Apparently, not all Big Ten schedules have been created equal, relative to the 2016 football season.
It’s a byproduct of the East division being stronger and perhaps deeper than the West right now. It also helps that – in the inaugural year of the Big Ten re-instituting a nine-game conference scheduling model from 30 years ago – the East teams all have five home games for the season, with its West counterparts enjoying only four league home games. The reverse holds true in 2017.
To wit, here’s a whimsical look at the Big Ten’s easiest – or least grueling – four-game stretches of the conference season, divided into four tiers.
To clarify, we’ll permit these four-game stretches to be spread over five weekends when accounting for bye weeks, or in Michigan State’s case, scheduling a non-league foe in October, provided the integrity of four consecutive Big Ten opponents remains intact.
One more thing: It’s possible for schools to post multiple entries in this countdown.
TIER 1 … THE GOPHERS’ EASY ROAD
Oct. 15 – at Maryland
Oct. 22 – vs. Rutgers
Oct. 29 – at Illinois
Nov. 5 – vs. Purdue
THE SKINNY: It’s early in the evaluation game, but there seems to be a consensus that Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue are the Big Ten’s three weakest teams heading into the fall.
As such, Minnesota has this countdown’s only stretch of the Terrapins, Scarlet Knights and Boilermakers, with a so-so trip to Illinois rounding out the four-pack of eminently winnable games.
TIER 2 … THE BOILERMAKER TIES THAT BIND
Nov. 5 – at Northwestern
Nov. 12 – vs. Illinois
Nov. 19 – at Purdue
Nov. 26 – vs. Minnesota
Nov. 5 – vs. Wisconsin
Nov. 12 – at Purdue
Nov. 19 – at Minnesota
Nov. 26 – vs. Illinois
Sept. 24 – at Rutgers
Oct. 1 – vs. Northwestern
Oct. 8 – at Minnesota
Oct. 15 – at Purdue
THE SKINNY: There’s a unifying thread for this group, outside of Minnesota appearing on three different slates. The good news for Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa is that all three make treks to lowly Purdue this fall.
In Big Ten play, there are few easy wins for teams playing on the road. However, in the Darrell Hazell era at Purdue, where he is 6-30 overall, the Boilermakers own a woeful league home mark of 1-11 … with an average margin of defeat of 24.3 points. Yikes!
Fast forward to the present: It seems cruel to just assume that Purdue will repeat those same sins of in 2016, especially with a talented quarterback under center (sophomore David Blough), a potentially dynamic tailback running wild (Markell Jones, who had 1,014 total yards, 11 TDs as a freshman) and a large handful of returning defensive starters.
But Hazell’s staff remains in the prove-it-or-lose-it stage of garnering respect throughout the league. But the bottom line still stands that until the Boilermakers can break through on a mild scale – perhaps winning consecutive conference games at some point – we have no recourse but to presume more struggles in West Lafayette.
One more thing: From a brand-name perspective, Iowa probably has the least taxing four-game stretch of this group. However, three of the opponents come on the road (at Rutgers, at Minnesota, at Purdue) … and that’s worth at least one bonus point.
TIER 3 … MIDDLE-CLASS BINGE-FEST
Sept. 24 – vs. Wisconsin
Oct. 1 – at Indiana
Oct. 15 – vs. Northwestern
Oct. 22 – at Maryland
Nov. 5 – at Minnesota
Nov. 12 – vs. Northwestern
Nov. 19 – vs. Wisconsin
Nov. 26 – at Indiana
Sept. 24 – vs. Penn State
Oct. 1 – vs. Wisconsin
Oct. 8 – at Rutgers
Oct. 22 – vs. Illinois
Oct. 1 – vs. Illinois
Oct. 15 – at Indiana
Oct. 22 – vs. Purdue
Oct. 29 – at Wisconsin
THE SKINNY: Of the six schools listed in my preseason top six (Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska), only the Wildcats appear as opponents in this cluster. On the flip side, of my Big Ten bottom three (Rutgers, Maryland, Purdue), none of the above stretches feature at least two of those programs.
In other words, this mediocre lot could be arranged in just about any order. In fact, Nebraska probably has the easiest run for the first three weeks – vs. Illinois, at Indiana, vs. Purdue – but that trip to Madison greatly complicates things for the Cornhuskers.
TIER 4 … THE HARDEST OF THE ‘EASY’ CROWD
Oct. 15 – vs. Nebraska
Oct. 22 – at Northwestern
Oct. 29 – vs. Maryland
Nov. 5 – at Rutgers
Oct. 1 – vs. Rutgers
Oct. 8 – vs. Indiana
Oct. 15 – at Wisconsin
Oct. 22 – at Penn State
THE SKINNY: It’s a tad unfair to include Ohio State in this countdown – even at the very bottom. After all, there’s nothing easy about back-to-back road trips to Wisconsin and Penn State in prime-time, even if the Nittany Lions and Badgers are breaking in new quarterbacks.
But it came down to this: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Penn State have difficult and balanced schedules throughout conference play … essentially obliging the Buckeyes to be a default entry here. For example:
- Maryland doesn’t go more than two games in conference play without encountering Michigan, Ohio State or Michigan State.
- Rutgers will likely have to run for cover in its first three Big Ten outings – vs. Iowa, at Ohio State, vs. Michigan.
- Illinois has four brutal games on the road (Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern) and one trap roadie against Rutgers right before the Wolverines. Plus, the Fighting Illini host Michigan State and Iowa in their final two home tilts. Ouch.
- Penn State has the unenviable task of taking on the Big Ten’s four elite clubs – Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State – with nary a breather throughout the schedule.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.