Michigan Wolverines: Non-Conference Schedule Prepared Them to Win Big 10 Legends
Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams often struggle with the best approach to building their non-conference schedules.
There is a balancing act of making the schedule tough enough to earn street cred and sway voters while not making it so tough as to make life difficult in qualifying for an upper-end bowl game.
The looming playoff system will likely send a lot of athletic directors scurrying to ratchet up their difficulty level.
The Michigan Wolverines (3-2, 1-0 in Big 10) need to just keep doing what they've been doing. Not only does their non-conference schedule appeal to whatever will remain of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), it sets them up perfectly to earn what every Big 10 school is playing for.
The ultimate prize for Michigan in 2012 will be a trip to the conference title game to earn the trip to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl.
As strong as the Leaders Division is, the Rose Bowl representative from the 2012 season will come from the Legends Division.
Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) is clearly the class of that side of the conference, but they are ineligible for postseason play.
The same is true for the current second-place team, Penn State (4-2, 2-0). This leaves Wisconsin and Purdue playing for a trip to the title game.
The Wolverines already have a 44-13 win over the Boilermakers under their belts.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-2, 1-1) look to be the top Legends contender. Michigan will travel to Lincoln after a pair of home games against the Illinois Illini and Michigan State Spartans.
Thanks in large part to their non-conference schedule, Michigan has built some confidence and mixed in a pair of very difficult games.
The nature of college football, with players rotating on the roster, puts a premium on learning opportunities early in the year. The Wolverines' coaches and players had plenty of those while hosting Alabama and travelling to face Notre Dame.
Sandwiched between those games was the opportunity to refine their game with wins over Air Force and U Mass.
Michigan still has a few bugs to work out, most notably the lack of a ground game from their running backs. Last year's 1000-yard rusher, Fitzgerald Toussaint, was suspended for the opener and has looked nothing like the back from 2011 since returning.
Toussaint is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry with 169 yards in four games.
Denard Robinson had a few challenging games early in the season, throwing for just one touchdown to six interceptions against Alabama and Notre Dame combined. But he rallied a bit last week with an acceptable day passing the ball and 235 yards rushing.
The showdown for the Big 10 title will likely be settled when Nebraska hosts Michigan. Similar to a hapless UCLA team filling in for USC in the Pac-12 Championship last year, whichever team represents the Leaders Division will be a long-shot.
Nebraska lost to those Bruins early in 2012, their only challenging non-conference game.
Will the winner of the Legends Division win the Big 10?
The Cornhuskers certainly learned a bit about themselves last week against Ohio State. They now have a bye week and a game against Northwestern to make adjustments and prepare to host the Wolverines.
One has to wonder if the team wouldn't be better off having played a more challenging opponent instead of a doormat team from the Big Sky Conference. Idaho State is a bad team by Football Championship Subdivision standards and shouldn't be on the schedule of a supposed FBS powerhouse.
Michigan vs. Nebraska should be a highly contested game, with the winner having the inside track to the Big 10 title game. While the Wolverines' schedule has handed them a pair of early losses, it also helped better prepare them for winning this contest.
Should Nebraska lose this one at home, the team and fans should be wondering what might have happened had they just gotten their piece of steak earlier in the season.
The Wolverines had theirs. While it was tough, it prepared them to win the Big 10.
Darin Pike is a writer for Bleacher Report's Breaking News Team and a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and Seattle Seahawks.
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