Michigan Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2016 Schedule

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2016

Michigan Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2016 Schedule

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    An early look at Michigan football's 2016 schedule bodes well for the Wolverines' hopes of competing for a national title.

    Overall, Jim Harbaugh's team has a manageable slate that begins against a trio of favorable nonconference opponents in Hawaii, UCF and Colorado.

    The competition level steadily rises as the year progresses, however. As of now, Michigan's three toughest games come after a bye week on Oct. 15 and are each on the road.

    If the Wolverines ultimately reach the College Football Playoff, they'll certainly have earned it following the difficult final five outings of the regular season.

Keep an Eye On: Maryland Terrapins

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    D.J. Durkin
    D.J. DurkinPatrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Consequent to the hiring of former Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, Maryland may not be viewed as a relatively easy conference victory much longer.

    His familiarity with the Wolverines' personnel is a potential issue, but that's not the only reason the Terrapins might be a problem.

    The Nov. 5 matchup is sandwiched between road matchups at Michigan State and Iowa. On paper, this is a classic trap game.

    Granted, if Maryland doesn't develop a reliable quarterback, the Maize and Blue shouldn't encounter many problems. But the chance remains that Durkin's rebuild is an expedient process.

5. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    James Franklin
    James FranklinGene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Entering the third year of his Penn State tenure, it's time for head coach James Franklin to flex his development muscle.

    After squandering what could've been Christian Hackenberg's best years, the Nittany Lions need a quarterback. Fortunately for them, Trace McSorleyor Tommy Stevens—will have an experienced supporting cast when Michigan hosts the Sept. 24 clash.

    Four starters on the offensive line are back to open lanes for standout sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. Leading receivers Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton also return.

    The Wolverines had little trouble dispatching the Nittany Lions last year, but both programs will be looking to open Big Ten action on a winning note.

4. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Corey Clement
    Corey ClementJeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Wisconsin is a model of above-average consistency—yet not quite elite. That trend shouldn't change in 2016.

    Yes, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda departed for a similar position at LSU, and the Badgers must replace a majority of the secondary. But in typical Wisconsin fashion, the trenches will be a strength on both sides of the ball.

    Corey Clementpresumably, of course—will be healthy to headline a loaded backfield, while Bart Houston shouldn't have more issues than quarterback Joel Stave.

    The Oct. 1 showdown marks the last of Michigan's five consecutive home outings to begin the season.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    C.J. Beathard
    C.J. BeathardJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Next season, Iowa will attempt to prove it was no fluke. By Nov. 12 in Iowa City, we'll nearly have the answer.

    The Hawkeyes lost a handful of significant contributors, but quarterback C.J. Beathard and Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King have one more season in college.

    Iowa has a marginally tougher slate, though it's likely not difficult enough to appease the detractors of 2015. A home victory over a projected top-10 Michigan squad would certainly give the Hawkeyes a signature win.

    Conversely, the Wolverines cannot afford a mid-November loss if they're still in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.

2. Michigan State Spartans

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    Mark Dantonio (left) and Jim Harbaugh
    Mark Dantonio (left) and Jim HarbaughRey Del Rio/Getty Images

    Michigan's second road game of the 2016 campaign arrives a mere three days before November. Since a bout against Rutgers is the Wolverines' first trip, Michigan State will probably be their first test.

    And as last year's clash reminded usanything can happen when rivals meet.

    Plus, the Spartans have notched seven victories over an eight-game stretch. Head coach Mark Dantonio hasn't watched the Maize and Blue celebrate a win in East Lansing since his first season (2007) at MSU.

    Harbaugh nearly changed the narrative in 2015, though, so Michigan will be confident it can play a stronger 60 minutes—this time, through the final whistle.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    J.T. Barrett
    J.T. BarrettAndrew Weber/Getty Images

    Attrition be darned, the 2016 edition of The Game will be fantastic.

    Ohio State figures to encounter some growing pains, but head coach Urban Meyer and his staff are both excellent recruiters and developers. The Buckeyes will be ready for the 12th contest of the season.

    Bold prediction, right?

    Anyway, there's an excellent chance the winner of the Nov. 26 skirmish takes the Big Ten East Division—something neither a healthy J.T. Barrett nor a senior-heavy Michigan roster has accomplished.

    Ohio State will be the Wolverines' toughest opponent; that's practically a guarantee. And if a conference championship is on the line, it'll be the most meaningful matchup in a decade.

    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.