The Big Ten gets a bad rap nationally for lackluster non-conference scheduling. The 2016 season will defy that stigma.
Numerous Big Ten teams have scheduled some colossal non-conference contests and many of these games could hold season-defining ramifications.
Here’s a look at the six toughest non-conference contests for the Big Ten:
6. Rutgers at Washington (Sept. 3)
A cross-country road trip probably isn’t how Rutgers coach Chris Ash imagined his tenure beginning.
The Huskies are coming off of another decent season under former Boise State coach Chris Petersen. Washington went 7-6 and defeated Southern Miss in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. Washington capped the 2015 season with an abundance of momentum and won its final three games by at least 13 points.
Washington returns sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, but will have to surround him with quality playmakers. The Huskies ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (30.6 points per game) and total offense (403.1 yards per game).
The Scarlet Knights will face a good opening test as it tries to get back over .500 in Ash’s first season. Fun fact: The Sept. 3 game will be the first meeting between these two schools.
5. Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)
It might be surprising that a visit from the high-powered Ducks is only fifth on this list, but this 2016 team might not resemble the incredible Oregon teams of the past 10 years. The Ducks failed to win 10 games for the first time since 2007 and ended the 2015 season with a monumental collapse in the Alamo Bowl, a game they led TCU 31-0 before ultimately losing 47-41.
The Ducks are once again looking to replace a quarterback after Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams graduated following his one season at the helm. Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop has the edge, but redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen also has a shot at the starting gig.
A win over the Ducks at home would be a great way to put last year’s mediocre 6-7 season in the rearview mirror. Perhaps second-year coach Mike Riley’s experience at Oregon State will help the Huskers pull off the upset. Riley only defeated the Ducks three times during his 12-year tenure with the Beavers.
4. North Carolina at Illinois (Sept. 10)
This home-and-home series wraps up in Champaign during the second week of the year. Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora finally got the program back on the map after leading North Carolina to its first 11-win season since 1997.
The Tar Heels drubbed the Fighting Illini 48-14 last season in Chapel Hill. North Carolina will be replacing quarterback Marquise Williams, but the rest of this offense will be loaded with returning talent.
Lovie Smith instantly adds pedigree to a fledgling program, but his first big coaching test will be a brutal one.
3. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 17)
This formerly annual rivalry renews itself after a two-year hiatus. The Spartans have dropped the past three games and haven’t beaten the Irish in South Bend since 2007.
Notre Dame will have a quarterback competition brewing between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. Either quarterback should step in and keep Notre Dame’s offense humming this season. The defense has a variety of question marks, but the Irish should be just as good as last season’s 10-3 team.
Michigan State will be replacing quarterback Connor Cook while also finding some replacements at wide receiver. This matchup against Notre Dame could tell us everything we need to know about the Spartans.
2. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 3, Lambeau Field)
This will technically be a neutral-site game, but it will feel more like a home game for the Badgers. Unfortunately, the environment might be the only thing Wisconsin will have in its favor.
LSU is arguably the most talented team in the country and was on a path to the College Football Playoff before losing three in a row toward the end of the year. Wisconsin has had its fair share of incredible running backs, but none of them compare to LSU’s Leonard Fournette, who will be poised to stay in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
LSU’s defense is also stockpiled with talent and should give the Badgers offense some problems. Wisconsin’s new quarterback will be thrown into the fire very early. The Badgers will have the home crowd cheering them on, but this isn’t a good matchup against the Bayou Bengals.
1. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)
The third week of the season will be a telling one for the Big Ten, as Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska will each face a trio of headliners.
The biggest landmine will be Ohio State’s trip to Norman, Okla., for a battle with the Sooners. Oklahoma made it to the College Football Playoff last season and returns starting quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Sooners also have a dynamic backfield duo and a talented defense that is poised to keep them atop the Big 12.
This will be a major indicator of what the Buckeyes are capable of in 2016. Ohio State will replace 16 starters from last year’s 12-1 team and J.T. Barrett will finally get to start and – barring injury – finish a season as the team’s starting quarterback.