Ranking the toughest Big Ten non-conference schedules
Written by Matt Pargoff   

Taking a look at the non-conference scheduling within the Big Ten for this fall, two teams stand out as facing tough challenges, but the quality of competition goes down very quickly. In fact, only four squads avoided scheduling FCS opponents. See how the non-conference schedules stack up from toughest to easiest.

1. Michigan
Sept. 1 vs. Alabama – in Arrlington, Tex. (12-1)
Sept. 8 Air Force (7-6)
Sept. 15 Massachusetts (5-6 in FCS play)
Sept. 22 at Notre Dame (8-5)

Comments: Michigan has by far the toughest non-conference schedule, starting out with a neutral site game against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. The Wolverines then have one week to prepare for a drastically different offensive style, hosting an Air Force option attack that finished third in the nation last year in rushing offense, while averaging 35 points per game. Michigan then catches a break, hosting UMass in its inaugural season of FBS play, before heading off to play a night game in South Bend. Notre Dame is looking for revenge from three straight last second defeats at the hands of the Wolverines.
2. Michigan State
Aug. 31 Boise State (12-1)
Sept. 8 at Central Michigan (3-9)
Sept. 15 Notre Dame (8-5)
Sept. 22 Eastern Michigan (6-6)

Comments: The Friday night contest between Michigan State and Boise State provides some interesting story lines in getting the season started. The Broncos will be without quarterback Kellen Moore for the first time since 2007, but have proven to have a formidable program beyond just the skills of one player. How the Boise State offense matches up against arguably the most talented defense in the Big Ten could decide the outcome of the game. Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan should not provide much of a challenge for the Spartans, but the contest against Notre Dame will be one to watch. The series between the two teams has been remarkably balanced for the last decade, with alternating winners in nine of 10 seasons. After a seven year stretch of the away team claiming every victory, the home squad has managed to win each of the last four. The Fighting Irish claimed a 31-13 victory last fall.
3. Penn State
Sept. 1 Ohio (10-4)
Sept. 8 at Virginia (8-5)
Sept. 15 Navy (5-7)
Sept. 22 Temple (9-4)

Comments: After the top two schedules, there is a major drop off. At first glance, Penn State’s schedule may appear to be on the weak side. It really isn’t anything to write home about. But with the current state of affairs in non-conference scheduling in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions claim the No. 3 spot on the list with a slight edge over Nebraska. The highlight of the schedule is clearly Virginia, which finally bounced back last season after a dismal three-year stretch. The Cavaliers will host the game and should provide a legitimate threat to a Penn State squad that was decimated by graduations. While Ohio University and Temple do not belong to top conferences, they both had good teams last year and could provide unique challenges for the Nittany Lions as well.
4. Nebraska
Sept. 1 Southern Miss (12-2)
Sept. 8 at UCLA (6-8)
Sept. 15 Arkansas State (10-3)
Sept. 22 Idaho State (FCS, 2-9)

Comments: Give Nebraska credit for scheduling three teams that played in bowl games a year ago. However, given that only one of those squads is from a BCS conference, and given that that school required a waiver from the NCAA to participate in the bowl with a losing record, it’s not as impressive as it might sound. UCLA is the true unknown on the schedule, given that there is a new coaching staff in place with some talent to work with. The clear challenge comes from a Southern Miss squad that finished last season with wins over Houston and Nevada. The offensive combination of Tracy Lampley and Jamal Woodyard will present a legitimate test for the Nebraska defense in that contest.  Arkansas State went 10-3 last season, but its losses to Illinois, Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois were each by three-score margins.
5. Purdue
Sept. 1 Eastern Kentucky (FCS, 7-5)
Sept. 8 at Notre Dame (8-5)
Sept. 15 Eastern Michigan (6-6)
Sept. 29 Marshall (7-6)

Comments: While a quick glance at Purdue’s schedule would appear to be Notre Dame and three pushovers, the final two games of the non-conference slate could be tougher than people realize. Ron English has finally gotten Eastern Michigan moving in the right direction and many feel that the Eagles will challenge for a bowl game this fall. Marshall finished its season on a high note with a victory over Florida International in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl. Still, rating Purdue’s schedule as fifth toughest boils down to Notre Dame being a better opponent than any other school scheduled by the remaining seven Big Ten teams. That in itself may be a telling statement.
6. Illinois
Sept. 1 Western Michigan (7-6)
Sept. 8 at Arizona State (6-7)
Sept. 15 Charleston Southern (FCS, 0-11)
Sept. 22 Louisiana Tech (8-5)

Comments: Arizona State bounced back last season for its first bowl game since 2007. The Sun Devils aren’t expected to challenge for the Pac 12 crown this fall, but they have a history of playing tough against good competition early in the season. In 2009, they almost won at Georgia and in 2010 they gave Wisconsin a scare in Madison. They nearly beat Illinois last fall and will have the advantage now of hosting the matchup between the two teams. Western Michigan and La. Tech may not come from top conferences, but they did have solid teams last season.
7. Ohio State
Sept. 1 Miami (Ohio) (4-8)
Sept. 8 Central Florida (5-7)
Sept. 15 California (7-6)
Sept. 22 UAB (3-9)

Comments: New head coach Urban Meyer will get a round of warm up games before entering Big Ten play, with just the one challenging contest against Cal to speak of in the non-conference slate. Jeff Tedford has had a rough couple of seasons, with a win over Utah being the only noteworthy accomplishment of the Golden Bears 2011 campaign. Cal lost to every other team that finished with a winning record. The Golden Bears’ season opening contest against Nevada may tell if they pose a legitimate challenge for the Buckeyes. The other games on Ohio State’s schedule are all clear easy wins.
8. Northwestern
Sept. 1 at Syracuse (5-7)
Sept. 8 Vanderbilt (6-7)
Sept. 15 Boston College (4-8)
Sept. 22 South Dakota (FCS, 6-5)

Comments: While none of the three FBS opponents on Northwestern’s schedule were very good last season, nor do they project to be that good this fall, at least credit the Wildcats for scheduling three BCS conference teams. To be fair, Vanderbilt did go to a bowl game while playing in a tough conference and Boston College finished the season fairly strong with wins over Maryland, NC State and Miami in their final five games. Both of those teams, as well as Syracuse, could present Northwestern with very tough games to win.
9. Iowa
Sept. 1 vs. Northern Illinois – in Chicago, Ill. (11-3)
Sept. 8 Iowa State (6-7)
Sept. 15 Northern Iowa (FCS, 10-3)
Sept. 22 Central Michigan (3-9)

Comments: Iowa’s schedule is by no means tough, but the Hawkeyes do face the most dangerous squad from the MAC last year in a semi-neural location. In addition, they face an in-state rival Iowa State team that not only beat Iowa last year, but that went on to single handedly destroy the BCS with a win over Oklahoma State. The Cyclones were a bit of a mystery last year, playing several good teams tough, but ultimately finishing with a losing record. Kirk Ferentz has always struggled against Iowa State as well.
10. Minnesota
Aug. 30 at UNLV (2-10)
Sept. 8 New Hampshire (FCS, 8-4)
Sept. 15 Western Michigan (7-6)
Sept. 22 Syracuse (5-7)

Comments: It is hard to believe that there are two non-conference schedules in the Big Ten that are worse than Minnesota’s, but wait for it, we’ll get there. The really sad part about the Golden Gophers’ schedule is that there’s a pretty decent chance they will lose two of those games. Syracuse is not a world beater by any means, but neither is Minnesota. And Western Michigan’s offense does pose a legitimate threat to put some points on the board.
11. Wisconsin
Sept. 1 Northern Iowa (FCS, 10-3)
Sept. 8 at Oregon State (3-9)
Sept. 15 Utah State (7-6)
Sept. 22 UTEP (5-7)

Comments: While the Badgers do not get to claim the title of “Most Pathetic Non-Conference Schedule” this year, the fact that they are the defending Big Ten Champs certainly makes it the most shameful effort to find a challenge. The Badgers have won 10 or more games in five of the last seven seasons, but sadly, scheduling has played a major role in achieving that accomplishment. With the move toward a playoff in college football, Barry Alvarez has stated that the school will start scheduling tougher opponents, including a possible series with Notre Dame, where the Wisconsin athletic director was once an assistant coach. But for now, the Badgers get a near guarantee of a 4-0 start, with all four contests likely won in blowouts.
12. Indiana
Sept. 1 Indiana State (FCS, 6-5)
Sept. 8 at Massachusetts (5-6 in FCS play)
Sept. 15 Ball State (6-6)
Oct. 20 at Navy (5-7)

Comments: We all know that Indiana’s football program is not very good. The Hoosiers have been to one bowl game in the last 18 seasons. But for the second time in a week, we find ourselves chastising them for doing something that should be beneath any Big Ten team. The first realization was that Indiana had signed seven junior college transfers in its last recruiting class. But seeing two teams that were members of the FCS last year on the schedule, along with a team considered mediocre in the Mid-American Conference, and the second worst of the remaining independents … Come on Indiana. We would all respect you more for trying to do things the right way and failing than for taking the easy route. We’ll give the Hoosiers credit for playing two away games, and they are the only one playing a non-conference game in the middle of Big Ten play, but this is a very low level of competition.



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