For those who have been living under a rock for six months, the Big Ten will transition to a conference scheduling model of nine games this season, a radical departure from the 30-year plan of eight league outings.
It’s a good move for the Big Ten on two fronts:
- Schools can boldly schedule at least one daunting non-conference game per year, knowing the College Football Playoff committee concerns itself with only conference champions, when choosing the principals for the four-team Playoff.
- The extra conference games will be more attractive to ticket-buying fans and check-writing TV networks. In other words, no more lame matchups with FCS programs.
Which brings us to this: Land Of 10 offers its team-by-team assessment of the various non-conference schedules — ranking the slates from most difficult to least difficult (descending order):
GROUP I: THE CLUBHOUSE LEADERS
Sept. 3 — vs. Bowling Green
Sept. 10 — vs. Tulsa
Sept. 17 — @ Oklahoma
Sept. 2 — vs. Furman
Sept. 17 — @ Notre Dame
Oct. 8 — vs. BYU
Ohio State: OK, so Tulsa isn’t much to write home about, but Ohio State certainly put forth great effort with the other non-conference tilts. Bowling Green won the MAC title last year and was very competitive in losses to Tennessee, Memphis and Toledo. And the OSU-Oklahoma matchup might be the most anticipated non-conference game of the college season — ahead of Alabama-Southern California, LSU-Wisconsin (at Lambeau Field), Ole Miss-Florida State, Clemson-Auburn and Florida-Florida State. Plus, the Buckeyes get bonus points for not playing the Sooners on a neutral field, starting off a home-and-home series instead.
Michigan State: The Spartans have perhaps the deepest slate of non-conference foes, highlighted by the trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame and the October clash with BYU, a highly respected opponent with a star quarterback running the show (either Taysom Hill or Tanner Mangum). The opener with Furman, however, is an old-school throwaway.
GROUP II: STEPPING UP
Sept. 3 — vs. Fresno State
Sept. 10 — vs. Wyoming
Sept. 17 — vs. Oregon
Sept. 3 — vs. LSU (Green Bay)
Sept. 10 — vs. Akron
Sept. 17 — vs. Georgia State
Sept. 3 — vs. Kent State
Sept. 10 — @ Pittsburgh
Sept. 17 — vs. Temple
Sept. 3 — vs. Howard
Sept. 9 — @ Florida International
Sept. 17 — @ UCF
Sept. 3 — @ Washington
Sept. 10 — vs. Howard
Sept. 17 — vs. New Mexico
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers top this level of the listings for obvious reasons: The Oregon trip to Lincoln promises to be a fantastic clash of styles, featuring the Cornhuskers’ revived passing attack (QB Tommy Armstrong is on the verge of becoming the school’s all-time leader in TD passes) and the Ducks’ prolific rushing attack (tailback Royce Freeman notched 2,154 total yards/19 TDs last year). The Huskers then filled out the September slate with two Mountain West opponents. Very respectable.
Wisconsin: I have LSU pegged for the SEC West crown, conference title and College Football Playoff championship this fall; so the opener certainly represents a scheduling coup for Wisconsin.
Penn State and Rutgers: Penn State and Rutgers should be congratulated for scheduling one difficult road game during non-conference play. The Nittany Lions stay in-state for a game against arch-rival Pittsburgh and the Scarlet Knights trek cross country for a potential walloping at Washington.
Maryland. Maryland doesn’t have the most daunting slate of this countdown. However, the Terps get bonus points for scheduling multiple road games during non-conference action. Thank goodness the Big Ten East gets five home outings this fall, as part of the new scheduling model.
Here’s a head-scratcher. How did Florida International — a middling team from Conference USA — sucker two Big Ten programs (Maryland and Indiana) into home games this season? Sure, it never hurts for northern schools to generate recruiting buzz when playing in the Sunshine State, but it’s still weird to rationalize FIU’s tiny stadium (capacity: 23,500) hosting Big Ten clubs on back-to-back weekends.
GROUP III: GOOD INTENTIONS
Sept. 3 — vs. Hawaii
Sept. 10 — vs. UCF
Sept. 17 — vs. Colorado
Sept. 1 — vs. Oregon State
Sept. 10 — vs. Indiana State
Sept. 24 — vs. Colorado State
Michigan: The majority of non-conference games are scheduled six or seven years in advance. So, within that rationale, Michigan deserves some credit for scheduling opponents that have either claimed a national championship in the last 30 years (Colorado), a ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl victory (UCF over Baylor in January 2015) or represented the BCS bowl system in the last decade (Hawaii in 2007). Past history sounds good, but that group combined to go 7-31 last year and one of the seven wins was Hawaii over Colorado 28-20 in the season opener.
Minnesota: The Gophers have a long history of scheduling cupcake opponents and this year is no different. Colorado State may be primed to take a big leap forward in the Mountain West, thanks to the progress of its second-year head coach Mike Bobo and third-year quarterback Nick Stevens, who threw for 2,678 yards and 24 TDs last season, and they could give the Gophers a battle. Indiana State is an FCS school and Oregon State is the worst team in the Pac-12.
GROUP IV: STACKING THE DECK
Sept. 1 — @ Florida International
Sept. 10 — vs. Ball State
Sept. 24 — vs. Wake Forest
Sept. 3 — vs. Miami (Ohio)
Sept. 10 — vs. Iowa State
Sept. 17 — vs. North Dakota State
Sept. 3 — vs. Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 10 — vs. Cincinnati
Sept. 24 — vs. Nevada
Sept. 3 — vs. Western Michigan
Sept. 10 — vs. Illinois State
Sept. 17 — vs. Duke
Sept. 3 — vs. Murray State
Sept. 10 — vs. North Carolina
Sept. 17 — vs. Western Michigan
There really isn’t much to say here. The bottom five schools essentially fulfilled the absolute minimum requirement for scheduling in lieu of the Big Ten’s long-term objective of steering away from FCS programs.
Still, there are some losses in there. Illinois will struggle with North Carolina and Cincinnati has pounded Purdue in the past. Northwestern-Duke should be a tight matchup as well.
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.