Michigan's early ranking a good start

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Expectations at Michigan haven’t been this high for the Wolverines since before the 2007 season.

Back then, the Wolverines entered the season ranked No. 5 in the country and were thought to be legitimate contenders for the national championship. Then Michigan lost to Appalachian State in the season opener and haven’t returned to this level of expectation since.

Until now.

Michigan is No. 9 in the ESPN way-too-early Top 25, the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten and one of the favorites to win the league title this season.

The similarities are there in many ways between the 2007 Michigan team and this season: A returning quarterback poised to set records. A coach and team coming off a surprising season ending in a BCS game. The first opponent -- the defending national champion, although Alabama won the BCS title and Appalachian State came off a FCS title run in 2007.

Michigan, however, seems to be in a good position.

The Wolverines will face four teams in the ESPN Top 25 -- No. 3 Alabama in the season opener on Sept. 1, No. 11 Michigan State on Oct. 20, No. 24 Nebraska on Oct. 27 and No. 17 Ohio State in the regular season finale on Nov. 24.

There is also the potential the Wolverines could face No. 15 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship team should both teams win their divisions.

It leaves Michigan with a fairly strong 2012 regular season schedule that could be difficult to navigate -- three of the four games against top 25 teams along with Notre Dame are away from Michigan Stadium -- but could also provide many opportunities for signature wins.

The schedule, though, is a footnote compared to the significance of Michigan returning to the top 10 before a season. This is a place the Wolverines inhabited on a yearly basis throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The last half-decade, though, has been rife with coaching changes, rebuilding and major NCAA violations for the first time in school history.

Last season, Michigan began to reconstruct itself, surprising the country with an 11-2 record and a win in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Toward the end of the season, one of the questions was if Michigan had returned to previous levels.

For one season, it had. This season, the Wolverines have a chance to prove the season-to-season stability they once had is starting to return to what it was before.

Beginning a season in the Top 10 is a good start.