowns against Nebraska last season in a big win. He'd like to match that performance.
Ohio State (Nov. 24)
Urban Meyer has begun rebuilding the Ohio State program and bringing a lot of attention to the Buckeyes. The team still has some holes that need to get filled, but progress has already been made and the team should be in much better shape by season's end.
Knowing that, going on the road to face them in the season finale will be a tough challenge for Michigan, especially if there's a lot on the line. Assuming Braxton Miller continues to develop, he will be a force by that point.
On the flip side, Michigan and its fans would love nothing more than beating Ohio State to potentially improve BCS positioning ahead of the conference title game. Anything short of an instant classic would be a surprise.