Big Ten 2012 Football Schedule Analysis

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Can Michigan win the Big Ten title in 2012?

<p> Athlon takes a look at some of the key games and interesting notes on tap for the 2012 Big Ten schedule.</p>

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

College football spring practice is already underway and it won't be long until Athlon's 2012 preseason annuals are hitting the shelves. The top 25 countdown will begin in May, but until then, Athlon will be taking a look at some of the schedules and some of the key games facing each team in 2012. The Big Ten should be one of the most competitive conferences in college football next year, especially with a loaded Legends Division featuring Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.

Indiana 

Sept. 1 Indiana State
Sept. 8 at UMass
Sept. 15 Ball State
Sept. 22 Bye Week
Sept. 29 at Northwestern
Oct. 6 Michigan State
Oct. 13 Ohio State
Oct. 20 at Navy
Oct. 27 at Illinois
Nov. 3 Iowa
Nov. 10 Wisconsin
Nov. 17 at Penn State
Nov. 24 at Purdue

* Indiana has averaged 3.3 wins per season over the last four and the Hoosiers should hit that number in 2012. Three very winnable non-conference games start year two of the Kevin Wilson era. For Indiana fans to feel confident with the direction of the program, Wilson must win his first three contests in 2012. Especially considering…

* After the bye week, there isn’t a winnable game on the schedule. Certainly, it is still very early, but it is hard to see a game in which Indiana will be favored. Games that would appear like their best chance at a W — Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern, Navy — will all take place on the road.

* Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa visits during the year has to have at least the athletic department accountants in Bloomington excited.

* The crossover slate doesn’t offer much help as home games against Iowa and Michigan State will be tough for IU. A road test at Northwestern is the “easiest” game in the crossover slate.

Illinois 

Sept. 1 Western Michigan
Sept. 8 at Arizona State
Sept. 15 Charleston Southern
Sept. 22 Louisiana Tech
Sept. 29 Penn State
Oct. 6 at Wisconsin
Oct. 13 at Michigan
Oct. 20 Bye Week
Oct. 27 Indiana
Nov. 3 at Ohio State
Nov. 10 Minnesota
Nov. 17 Purdue
Nov. 24 at Northwestern

* For a new head coach and offense that completely fell apart a year ago, two non-conference tests against Arizona State in Tempe and WAC champion Louisiana Tech at home won’t be easy. Yet, with four of its first five games at home, Tim Beckham knows he needs to build positive momentum heading into a nasty Big Ten slate.

* The bye week couldn’t come at a better time following a brutal three-game stretch against Big Ten powers Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan — even if it used to simply lick its wounds. Back-to-back trips to Camp Randall and The Big House could end the Illini’s Big Ten season right out of the gate as those will likely be the preseason picks to play in the Big Ten title game.

* Two tough road trips to Ohio State (Nov. 3) and Northwestern (Nov. 24) dot the final month of the schedule that should prove to be much easier than Ron Zook’s 0-7 season-ending record. Assuming a win at home over Indiana and a loss at Ohio State, Illinois finishes with three very winnable games. While all three will be tricky (and are showing improvement), Illinois has to point to the final month of the schedule as an opportunity rather than simple survival. Should Illinois finish 4-1 down the stretch, it’s not out of the question that they would be in the Leaders’ Division title hunt.

* Crossover games with the Legends Division: at Michigan, Minnesota, at Northwestern.

Iowa

Sept. 1 Northern Illinois (Chicago)
Sept. 8 Iowa State
Sept. 15 Northern Iowa
Sept. 22 Central Michigan
Sept. 29 Minnesota
Oct. 6 Bye Week
Oct. 13 at Michigan State
Oct. 20 Penn State
Oct. 27 at Northwestern
Nov. 3 at Indiana
Nov. 10 Purdue
Nov. 17 at Michigan
Nov. 23 Nebraska

* The Hawkeyes will open the 2012 season with a neutral site game against Northern Illinois. This is the second time in the last six years Iowa has opened with the Huskies in Chicago. These two teams met in 2007, with the Hawkeyes winning 16-3.

* Revenge game. After losing 44-41 in three overtimes to Iowa State last season, you can bet the Hawkeyes have the Sept. 8 matchup circled on their calendar. Iowa is 3-1 in its last four meeting with the Cyclones and has won four straight at home in this series.

* For a team that will be breaking in a new running back and needs to find some new faces on the defensive line, the first part of the schedule sets up very favorably. Northern Illinois is a dangerous team, but will be replacing a handful of key contributors. Assuming the Hawkeyes can get past the Huskies and Cyclones, they should be 5-0 going into the bye week on Oct. 6. And Iowa won’t have to play its first true road game until Oct. 13 against Michigan State.

* The Hawkeyes didn’t catch a break with the Big Ten schedule, as they have to go on the road to face Michigan State and Michigan – arguably the top two teams in the Legends Division next season. However, Iowa does host Nebraska on Nov. 23 and has manageable road trips to Northwestern and Indiana.

* Crossover opponents with the Leaders Division: Penn State, at Indiana, Purdue

Michigan

Sept. 1 Alabama (Arlington)
Sept. 8 Air Force
Sept. 15 Massachusetts
Sept. 22 at Notre Dame
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 at Purdue
Oct. 13 Illinois
Oct. 20 Michigan State
Oct. 27 at Nebraska
Nov. 3 at Minnesota
Nov. 10 Northwestern
Nov. 17 Iowa
Nov. 24 at Ohio State

* If Michigan wants to be a national title contender, beating Alabama on Sept. 1 is a must. The Wolverines are 20-6 in previous meetings against the SEC, including two wins over Alabama (1988 and 2000). Even though the Crimson Tide has some heavy losses on defense, it’s going to be a tough task for Michigan to beat Alabama in the season opener.

* As if preparing for Alabama in the opener isn’t difficult enough, Michigan has a quick turnaround to face Air Force in Week 2. The Falcons’ option offense is difficult to prepare for in a week, so expect defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and coach Brady Hoke to devote some time in the fall to getting the defense acclimated to Air Force.

* Massachusetts is transitioning to FBS status and will play a full MAC schedule in 2012.

* Michigan has controlled the recent series with Notre Dame, winning five out of the last six matchups. The Wolverines claimed a 28-24 victory over the Irish in South Bend in 2010 and won a 35-31 thriller in Ann Arbor in 2011.

* Revenge game. Michigan State has won four in a row against Michigan, including a 34-17 victory in Ann Arbor in 2010. With quarterback Kirk Cousins out of eligibility for the Spartans, the Wolverines should be favored to snap the four-game losing streak. Throw out the revenge factor and it’s still a huge game in the Big Ten Legends race, especially since the Wolverines, Spartans and Cornhuskers will be neck-and-neck in the standings.

* Letdown alert? Although the Wolverines desperately want to get revenge against Michigan State, they can’t overlook the next opponent on the schedule – Nebraska.

* The Wolverines snapped a seven-game losing streak to rival Ohio State last year, but winning in Columbus won't be easy. Michigan has not defeated the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe since 2000. 

* Crossover opponents with the Leaders Division: at Purdue, Illinois, at Ohio State

Michigan State

Aug. 31 Boise State
Sept. 8 at Central Michigan
Sept. 15 Notre Dame
Sept. 22 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 29 Ohio State
Oct. 6 at Indiana
Oct. 13 Iowa
Oct. 20 at Michigan
Oct. 27 at Wisconsin
Nov. 3 Nebraska
Nov. 10 Bye Week
Nov. 17 Northwestern
Nov. 24 at Minnesota

* The Spartans open the 2012 a day earlier than most, hosting Boise State on Friday night. The Broncos have a plethora of losses on both sides of the ball, but are still a dangerous team. This will be the first meeting between Boise State and Michigan State.

* Michigan State has played in-state foe Central Michigan eight times, but this will be its first trip to play at Mount Pleasant. The Chippewas are coached by former Michigan State assistant Dan Enos, who has recorded a disappointing 6-18 record through two seasons.

* The matchup with Notre Dame won’t mean anything in the Big Ten standings, but this game is huge for momentum purposes. With Boise State rebuilding and Central Michigan coming off a 3-9 season, the Irish figure to give the Spartans their best gauge of where they stand going into Big Ten play. Michigan State has won the last two meetings against Notre Dame in East Lansing.

* The Spartans open Big Ten play with a date against Ohio State on Sept. 29. Michigan State has not defeated the Buckeyes in East Lansing since 1999.

* Michigan State’s Legends Division title hopes will reside on a three-game stretch, beginning with an Oct. 20 date at Michigan, followed by a trip to Madison on Oct. 27 and a home date with Nebraska on Nov. 3.

* The Spartans have won four in a row against Michigan, including a 34-17 win over Ann Arbor in 2010. The Wolverines are back on the rise and there’s no doubt they have revenge on their mind after last season’s 28-14 loss to Michigan State.

* Crossover opponents with the Leaders Division: Ohio State, at Indiana, at Wisconsin

Minnesota

Aug. 30 at UNLV
Sept. 8 New Hampshire
Sept. 15 Western Michigan
Sept. 22 Syracuse
Sept. 29 at Iowa
Oct. 6 Bye Week
Oct. 13 Northwestern
Oct. 20 at Wisconsin
Oct. 27 Purdue
Nov. 3 Michigan
Nov. 10 at Illinois
Nov. 17 at Nebraska
Nov. 24 Michigan State

* The Golden Gophers finished 2011 with some momentum, knocking off Illinois in the season finale and beating Iowa 22-21 on Oct. 29. The second year of the Jerry Kill era in Minneapolis should see an improvement in the win column, especially with a favorable start to the season. Minnesota should be favored to win its first three games and a victory over Syracuse wouldn’t be surprising.

* Minnesota and Syracuse have met only three times, with the Golden Gophers holding a 2-1 series edge. Minnesota won the last meeting between these two teams, a 23-20 matchup in Syracuse in 2009.

* Although Minnesota is riding a two-game winning streak over Iowa, it has not won in Iowa City since 1999. Is this the year that losing streak ends?

* If the Golden Gophers want to get to a bowl game, beating Northwestern on Oct. 13 is going to be crucial. Assuming Minnesota begins the year 4-0, a win over the Wildcats would put them within one victory of bowl eligibility.

* Minnesota didn’t catch a break in its November slate, as it has to play the three best teams from the Legends Division in the final month. The Golden Gophers host Michigan and Michigan State, but have to travel to Nebraska on Nov. 17.

* Crossover opponents with the Leaders Division: at Wisconsin, Purdue, at Illinois

Nebraska

Sept. 1 Southern Miss
Sept. 8 at UCLA
Sept. 15 Arkansas State
Sept. 22 Idaho State
Sept. 29 Wisconsin
Oct. 6 at Ohio State
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Northwestern
Oct. 27 Michigan
Nov. 3 at Michigan State
Nov. 10 Penn State
Nov. 17 Minnesota
Nov. 23 at Iowa

* The Cornhuskers kick off their 2012 season against Southern Miss, a team Nebraska fans are certainly familiar with. The Golden Eagles upset the Cornhuskers 21-17 in Lincoln in 2004. Although Southern Miss is a quality non-BCS team, don’t expect Nebraska to fall victim to an upset this time around. The Golden Eagles have a new coaching staff and must replace quarterback Austin Davis.

* With a new coaching staff taking over at UCLA, it’s going to be a guessing game for Nebraska when it takes on the Bruins on Sept. 8. The Cornhuskers and Bruins have not played since 1994, with Nebraska owning a 6-4 edge in the series. UCLA takes on Rice in its season opener, so there will be a lot of unknowns as Nebraska prepares for what the Bruins might throw at them on Sept. 8.

* Upset alert? Nebraska should beat Arkansas State, but it’s a game that could give the Cornhuskers some headaches. The Red Wolves are led by first-year coach and former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, while quarterback Ryan Aplin is quietly one of the nation’s most underrated signal-callers. Arkansas State is a dangerous team and one that the Cornhuskers can’t afford to take lightly.

* The Cornhuskers didn’t get any breaks in the Big Ten schedule. A brutal five-game stretch (Sept. 29-Nov. 3) will decide whether Nebraska can knock off Michigan or Michigan State for the division crown. Nebraska’s Big Ten schedule kicks off with a matchup against Wisconsin on Sept. 29 and it must travel to Columbus on Oct. 6. After a bye, the Cornhuskers travel to Northwestern, then back home to take on Michigan, followed by a road trip to Michigan State. Yikes.

* The Oct. 6 date against Ohio State is a homecoming of sorts for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. The Cornhuskers’ head coach was born in Youngstown, Ohio and played at Ohio State from 1987-90.

* Crossover opponents with the Leaders Division: Wisconsin, at Ohio State, Penn State

Northwestern

Sept. 1 at Syracuse
Sept. 8 Vanderbilt
Sept. 15 Boston College
Sept. 22 South Dakota
Sept. 29 Indiana
Oct. 6 at Penn State
Oct. 13 at Minnesota
Oct. 20 Nebraska
Oct. 27 Iowa
Nov. 3 Bye Week
Nov. 10 at Michigan
Nov. 17 at Michigan State
Nov. 24 Illinois

* The Wildcats open the 2012 season with a trip to Syracuse. Northwestern played at Syracuse in 2009, losing in a 37-34 shootout. The Orange own a 5-4 edge in this series and has not lost at home to Northwestern since 1940.

* Northwestern’s tricky, but manageable non-conference slate continues in Week 2 with a date against Vanderbilt. The Wildcats have played the Commodores only three times, with the series tied at 1-1 with a tie in 1952. Northwestern defeated Vanderbilt 23-21 in 2010 and these two teams have not played in Evanston since 1952.

* If Northwestern wants to make its fifth consecutive trip to a bowl game, it’s critical to sweep the non-conference portion and knock off Indiana on Sept. 29. Although Syracuse and Vanderbilt will be swing games, those are matchups the Wildcats should have a chance to win. With Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State coming up after the first five games, Northwestern could need an upset or two to get bowl eligible.

* How’s this for a back-to-back slate of games in November: Nov. 10 at Michigan and Nov. 17 at Michigan State. Ouch.

* Could the Nov. 24 date against Illinois be for bowl eligibility for both teams? Both schools should be right around the 5-7 win mark in 2012, which could add some extra importance to the season finale.

* Crossover opponents with the Leaders Division: at Penn State, Iowa, Illinois

Ohio State 

Sept. 1 Miami (Ohio)
Sept. 8 UCF
Sept. 15 Cal
Sept. 22 UAB
Sept. 29 at Michigan State
Oct. 6 Nebraska
Oct. 13 at Indiana
Oct. 20 Purdue
Oct. 27 at Penn State
Nov. 3 Illinois
Nov. 10 Bye Week
Nov. 17 at Wisconsin
Nov. 24 Michigan

* The non-conference slate doesn’t feature any national showcases like Texas, USC or Miami of recent years, but a visit from Cal will be intriguing. Jeff Tedford could save his job if they can miraculously go into the Horseshoe and get a win. Having said that, it appears that a 4-0 start heading into Big Ten play is all but certain for the Napoleonic new football coach in Columbus.

* Urban Meyer will get his baptism into Big Ten play very quickly. A road trip to East Lansing and a home game against Nebraska kicks-off the Buckeyes’ conference schedule. You can bet revenge will be on the mind of Scarlet and Gray nation as Ohio State lost to both of those teams last fall.

* The Ohio State revenge tour will undoubtedly continue through the middle of the schedule that features only minor speed bumps for Braxton Miller and company. A four-game stretch against Indiana (road), Purdue, Penn State (road) and Illinois simply does not look daunting enough to cause OSU any real trouble. The road trip to Happy Valley might be the only losable game in the bunch.

* Meyer and Ohio State will have two weeks to prep for a brutal two-game finish to its 2012 season. A trip to Madison and a home game against that team from up North is no easy way to end the 2012 season. Without any bowl or Big Ten title to play for, however, the Buckeyes could easily spoil a few seasons along the way and wins over UW and Michigan could knock one or both out of the championship game.

* If there is going to be a year to play the best three teams from the other division — like Ohio State does in 2012 — it might as well be the fall you are not eligible.

Penn State 

Sept. 1 Ohio
Sept. 8 at Virginia
Sept. 15 Navy
Sept. 22 Temple
Sept. 29 at Illinois
Oct. 6 Northwestern
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Iowa
Oct. 27 Ohio State
Nov. 3 at Purdue
Nov. 10 at Nebraska
Nov. 17 Indiana
Nov. 24 Wisconsin

* Bill O’Brien certainly didn’t walk into the easiest non-conference schedule. Ohio, Virginia, Navy and Temple wouldn’t normally scare too many PSU teams but this isn’t your ordinary Nittany Lion team. Those four teams combined for 32 wins a season ago and the Owls came up four points short of a monumental upset of rival Penn State. If the Lions can emerge from this tough non-conference slate unblemished, fans in State College should be ecstatic.

* The first two weeks of the Big Ten schedule will teach fans a lot about the make-up of this Penn State team. A tough non-con slate previews a winnable start to the Big Ten season that features a road trip to Illinois and a home game against Northwestern. Penn State has the talent to start 6-0 but has big enough questions (on and off the field) to start 3-3 as well. Heading into the bye week at the halfway mark, PSU fans will know exactly where they stand.

* If Penn State wants to get to a bowl, it needs to get work done early in the year because the second half of the schedule features one “easy” game. Road trips to crossover opponents Nebraska and Iowa will be tough while home tests against the best two teams in the division, Ohio State and Wisconsin, won’t be any easier. A road trip to Purdue could swing this season from acceptable to worrisome or vice versa.

* Missing Legend’s Division favorites Michigan and Michigan State is one major positive.

Purdue 

Sept. 1 Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 8 at Notre Dame
Sept. 15 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 22 Bye Week
Sept. 27 Marshall
Oct. 6 Michigan
Oct. 13 Wisconsin
Oct. 20 at Ohio State
Oct. 27 at Minnesota
Nov. 3 Penn State
Nov. 10 at Iowa
Nov. 17 at Illinois
Nov. 24 Indiana

* The Boilers returned to the postseason for the first time since 2007 last fall, but will need to pull an upset or two in order to return in 2012. Three of the four non-conference games are winnable but a road win at Notre Dame might be asking too much.

* This means that Purdue must win at least three games in conference and its start to the Big Ten slate is downright impossible. Michigan and Wisconsin, the two teams likely picked to head to the conference championship game, visit West Lafayette in the first two weeks of Big Ten play before Purdue ventures into the Horseshoe the following weekend. An 0-3 start in conference seems to highly likely.

* Purdue has been picked as an early sleeper in the 2012 Big Ten title race. The Boilermakers will find out pretty quick how they stack up, especially with that brutal conference slate to start the year.

* The good news is the second half of the Purdue schedule offers some intrigue. Home games against Penn State and Indiana are certainly winnable with not-so-daunting road trips to Illinois and Minnesota mixed in. A tough road trip to Iowa is really the only time in the second half of the season that Purdue is a clear underdog. Three wins in those final five isn’t out of the question.

* Crossover opponents with the Legends Division: Michigan, at Minnesota and at Iowa

Wisconsin 

Sept. 1 Northern Iowa
Sept. 8 at Oregon State
Sept. 15 Utah State
Sept. 22 UTEP
Sept. 27 at Nebraska
Oct. 6 Illinois
Oct. 13 at Purdue
Oct. 20 Minnesota
Oct. 27 Michigan State
Nov. 3 Bye Week
Nov. 10 at Indiana
Nov. 17 Ohio State
Nov. 24 at Penn State

* With a relatively easy non-conference schedule, Wisconsin could head into its Big Ten opener without a loss. A trip to Oregon State to face a coach with his back against the wall could prove interesting for an offense that is missing all-everything quarterback Russell Wilson. But if the dairy-fed Big Red can get through the first four weeks unscathed, it will set up a monumental showdown with the corn-fed Big Red of Lincoln, Neb. Bret Bielema, and his entirely reworked coaching staff, will have its hands full when it heads to Memorial Stadium for the first time since 1973.

* The crossover opponents once again will not help Wisconsin return to the Big Ten title game in 2012. The Badgers will face Nebraska, Michigan State and arch-rival Minnesota. The Huskers and budding rival Michigan State will be picked to challenge the Wolverines in the Legends Division. Of course, that means Big Red gets a small break by not having to face their Big Ten Achilles Heel Michigan.

* The final two weeks of the regular season will likely determine if Wisconsin will be able to defend its Big Ten title. Ohio State visits in the penultimate weekend while a trip to Happy Valley wraps-up the 2012 slate. The good news for UW is that they should be “rested” heading into the final two games as the bye week and pseudo-bye week (Indiana) lead-up to the Buckeyes visiting Camp Randall.

* With the Leaders Division wide open due to Ohio State’s sanctions, the round robin between Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue could prove very interesting. The Badgers will play two of those games on the road at Purdue and Penn State. 

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