After a surprising appearance and victory in the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago, the Michigan Wolverines took a slight step back in 2012, finishing just 8-5. Expectations are high entering the third year of the Brady Hoke era in Ann Arbor, though, and a Big Ten title isn't outside the realm of possibility.
In order to reach that goal, Michigan will have to deal with a competitive conference throughout the regular season. Although the Big Ten is short on elite teams as far as the pollsters are concerned, there is a great deal of depth, and there is plenty of quality talent on both sides of the ball.
While the Wolverines aren't currently favored to win the Big Ten, they are expected to make the Big Ten Championship Game at the very least. That is far from a guarantee, though, as one or more of the following teams could potentially ruin Michigan's season.
After going undefeated last season, it should come as no surprise that Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes are expected to win the Big Ten and perhaps even compete for a National Championship.
If not for the fact that Ohio State was barred from postseason play last year, the Buckeyes very well may have been playing against Notre Dame for all the marbles rather than Alabama. That fact isn't lost on the voters, as the Buckeyes were one of only three teams to receive a first-place vote in the opening coaches poll, according to CBSSports.com.
With that in mind, the Wolverines will have their hands full against Ohio State when they host the Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 30. That marks the final regular-season game for both teams, and it is possible that they could both be undefeated at that point. If that is the case, a rematch one week later in the Big Ten Championship Game would likely be in order as well.
When Michigan and Ohio State met in "The Game" last year, the Buckeyes received arguably their biggest challenge of the season, defeating the Wolverines 26-21 on home turf.
Devin Gardner started at quarterback for Michigan, while Denard Robinson was relegated to running back duty. Gardner didn't have his best game, but he should be looser this year now that Robinson is in the NFL. If Gardner progresses as expected, this season's meeting should feature a big-time quarterback matchup between him and Braxton Miller. Whichever passer performs better will likely win the game for his team.
While the Nebraska Cornhuskers may not receive a ton of hype entering the season, they always seem to be in the mix for a conference title, regardless of which conference they're in. The Huskers made a smooth transition to the Big Ten, winning the Legends Division last season, their second in the conference.
Nebraska ultimately lost to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, but the Huskers finished the season 10-4 and enter the 2013 campaign as a dark horse squad.
Nebraska is ranked No. 18 in the preseason AP Top 25, which puts it one spot behind Michigan, so a competitive matchup between the two is a given. Last year's encounter was anything but competitive, though, as the Huskers easily won by a score of 23-9.
There is plenty to like about Nebraska this season as well since Bo Pelini's squad returns most of its top players, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, running back Ameer Abdullah and wide receiver Kenny Bell.
The Huskers' one issue last season was that their normally dominant defense was wildly inconsistent. Nebraska would go a couple weeks without giving up a touchdown, only to allow Ohio State to drop 63 or Wisconsin to score 70. Michigan's offense promises to be a high-powered one this season, so it will be interesting to see what form the Nebraska defense is in come Nov. 9.
It can be argued that there is no bigger rivalry in college football than Michigan vs. Ohio State, but Michigan vs. Michigan State is pretty significant as well. In fact, the Spartans are the Wolverines' first major Big Ten test this season, as they will meet on Nov. 2 to start a brutal month for Michigan in terms of difficult opponents. Although Michigan State is just outside the USA Today Coaches Top 25 Poll to start the season, according to Spartan Football, the Spartans are a definite threat.
Even when either Michigan or Michigan State isn't great, their games are almost always competitive, as they strive to secure the Paul Bunyan Trophy. The Wolverines were able to do so last year in a low-scoring slugfest, winning by a score of 12-10. It wouldn't be particularly surprising to see a similar score this year as Michigan State is likely to play that type of football this season.
With stud running back Le'Veon Bell now in the NFL, the Spartans will need to lean even more heavily on their defense than they did last year.
Michigan could be in a tough spot when its clash against Michigan State rolls around, as the Wolverines have a decent chance at still being undefeated by that point. Perhaps Michigan won't overlook a rival like Michigan State, but it would be pretty easy to do so with teams like Nebraska and Ohio State coming up on the schedule. This has all the makings of a trap game, and losing it could very well deflate Michigan's Big Ten title aspirations.
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