Following an encouraging first season under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan football team will be a popular pick to reach the 2016 College Football Playoff. The Wolverines must survive an arduous final half of the year for that goal to become a reality, though.
Michigan opens the campaign with five consecutive home games, including a pair of outings against Big Ten foes. Avoiding lapses in nonconference play and home contests will be valuable down the stretch.
After all, the Wolverines will battle each of the three best Big Ten programs of 2015—and every matchup is on the road.
Closing the year unblemished is unlikely. However, a conference championship would place Michigan in a New Year's Six Bowl game, and the program could have an argument to challenge for the national title.
|Sept. 3||Hawaii||3-10||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Sept. 10||UCF||0-12||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Sept. 17||Colorado||4-9||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Sept. 24||Penn State||7-6||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Oct. 1||Wisconsin||6-2||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Oct. 8||Rutgers||4-8||Piscataway, NJ|
|Oct. 22||Illinois||5-7||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Oct. 29||Michigan State||12-2||East Lansing, MI|
|Nov. 5||Maryland||3-9||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Nov. 12||Iowa||12-2||Iowa City, IA|
|Nov. 19||Indiana||6-7||Ann Arbor, MI|
|Nov. 26||Ohio State||12-1||Columbus, OH|
Rather than kicking off the season with a difficult road test, the Wolverines will not leave the comfort of Michigan Stadium for a while. They also have some cushy opponents to begin.
Hawaii failed to record a Mountain West Conference victory last season, and Central Florida flat-out failed to win. UCF ended the year 0-12, surrendering 452 points while scoring just 167.
Rounding out the nonconference slate is Colorado, which is steadily improving yet still a couple seasons away from competing in the Pac-12. The Buffs return quarterback Sefo Liufau, but he's currently recovering from a Lisfranc injury to his left foot and might not return until fall camp.
Although 2015 results don't tell a complete story, Michigan is an obvious favorite in each outing. The offense must break in a new quarterback, but the favorable opening should reduce the pressure on John O'Korn, Wilton Speight or whomever wins the starting job.
No Letdowns Before the Gauntlet
The Wolverines will then enter Big Ten play, welcoming a revamped Penn State roster to Ann Arbor. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg, as well as defensive leaders Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel, will be suiting up on Sundays.
Unless the Nittany Lions can effectively run the ball 40-plus times led by standout sophomore Saquon Barkley, they'll have trouble on the road. The same rings true for Wisconsin, but that's the program's offensive philosophy anyway.
Corey Clement figures to carry the load behind an experienced offensive line. Though the Badgers will break in a new quarterback, many fans had grown weary of Joel Stave anyway.
Uncertainty under center is also the case at Rutgers, since new head coach Chris Ash said he isn't committed to returning starter Chris Laviano, per Ryan Dunleavy of the Asbury Park Press. Hayden Rettig will also compete for the nod, but the quarterbacks won't have NFL-bound receiver Leonte Carroo.
Illinois, on the other hand, should get a boost with Mike Dudek back on the field. The standout true freshman tore the ACL in his right knee and missed 2015. Still, the Illini have lost six of their top seven tacklers.
Burning Ring of Fire
Every other year, Michigan has the luxury of hosting its two main rivals in Michigan State and Ohio State. But that means the Maize and Blue have a couple tough road contests next season.
Following a probable tune-up against Illinois on homecoming weekend, the Wolverines travel to square off with Michigan State. The in-state rival has defended its home turf during each of the last four meetings in East Lansing.
And, of course, Michigan has some dreams of revenge.
The Wolverines then host Maryland, which shouldn't be a pushover much longer now that U-M's 2015 defensive coordinator, D.J. Durkin, is in charge.
A brutal road slate returns when Michigan hops on a plane for Iowa, the defending West Division champion. The Nov. 12 matchup could be a make-or-break outing for both teams' conference title hopes.
Indiana, which may have a junior college transfer at quarterback in Richard Lagow, is a pesky opponent. If Zander Diamont wins the job, though, his dual-threat ability might annoy the Wolverines if they're caught looking ahead to J.T. Barrett and Ohio State.
Should preseason projections be correct, the winner of The Game in 2016 will claim the East Division crown. Ohio State must restock its roster, but it's silly to pretend head coach Urban Meyer won't have the Buckeyes ready by then, let alone mid-October.
Michigan has dreams of a national championship, and Harbaugh's team certainly will have earned a place if it survives three in-conference road tests against likely top-20 opponents.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.