Michigan Football: Power Ranking the Wolverines' 5 Toughest Big Ten Games

Adam BiggersSenior Analyst IISeptember 12, 2013

Michigan Football: Power Ranking the Wolverines' 5 Toughest Big Ten Games

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    Brady Hoke's success in the Big Ten is just the beginning. 

    Now in his third season as head coach at Michigan, Hoke's track record of holding his own against conference opposition—his 12-4 B1G record—speaks to his commitment to restoring hard-nosed Wolverines football. Team 134 certainly embodies that brand of play. 

    Cruising through the first two weeks of the fall, No. 11 Michigan has a pair of non-conference battles with Akron and UConn before engaging Minnesota on Oct. 5 at The Big House. After the Gophers, Penn State and Indiana blockade Hoke's path to Mark Dantonio's Michigan State Spartans, who have won four of the past five series meetings. 

    It's not the most challenging of conference slates, but it's certainly no cakewalk, either. Dates in November with Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State represent the "meat" of 2013. That collection of in-conference opposition should serve as the tell-all for Michigan. 

5. Oct. 12 at Penn State

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    With two decisive wins, a quickly filling 2014 class and a hot-shot true freshman quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, coach Bill O'Brien has Penn State emerging as an underdog challenger for a Big Ten championship. 

    Factor in the history of Happy Valley, which isn't a happy place for visitors, and Brady Hoke's Wolverines will face quite a challenge Oct. 12 against the Nittany Lions, who are 6-10 versus Michigan

    Hackenberg, the No. 1 pro-styler of 2013 according to 247Sports, could end up as the face of the program if he continues to excel at his rampant pace. Despite throwing three interceptions, the 6'4", 220-pound former Fork Union Military (Va.) star has 589 passing yards and a 70 percent completion rate in two starts.

    That's a great launch for the rocket-armed youngster who was playing against high schoolers a year ago.

    O'Brien helped coach the New England Patriots' offense from 2008-2010, so he knows about NFL-level talent. With a little work, he believes that Hackenberg has the makings of a real-deal quarterback.

    The second-year Penn State coach also said the following about Hackenberg's potential to PennLive.com's Bob Flounders. 

    A lot of it has to do with mechanics. He's able to use the proper footwork, and he's able to finish his throws and have his elbow in the proper place and have the proper grip on the ball.

    He's a big, strong guy, and he's got a strong arm. His arm strength will continue to improve as he becomes stronger himself. 

    He's only 18 years old and as he gets more into our weight program, he will continue to get stronger. His leg strength and upper body strength will be better and you'll see his arm strength improve.

    The Nittany Lions' offensive line must improve protection; Hackenberg has been sacked six times in two games. With the likes of Michigan on the horizon, keeping Hackenberg upright could be a challenge for Penn State once Big Ten play begins.

    Not short on experience, the line has rising sophomore Donovan Smith guarding Hackenberg's blind side. Protection could be the difference Oct. 12—if Hackenberg gets it, his team will have a fighting chance. 

    Michigan's defensive line hasn't been incredibly intimidating thus far, but it ousted Central Michigan's Cody Kater after just six pass attempts in Week 1. The following week, Notre Dame's Tommy Rees eluded a sack during 50 of 51 passing attempts.

4. Nov. 2 at Michigan State

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    The Spartans have arguably the best defense in the country...and, perhaps, the worst offense

    Through a pair of games, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has struggled to find a starting quarterback that can consistently produce. Senior Andrew Maxwell has been in and out of the fold, likewise with redshirt sophomore Connor Cook and redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor. 

    The next move? 

    It could be true freshman Damion Terry, a former 4-star recruit according to 247Sports. 

    Dantonio said the following about the quarterback selection to MLive.com's Mike Griffith:

    I have a sense of urgency in this process, (and) I want to try to formulate it and get it handled as quick as possible. So I have to give people opportunities, as I continue to say, there's oppositions and there's opportunities, as well, and I understand that, but we have to go forward.

    We’ve got guys that can catch the football, (and) we’ve got guys who can throw the football. The timing just has to come forward. We just need a spark. We need a couple guys to make a play.

    The receivers are still dropping balls—doesn't matter who's throwing them—and haven't exactly aided an ailing scoring attack. The run game is nonexistent in the absence of LeVeon Bell, who was a rock at running back for three years. 

    Luckily for Dantonio, Shilique Calhoun has scored three touchdowns this year. But there's one problem: He's a defensive end.

    Down but not out, the Spartans probably won't roll over for the Wolverines. If Dantonio can somehow work out his offensive problems—his defense is elite—by Nov. 2, that Saturday at Spartan Stadium could be a point of frustration for Michigan, which hasn't won there since 2007.

    Wins and losses have little meaning in this rivalry. Hoke's going for two in a row, while Dantonio probably hopes to prove that his four-year streak wasn't a fluke.

3. Nov. 9 vs. Nebraska

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    No longer a newcomer, Nebraska seems like it's been in the Big Ten for years. Already with a few conference battles to be proud of, the Huskers versus the Wolverines stands to be a premier league feud for as long as it's played. 

    Both teams subscribe to the old-school philosophy, and coach Bo Pelini embodies that attitude when he's not pulling pranks on his players. Pelini is a prime head-to-head match for Hoke. 

    Michigan is 4-3-1 versus the Huskers, dating back to 1905. Despite a 45-17 thrashing in 2011, Nebraska responded with a 23-9 win in 2012.

    Making matters worse, Denard Robinson suffered an ulnar nerve injury in his right elbow. From that point, defense was flexed, a backup was tormented to no end and a season with high expectations was knocked down a few notches. 

    There were doubts surrounding the Huskers after a meek 37-34 victory in Week 1 over Wyoming. The following week, a 56-13 drubbing of Southern Miss helped put some offensive concerns to rest. A win this weekend over No. 16 UCLA could erase all skepticism. 

    Depending on which team Michigan gets, Nov. 9 in Ann Arbor could make or break the Wolverines' season. 

2. Nov. 16 at Northwestern

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    Historically, Michigan versus Northwestern hasn't been close; the Wolverines own a 54-15-2 series edge, but the meetings have been wildly entertaining since 2008. With a high-speed offense, the Wildcats stand to challenge this season. 

    Quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark are one of the top twosomes in the Big Ten. They'll account for plenty of offense Nov. 16, just as they did during their team's thrilling 38-31 overtime loss in 2012 at Michigan. 

    The emergence of quarterback Trevor Siemian gives an added layer to an offense that will undoubtedly put droves of crooked numbers on the scoreboard this fall.

    In late August, coach Pat Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune's David Haugh (subscription required) that he likes the direction that his program is headed. 

    Touting a strong defense that held Notre Dame to a pair of offensive touchdowns this past Saturday, the Wolverines appear ready to welcome any and every one who wants to go a round. That being said, the teams that are willing to stand up have the best shot at backing down Team 134. 

    Primed to strike, the No. 17 Wildcats should be armed and dangerous.

    This year's game has an interesting story line which could influence the future of Fitzgerald in Evanston. Teddy Greenstein, a Tribune columnist, recently suggested that job openings could interest Fitzgerald, a former Northwestern star-turned-coach. 

    If rolling along, a win over Michigan could be the crown jewel of a Big Ten championship season, thus keeping Fitzgerald locked at the university for years to come. Every coach wants to be where he can compete. At this point, any movement from Fitzgerald is educated speculation.

    But it makes for a great plot come Nov. 16.

1. No Title Needed

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    It's Ohio State. 

    End. Of. Story. 

    The Wolverines versus the Buckeyes is more than a border war, it's one of the most cherished rivalries in all of sports. Although the heart of the hate lies in the Midwest, Michigan-Ohio State instantly commands national attention on the last Saturday of November. 

    Now 1-1 against the Buckeyes, Hoke gets his second crack against Urban Meyer, who won 26-21 in 2012. If the stars align, college fans could see Round 2 of 2006, the year Michigan lost one of the greatest games of the series, 42-39.

    But calling it a "series" game doesn't do its justice, it was one of the top games of the decade. 

    Devin Gardner is on the brink of national stardom after throwing for 294 yards and four touchdowns against the Irish. He has a go-to receiver in Jeremy Gallon and a developing backfield. The secondary is a go, and there's a good chance that linebacker Jake Ryan will be back in the lineup by then. 

    Braxton Miller, Ohio State's top gun, is one of the most athletic running quarterbacks in the nation. Targets plentiful, Miller is usually one step away from a big throw or scramble. At the moment, Miller battles a knee injury.

    Hopefully, for the sake of The Game and his team's season, the bothersome condition won't last long. 

    The last Saturday of the season could be a preview of December's bout for the league belt. Hoke versus Meyer is as good as it gets in the Big Ten. The two programs' histories speak for themselves. 

     

    Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81