If the Michigan football team were cast as a character in “The Wizard of Oz,” it would play Dorothy — because both understand that sometimes there’s just no place like home.
For the seventh straight year, the Michigan football team will open its season at home, taking on Northern Illinois on Sept. 3. According to Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, that pattern seems to be by design rather than coincidence.
“I think any time you can play at home you like to do that,” Carr said. “That’s something across the country that’s happening more and more for those teams that can get that type of schedule.”
As Carr asserted, Michigan is not alone in preferring to begin the season at home. Of the teams ranked in the top 25 by Sports Illustrated, only eight will kick off their season on the road, including defending national champion Southern Cal. It’s even more common for top programs to play lower-ranked teams from non-BCS conferences. Just three teams in Sports Illustrated’s top 25 take on a higher-ranked opponent their first time out — Florida State, Boise State and Wyoming.
These schedules reflect a widespread trend in college football. In recent years, fewer elite programs from different conferences have met during the season. The Sept. 10 meeting between Texas and Ohio State — the first of a two-game series to be continued next year — breaks from this trend. But with the exception of historic rivalries like that between Michigan and Notre Dame, most battles of top nonconference foes have been reserved for bowl games.
While the prefer starting the season at home, few top-ranked teams will head into conference play without a road trip or a game against a highly ranked opponent. Michigan is one of the exceptions. After opening the season against Northern Illinois, the Wolverines play Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan — both at Michigan Stadium — to round out their nonconference schedule. Sports Illustrated ranks none of these teams higher than No. 44.
Carr recognizes the danger of not playing a road game before the conference season begins, calling his team’s early-season home stand a “double-edged sword.”
“I’ve always felt that going on the road in the preseason — there’s something about that experience that prepares you for the Big Ten championship,” Carr said. “It’s great to play at home, and yet now we’re going to face the Big Ten schedule without having been on the road.”
That double-edged sword has the potential to be even sharper than usual for the Wolverines this season. Michigan hasn’t won on its first trip away from the Big House since 1999, when the Wolverines beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. While nonconference losses to teams like Oregon in 2003 and Notre Dame in 2004 have prevented Michigan from making a run at its 12th national championship, they have no effect on the Big Ten title, which the Wolverines have won each of the past two seasons.
But if Michigan wants to make it three in a row, it will have to find a way to win on the road. For the first time since 1995, the Wolverines’ first road game is also their Big Ten season opener — a Sept. 24 night game against Wisconsin at increasingly hostile Camp Randall Stadium.
That game looms as a difficult test for a Michigan team that has lost four of its last 10 road games — the Wolverines’ only regular-season losses the past two seasons. But Carr remains confident in his team, brushing aside the criticism of an anonymous Big Ten coach who called Michigan’s players and style of play soft in The Sporting News’ college football season preview earlier this summer.
“It’s probably one of those guys that hasn’t had a lot of success against Michigan,” Carr said.
With two straight Big Ten titles — and two seasons worth of wins in Ann Arbor — it’s hard to argue with the Wolverines’ success. While Carr would probably like to notch a win in Madison and quiet the critics, he is first focused on making it through the home stand with an unblemished record.
“The schedule is what it is; it’s that way for everybody,” Carr said. “You play them one at a time and hope for the best.”