Michigan football team could face historically difficult road schedule next season
Alabama is ranked No. 3 in ESPN.com's preseason college football poll. Notre Dame is No. 24. Nebraska is 17th, and Ohio State 20th.
And what, exactly, do they have to do with Michigan?
The Wolverines face each -- on the road.
Michigan's offseason focus has been, and will continue to be, its blockbuster opener against the Crimson Tide in Dallas. It perhaps is the Wolverines' most-anticipated opener since 1989, the last time they began a season against a defending national champion (Notre Dame).
But the schedule doesn't let up from there.Michigan features six games away from home next season, which ties Indiana for the most in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers, though, don't face a single team ranked in that ESPN poll on the road.
Michigan faces four.
The last time the Wolverines traveled four times to face teams ranked in The Associated Press poll during the regular season was 2003. The only other time it happened was in 2000.
And how did Michigan fare against those gauntlets? It went 4-4 in the eight road games against ranked teams, and 14-1 the remainder of those two seasons.
Two great teams, cut down on the road. Can next year's team avert the same fate?
It's possible -- in fact, likely -- Michigan will be a better team next year with a worse record than last year, because of its schedule. There is a silver lining, though, and it's two-fold.
First, the Wolverines will be relevant nationally throughout the season, with so many big-time games, most of which are slated for national TV. That helps with recruiting, exposure, etc.
Second, the big-time road lineup means much of it will be played in prime time, where Michigan fared well last year.
So far, each of the three announced road start times are late. Add in the expected night kickoff against Alabama, and Michigan will open its road schedule with at least four consecutive late games.
Three of the four -- against Alabama (in Dallas), Notre Dame and Nebraska -- are true night games, which could play into the Wolverines' favor. They went 3-0 at night last year, and won each game dramatically.
Two of them were away from Ann Arbor, too, after they staged a second-half comeback at Northwestern and prevailed in overtime against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Coach Brady Hoke has spoken frequently of his disdain for night games, because players have to find a way to remain focused throughout the day without peaking too early. Yet, he's also been successful in them.
He said he devised his game plan for night-game preparation while at San Diego State, which plays on the West Coast and often deals with late starts.
Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said Hoke's template for night games is simple: A regimented schedule to remain focused, with regular breaks to stay relaxed.
"He's kind of anal about (the pregame routine)," Kovacs said of Hoke. "We're always going through a walk-through at this time, we're eating at this time, talking at this time. He likes to keep it at that pace. It will shift depending on what time the game's at.
"The longest break you'll have is 45 minutes, then you go back to the room and watch football and try to take a nap and find something to kill the time. My biggest thing is I try to take my mind off football, forget about the game, watch some TV and relax. Then go through walk-throughs and you can start thinking about the game."
That process will be put to the test early and often next season, and could be the determining factor in whether Michigan can match last year's 11-win campaign while facing perhaps the most difficult schedule in the country.
"You come to Michigan to play on national TV," Kovacs said. "It's exciting that everybody's going to be watching."
A look at Michigan's full schedule, with announced kickoff times:
Sept. 1 Alabama (Dallas)
Sept. 8 Air Force
Sept. 15 UMass
Sept. 22 at Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 6 at Purdue, 4 p.m.
Oct. 13 Illinois, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 Michigan State
Oct. 27 at Nebraska, 8 p.m.
Nov. 3 at Minnesota
Nov. 10 Northwestern
Nov. 17 Iowa
Nov. 24 at Ohio State