2016 Preview: The Big Three Road Games

Michigan's season will be defined by their 3 tough road games against Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.

There is no question, for Michigan to take a step forward as a program in 2016, it really comes down to three games.

Three killer road games.

Michigan State on October 29th. Iowa on November 11th. And Ohio State on November 26th.

A 10 win season is nice, but it's not where Michigan wants to be. To consider itself an elite program again, Michigan has to elevate to playing championship caliber football.

Last season saw a heartbreaking, fluke loss to Michigan State on the final play of the game and a downright beating at the hands of the Buckeyes. Big wins against bad or decent teams are one thing...and they feel great, but losing to your elite rivals is a bitter pill to swallow for a program that has had it's fair share of bitter pills these last 10 years or so.

Make no mistake, Michigan football isn't "back" until they can not only hang with Michigan State and Ohio State, but beat them.

As an added scheduling bonus, Michigan also gets Wisconsin and Iowa as crossover games from the wide open Big Ten West. Wisconsin was previewed here before, so we'll concentrate on the Hawkeyes as that road game looms much larger on the schedule here in mid-July.

So let's dive in.

Michigan State
Ohio State gets all of the hype, but no team has enjoyed more sustained success in the Big Ten in recent years than the Spartans. While Michigan has been down, someone had to fill their shoes, and Michigan State has done just that. Big Ten championships, league MVP's, playoff appearances, Rose Bowls...all of those things have become commonplace in East Lansing...and have completely disappeared from Ann Arbor.

The 2016 Spartans are a bit of an open book. Senior leader Connor Cook is gone. So are OL studs Jack Conklin and Jack Allen. And with Aaron Burbridge gone as well, RJ Shelton is the lone returning wideout. With an untested QB in Tyler O'Connor, relatively young OL and receiving corps, most of the offensive load will be placed on running back LJ Scott's shoulders. The true sophomore was MSU's leading rusher a year ago with 699 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's a great downhill runner who gashed Iowa in the Big Ten championship game.

The defense also has many holes to fill. Along the line, DT Malik McDowell is the lone returning big man (although he could be one of the best in the country). The Spartans do have some talented, but albeit untested bodies up front to fill those holes. The linebackers are probably Michigan State's deepest and most talented position. Fifth-year senior Riley Bullough, yes...Max's younger brother, anchors this group. And in the defensive backfield, MSU boast two pretty good safeties in Cox and Nicholson. The cornerback position was sort of a mess last year with multiple injuries and figures to be a revolving door this year. And that's a problem because the hallmark of Michigan State's dominating defenses of recent years was their strength at the corners.

Overall, it's going to come down to coaching and how quickly these new faces can fill the holes left from last year. Most experts predict Michigan State to take a bit of a step back this year (à la 2012). I would have to agree if for no other reason that the offensive production, which was hit and miss a year ago, will continue to sputter in 2016.

Yet, for all their faults, Michigan State plays it's best football against in it's biggest games. Against Michigan and Ohio State last year, the defense gave up 4 ypp and 2.9 ypp respectively. In all other games they gave up 5.5. With both squads visiting Spartan Stadium this year, expect Michigan State to play well above their pay grade in those two games.

MBN Predict-O
Running game edge: Michigan
Passing game edge: Michigan
Special teams edge: Push
Coaching edge: Push
Historical luck factor: Michigan State

I put Iowa on here because I just can't ignore their 12-2 record and 8-0 regular season league mark from last year. They were one play away from the college football playoff. That and Michigan plays them on the road in primetime on November 12th...right in the meat of the championship push.

Expect some sort of chaotic weather to futz with this game somehow.

While Iowa's unlikely success a year ago seems unsustainable, I think 2016 could be another great year for the Hawkeyes, because once again the west division is a wide open race. With a slightly tougher schedule this year, if Iowa is 12-0 no one should balk at the Hawkeye's as a potential playoff team.

But there is work to be done. RB Jordan Canzeri is gone along with receivers Tevaun Smith and Henry Kreiger Coble. Iowa has to replace the entire right side of it's OL. Last year, Iowa averaged 5.4 ypc with Canzeri, the first Iowa back to average above 5.1 since Greene in 08.

The defense had probably the best year they've had in a while thanks to solid pass defense that allowed just a 54% completion rate and a 109.8 passer rating. And of course 19 interceptions didn't hurt either. 3 of the 4 starters in the defensive backfield return for this year.

I doubt Iowa goes 12-0, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them back in the Big Ten championship game. It'll all come down to whether Kirk Ferentz can sustain that winning momentum from one year to the next...something he's struggled to do in Iowa City since his first few successful years in 2002-04.

MBN Predict-O
Running game edge: Push
Passing game edge: Push
Special teams edge: Michigan
Coaching edge: Michigan
Historical luck factor: Push

Ohio State
Despite enormous losses on both sides of the ball, Ohio State is still every preseason rag's darling of the Big Ten. That tends to happen when Michigan is just getting back up to speed, Michigan State gets trounced in their bowl game, Penn State is...well...trending down (to put it nicely) and the west division is a full of basically no-names.

For the Buckeyes to remain the team to beat in the Big Ten, they're going to need a lot of young guys to step up real quick. That trip to Norman, OK on Sept. 17 looms very large, but will not be a season-ender should they lose. All eyes will be on JT Barrett as the offense is now his to run without Cardale Jones or Braxton Miller around. RB Ezekiel Elliot, WRs Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall as well as LT Tyler Decker are standout losses for this offense. Despite the losses, I do expect the playcalling to be a bit more streamlined with just Barrett running the offense. He and Jones were just far too different last year to coexist on that offense.

Defensive losses mirror the offense as guys like Joey Bosa, Joshua Perry, Darron Lee and Vonn Bell are all gone. All in all, 9 underclassmen followed the seniors to the NFL and nowhere is that felt more than on defense. Ohio State has no seniors on the two-deep going into the season. That's kind of amazing.

On top of that, offseason issues have plagued the Buckeyes as potential starting RB Bri'onte Dunn was dismissed from the team for an "altercation" with his girlfriend. And defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has been named in the latest round of the Penn State/Paterno/Sandusky fiasco.

Honestly, it's tough to think that Ohio State could have even a slightly down year, but they are the least experienced team in the country with only 3 starters returning on each side of the ball. The majority of Ohio State's elite talent that underachieved last year is now playing on Sundays. Perhaps this team will be hungrier for success than a year ago? There's no doubt that talent and potential are in large supply in Columbus. Either way, I have no doubt that as long as Urban Meyer is the head coach in Columbus, Ohio State will be in the championship discussion.

MBN Predict-O
Running game edge: Ohio State
Passing game edge: Michigan
Special teams edge: Push
Coaching edge: Push
Historical luck factor: Push

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