The 2016 college football season is shaping up to be a wild ride in the Big Ten with matchups in September against the SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 (and Notre Dame) highlighting the non-conference slate. Big Ten play will also open with a number of games that could set the tone for the division and conference championship hunt.
Ohio State and Michigan State may have some holes to plug, and they better figure out how to do that early. Meanwhile, Michigan continues to redeem itself under Jim Harbaugh, and the Wolverines may have some advantages schedule-wise. But which team has the toughest draw of the lot? The answer to that falls in the Big Ten’s West Division.
College Football’s Toughest Predictions in 2016
* - neutral site
Non-Con: LSU*, Akron, Georgia State
Big Ten Home: Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota
Big Ten Road: Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue
The Badgers have a tough road ahead this fall, and it starts at Lambeau Field against Leonard Fournette and LSU. Big Ten play opens with a gauntlet with back-to-back road trips to Michigan State and Michigan and continues after a bye week at home against Ohio State, which is followed by a road game at Iowa. If Wisconsin can survive that start, the back end of the schedule appears much more manageable, but will be no cakewalk.
2. Ohio State
Non-Con: Bowling Green, Tulsa, at Oklahoma
Big Ten Home: Rutgers, Indiana, Northwestern, Nebraska, Michigan
Big Ten Road: Wisconsin, Penn State, Maryland, Michigan State
After Wisconsin, you will not find a tougher schedule in the Big Ten than the one Ohio State will play. The Buckeyes hit the road to take on Oklahoma in mid-September and open the season against one of the top programs from the MAC, Bowling Green. The Buckeyes also make trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State in conference play before ending the season at home against Michigan. Ohio State also hosts Nebraska.
Non-Con: Fresno State, Wyoming, Oregon
Big Ten Home: Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Maryland
Big Ten Road: Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa
The Huskers host the (Pac-12 championship contender?) Oregon Ducks in mid-September after hosting Mountain West opponents Fresno State and Wyoming. Nebraska then heads on the road against pesky Northwestern and makes back-to-back road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State in late October into early November. Ending the season on the road against Iowa is always challenging for Nebraska too.
4. Michigan State
Non-Con: Furman, at Notre Dame, BYU
Big Ten Home: Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, Rutgers, Ohio State
Big Ten Road: Indiana, Maryland, Illinois, Penn State
The defending Big Ten champs get their two biggest division games (Michigan, Ohio State) at home, as well as a good non-conference matchup with BYU in October. Michigan State also renews its rivalry with Notre Dame in South Bend, one of the highlights of the Big Ten non-conference schedule this fall.
5. Penn State
Non-Con: Kent State, at Pittsburgh, Temple
Big Ten Home: Minnesota, Maryland, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State
Big Ten Road: Michigan, Purdue, Indiana, Rutgers
Penn State’s non-conference schedule is highlighted by the long-awaited revival of the in-state rivalry with Pitt and followed up with a revenge game against Temple (still weird to say that). Penn State’s Big Ten schedule gives the Nittany Lions the Buckeyes and Spartans at home, and Iowa also pays a visit this season, while James Franklin’s team must head to Ann Arbor early in the Big Ten schedule.
Non-Con: Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke
Big Ten Home: Nebraska, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois
Big Ten Road: Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota
Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats get the short straw with road games against Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State but they get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home. Northwestern also gets prickly Western Michigan and ACC foe Duke at home in some good early contests.
Non-Con: at Washington, Howard, New Mexico
Big Ten Home: Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Penn State
Big Ten Road: Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Maryland
The new era for the Scarlet Knights opens on the west coast against Washington and has perhaps the toughest three-game stretch any Big Ten team will have in conference play: Iowa, at Ohio State, Michigan. Rutgers also gets Penn State at home after a road trip to Michigan State. Rutgers has been much more competitive at home than on the road since joining the conference.
Non-Con: Hawaii, UCF, Colorado
Big Ten Home: Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maryland, Indiana
Big Ten Road: Rutgers, Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State
Michigan’s non-conference schedule may not be too intimidating (this isn’t 1994 Colorado), but the Big Ten slate starts fast at home against Penn State and Wisconsin and ends with three road games in the final five games against Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.
Non-Con: Murray State, North Carolina, Western Michigan
Big Ten Home: Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa
Big Ten Road: Nebraska, Rutgers, Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern
Lovie Smith gets a good challenge out of the gate in the non-conference portion of the schedule against defending ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina and an emerging, confident Western Michigan program at home. He also gets the Spartans and Hawkeyes at home. Aside from a road trip to Ann Arbor, the road schedule may not be too difficult if Smith has the Illini playing well.
Non-Con: Oregon State, Indiana State, Colorado State
Big Ten Home: Iowa, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern
Big Ten Road: Penn State, Maryland, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
The Gophers get a favorable draw in cross-division play with Rutgers and Maryland on the schedule, and an early road trip to Penn State is not incredibly daunting at this point in time. With a favorable non-conference slate and Iowa at home, Minnesota could set itself up well for a challenging back-end of the schedule against Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road.
Non-Con: at FIU, Ball State, Wake Forest
Big Ten Home: Michigan State, Nebraska, Maryland, Penn State, Purdue
Big Ten Road: Ohio State, Northwestern, Rutgers, Michigan
The Hoosiers draw a tough draw on the road against the Buckeyes and Wolverines, but the non-conference schedule includes three teams that went a combined 11-26 last fall.
Non-Con: Howard, at FIU, at UCF
Big Ten Home: Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers
Big Ten Road: Penn State, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska
Maryland’s non-conference opponents went a combined 6-29 last season, and FIU won five of those games. In conference play, Maryland hits the road against Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska but gets Ohio State and Michigan State at home. The Terrapins have fared slightly better at home than on the road since joining the Big Ten, but they are a work in progress under a new head coach.
Non-Con: Miami (Ohio), Iowa State, North Dakota State
Big Ten Home: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska
Big Ten Road: Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State, Illinois
North Dakota State is not your typical FCS opponent, but the Hawkeyes have a very favorable non-conference schedule leading into what may be the most favorable conference schedule. Iowa avoids Ohio State and Michigan State but gets Michigan at home. Iowa also hosts Wisconsin and Nebraska, perhaps the two top opponents in West Division play, and the road schedule is very manageable as well.
Non-Con: Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Nevada
Big Ten Home: Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Big Ten Road: Maryland, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana
Purdue’s non-conference schedule could actually be pretty decent with Cincinnati and Nevada, and the Boilermakers are fortunate not to have Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the cross-division rotation this year. They also get Iowa and Wisconsin at home. The biggest road test may be Nebraska, the only team Purdue beat in Big Ten play last fall.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.