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Who has the toughest football schedule in the Big Ten this year? The easiest?
Scheduling in college football is all that matters. Sure, coaching, rosters and even a little bit of luck play bigger roles in determining championships in the NCAA ranks.
But scheduling in college football plays as big a role as any of those other factors. Non-conference play varies greatly from team to team. So, too, does crossover play within the divisions of any conference. Home and road slates are important — especially for the championship-deciding, rivalry-bragging, marquee showdowns. And the important bye weekends also play a large role in ironing out win-loss records in any given season.
So taking all of the above into account, which team has the toughest schedule in the Big Ten in 2014?
1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Crossover: at Nebraska, Wisconsin
Non-Conference: at Washington St, Howard, at Navy, Tulane
Opponents ’13 Record: 97-58 (62.6%, 9th)
In its first year in the Big Ten, Rutgers has been handed the toughest schedule of any team in the league based on how teams fared last year (9th nationally with 97-58 opponents record). Talk about your rude welcomes. Rutgers will play two of the best teams from the West and will likely be picked to finish last in the East. A long road trip to Washington State and the short trek to Annapolis, Md., to face Navy in non-conference action means a 2-2 record could be expected before facing a Big Ten slate that has one winnable game (Indiana at home, Nov. 15). The off weekend comes between facing Michigan and Ohio State but there isn’t a lot to like about what could be a horrible first season in a new league.
2. Maryland Terrapins
Crossover: Iowa, at Wisconsin
Non-Conference: James Madison, at USF, West Virginia, at Syracuse
Opponents ’13 Record: 86-67 (56.2%, 40th)
The non-conference schedule doesn’t have a marquee game but three tough bouts with regional rivals (Cuse, WVU) along with a long road trip to USF. But the conference slate is what makes this such a touch schedule. Maryland will likely play the best six teams in the league over a six-game stretch with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State at home coupled with road dates at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. The only good news is that both bye weeks fall in the middle of that nasty six-game stretch. This doesn’t include a trek to Indiana and home game with Rutgers. And all of this while playing in the Big Ten for the first time.
3. Indiana Hoosiers
Crossover: at Iowa, Purdue
Non-Conference: Indiana St, at Bowling Green, at Missouri, N. Texas
Opponents ’13 Record: 93-64 (59.2%, 24th)
Last year’s schedule was one of the toughest (93-64) of any team in the Big Ten and, now in a tougher division, Indiana hasn’t gotten any favors for ’14 either. Road trips to Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Missouri are brutal and home tests with Penn State and Maryland make it very difficult to see Indiana getting to a bowl game. In particular, the non-conference slate could be one of the tougher in the league with trips to Bowling Green, Mizzou and hosting a developing North Texas squad.
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Crossover: at Ohio State, Penn State
Non-Conference: Youngstown St, W. Kentucky, at Washington, Texas St
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-61 (59.6%, 21st)
The Illini have a nasty road trip to Seattle to face Washington and also will face two quality mid-major teams, so starting out 3-1 isn’t a lock. Then things get nasty for Illinois. Road trips to Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern are all tough and the home slate includes Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa. There is one, maybe two, winnable Big Ten games this year for Illinois — even with an improved offense. Crossover play might be the worst of any team in the league. Lastly, Illinois doesn’t get to play… Illinois.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Crossover: Michigan State, at Indiana
Non-Conference: W. Michigan, C. Michigan, at Notre Dame, S. Illinois
Opponents ’13 Record: 84-67 (55.6%, 43rd)
Simply because Purdue doesn’t get to play Purdue, it makes the Boilermakers' schedule the toughest within the division. And with Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road) in crossover play, Purdue has one of the tougher slates in the league. A four-game stretch in the middle of the year — Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Nebraska and Wisconsin —with a bye week in the middle is one of the toughest months any team has to deal with. Iowa and Notre Dame in the first month make this schedule tough from beginning to end.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Crossover: at Michigan, Ohio State
Non-Conference: E. Illinois, Middle Tennessee, at TCU, San Jose St
Opponents ’13 Record: 85-68 (55.6%, 46th)
A visit to TCU is the toughest non-conference game on the slate and that will be a challenge but what makes the Gophers' schedule so tough is its Big Ten slate. Crossover is brutal with a trip to Michigan and home date with Ohio State. And the final month of the season is ridiculously hard with a four-game stretch that includes Iowa at home, Ohio State and back-to-back visits to Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road to end things. The only good news for Jerry Kill’s bunch is at least the team gets a bye week Nov. 1 before these final four games. A repeat of eight wins would be an excellent season for Minnesota.
7. Northwestern Wildcats
Crossover: at Penn State, Michigan
Non-Conference: Cal, No. Illinois, W. Illinois, at Notre Dame
Opponents ’13 Record: 76-76 (50%, 78th)
The non-conference schedule isn’t all that easy with a Pac-12 opponent, the best program in the MAC and a road trip to Notre Dame late in the year. Toss in a nasty crossover slate with Penn State (road) and Michigan (home) and Northwestern has one of the toughest schedules in the West Division. Both Wisconsin and Nebraska have to come to Evanston, but don't overlook road trips to Minnesota and Iowa either. For a team trying to bounce back from a disappointing season due in large part to a nasty schedule, this isn’t an easy slate for the Wildcats.
8. Michigan State Spartans
Crossover: Nebraska, at Purdue
Non-Conference: Jacksonville St, at Oregon, E. Michigan, Wyoming
Opponents ’13 Record: 83-71 (53.9%, 55th)
The highlight of the first month is easily the toughest non-conference game in the league when the Spartans visit Oregon in Week 2. Then Big Ten play starts in primetime against Nebraska followed up by a trip to Purdue. It means Sparty will play six straight straight division games to end the year. The best news about the tough final six weeks is an off weekend falls directly between a home game with rival Michigan (Oct. 25) and conference frontrunner Ohio State (Nov. 8). Road trips to Maryland and Penn State in the final three weeks could be very difficult as well.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes
Crossover: Illinois, at Minnesota
Non-Conference: at Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent St, Cincinnati
Opponents ’13 Record: 87-66 (56.9%, 35th)
The Buckeyes boast one of the league’s toughest non-conference slates but have one of the easier crossover slates with the Illini and Gophers on tap. Both bye weeks take place early in the year and won’t break up any of the tough division games that seem to be backloaded in Columbus. Over the final six weeks, Ohio State will visit Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota while hosting Indiana and Michigan. This is a tougher slate than most league favorites can boast nationally.
10. Michigan Wolverines
Crossover: Minnesota, at Northwestern
Non-Conference: App. State, at Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Utah
Opponents ’13 Record: 81-71 (53.3%, 59th)
The Wolverines boast some intriguing non-conference tilts with Notre Dame, a rising FBS program in AP-State and Pac-12 foe Utah, so the start to the year could be very testy for the embattled Maize and Blue coaching staff. The good news for Michigan is the bye weekends set up nicely before and after critical games. The first of which will come between two huge games with Penn State at home (Oct. 11) and a trip to defending champs Michigan State (Oct. 25). Then the second off weekend comes before the final two games with Maryland (home) and archrival Ohio State (road). Like the Buckeyes, Michigan will miss Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa in crossover play.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Crossover: at Michigan State, Rutgers
Non-Conference: FAU, McNeese St, at Fresno St, Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-63 (58.8%, 25th)
A tricky non-conference slate is highlighted by a long trip to Fresno and a visit from Miami. All four could be wins but at least two will be tough games. Additionally, crossover play is more difficult for Nebraska than the other contenders in the West Division (Wisconsin, Iowa). The bye weeks come at perfect times after the first five games and just before the tough final three-game stretch.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions
Crossover: Northwestern, at Illinois
Non-Conference: UCF, Akron, UMass, Temple
Opponents ’13 Record: 79-73 (51.9%, 68th)
The non-conference slate is going to be very tame for Penn State now that Blake Bortles is gone from UCF, so a 4-0 start should be expected. Then the Lions get a bye week before two of their toughest three games of the year before visiting Michigan (Oct. 11) and hosting Ohio State (Oct. 25). Then Penn State gets a November loaded with gimmies, including a bizarre late-season semi-rivalry with Temple, before hosting Michigan State at home. A win over the Spartans not only could change the complexion of the division title but could give Penn State a double-digit win season.
13. Iowa Hawkeyes
Crossover: Indiana, at Maryland
Non-Conference: No. Iowa, Ball St, Iowa St, at Pitt
Opponents ’13 Record: 68-70 (49.3%, 85th)
Iowa has an interesting non-conference slate with two in-state rivals who have played the Hawkeyes tough (Northern Iowa, Iowa State) consistently and a road trip to Pitt isn’t an easy game either. Crossover play sets up well with Indiana and Maryland posing as two winnable but tricky games. The key is missing Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State and getting both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to end the season. A road trip to Minnesota might actually be the toughest situation the Hawkeyes face all season.
14. Wisconsin Badgers
Crossover: Maryland, at Rutgers
Non-Conference: LSU, W. Illinois, Bowling Green, USF
Opponents ’13 Record: 74-78 (48.7%, 87th)
LSU in Houston to start the year might be the toughest game Wisconsin plays all season long. Otherwise, the opening Big Ten slate is almost comically easy for the Badgers. At Northwestern, Illinois, bye week, Maryland, at Rutgers and at Purdue will all feature large point spreads in Wisconsin’s favor. Over the final three weeks, however, things get interesting with road trips to Nebraska, Iowa and a home tilt with rival Minnesota. There is no Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State on the slate for UW. Double-digit wins doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation by any stretch of the imagination.