When putting together Athlon Sports' college football magazine and preseason Top 25 each year, a huge part of the process is scheduling. Non-conference games, crossovers, home-road splits and timing all play a role in determining order of finish.
And don’t forget that the College Football Playoff Committee made it very clear in its first season that it values scheduling.
So who has the toughest schedule in the Big Ten this fall? Who has the easiest path?
Rutgers must face five (possibly six) potential bowl teams from the East Division and gets the top two teams from the West (Nebraska, Wisconsin). It also faces two Power 5 teams in non-conference play (albeit Washington State and Kansas). It seems highly unlikely the Knights will return to the postseason.
Minnesota could face two potential Playoff teams with TCU in the non-conference and Ohio State in crossover. The Gophers also must face Michigan from the East. Add to that slate divisional dates with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa and Jerry Kill is looking at an uphill battle in the West.
The Spartans will earn their way into the Big Ten title game or Playoff this year. Oregon and Penn State have to come to East Lansing but a trio of brutal road trips will likely decide the Spartans' fate: at Michigan (Oct. 17), Nebraska (Nov. 7) and Ohio State (Nov. 21).
Crossover didn’t play out well for the Terps with Wisconsin and at Iowa on the slate for 2015. That goes along with facing the big four from the East: at Ohio State, at Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan. Even the non-conference has some tricky games with USF and at West Virginia.
The home slate for Tim Beckman is brutal, featuring Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and a semi-neutral field tilt with Northwestern. The road trips aren’t much better as the Illini must visit Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina in the non-conference. There isn’t a lot to like on this schedule other than a road trip to Purdue and three semi-easy non-conference home games.
The non-conference slate for Jim Harbaugh is no joke with a road trip to Utah and home games with BYU and Oregon State. The divisional slate will be tough enough with road trips to Penn State and Maryland as well as home games against Michigan State and Ohio State.
There is no Missouri in non-con play this year so that is comforting. However, road trips to Penn State, Michigan State and Maryland will be tough along with home games with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan.
Non-conference games with BYU (home) and Miami (road) are really juicy and not easy (but winnable). Crossover features a huge test with Michigan State but that one comes at home. Additionally, huge games with Wisconsin and Iowa come at home. The road trips in the B1G for the Huskers are Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Rutgers.
Games against Stanford and Duke in the smart kids non-conference round-robin will be tough to win. As will crossover games with Michigan and Penn State and divisional road tilts with Wisconsin and Nebraska. Key swing games with Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois (Chicago) and Purdue, however, come at home.
The non-conference schedule wouldn’t be daunting for most teams but watch out for teams like Bowling Green, Marshall and, of course, Virginia Tech. Crossover with Michigan State on the road is brutal as are road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa. However, home games with Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana offer some chances for an upset.
The road trip to Virginia Tech will be testy but full of revenge for Ohio State. After that, the toughest road trip for the Buckeyes will be visiting Ann Arbor in the season finale. Otherwise, Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota come to Columbus. There isn't a lot of meat here for Urban Meyer to add to his pizza.
12. Penn State
Penn State has four easy, winnable, non-conference games and gets really lucky in crossover play with Northwestern and Illinois. Yes, PSU must face Michigan State and Ohio State on the road. But, otherwise, the rest of the schedule is manageable in a very difficult division.
Alabama in Week 1 is a flashing warning signal but the rest of this schedule is extremely manageable. There is no Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State. Road trips to Nebraska (Oct. 10), Maryland (Nov. 7) and Minnesota (Nov. 28) is as tough as it gets for the Badgers.
Wisconsin and Nebraska have tougher non-conference and crossover schedules. This gives the nod to Iowa as the easiest slate in the division despite having to face both Big Red foes on the road. The Hawkeyes could be favorites to win all four of their non-conference games and all four home Big Ten games.