The 2016 Big Ten season may not have ended the way you would have expected. Who could have seen it coming, with Penn State getting blown out at Michigan and losing on the road in Pennsylvania for a second straight season (at Temple in 2015, at Pittsburgh in '16), and then stunning Ohio State with a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown? The lesson learned in 2016 is every game means something when it comes to the Big Ten.
Glancing ahead to the 2017 season in Big Ten country, there are a number of games of interest. From non-conference games against defending the defending Big 12 champion (Ohio State vs. Oklahoma), defending Pac-12 champion (Rutgers vs. Washington), and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (Purdue vs. Louisville and Lamar Jackson), the Big Ten is once again in a position to shine in the spotlight. The conference schedule isn’t too bad either.
But which team has the best overall schedule in the Big Ten? For this discussion, here's a ranking of individual team schedules from best to worst, giving consideration to marquee games, strength of schedule and the importance some of those matchups may carry.
1. Ohio State
Non-Con: Oklahoma, Army, UNLV
Big Ten Home: Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, Illinois
Big Ten Road: Indiana, Rutgers, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan
Ohio State once again owns the most notable non-conference game on the Big Ten schedule this season with a home date against defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma. Ohio State also hosts defending Big Ten champion Penn State in a revenge game, and the Buckeyes get a bye week to prepare after a road trip to Nebraska. The Buckeyes play on the road against Michigan this season, where the stakes could once again be high for at least one of the teams. The season actually kicks off in Bloomington, Indiana, on a Thursday night against Indiana (Kevin Wilson storylines galore).
Non-Con: Florida (in Arlington, Texas), Cincinnati, Air Force
Big Ten Home: Michigan State, Rutgers, Minnesota, Ohio State
Big Ten Road: Purdue, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland, Wisconsin
The Wolverines begin a brand-new season in Arlington, Texas, against the Florida Gators, the two-time defending SEC East champions. And those two other non-conference games at home against Cincinnati and Air Force could potentially be some good battles, although Michigan should have the upper hand. Michigan will have to go on the road to play Penn State (major revenge game) and the Nittany Lions' whiteout crowd, and Madison to play Wisconsin. This year sees Michigan host Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have held the upper hand in this series of late.
3. Penn State
Non-Con: Akron, Pittsburgh, Georgia State
Big Ten Home: Indiana, Michigan, Rutgers, Nebraska
Big Ten Road: Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State, Maryland
Penn State’s chances of defending its Big Ten championship in 2017 likely come down to a big game at Ohio State, but in order for that to be true the Nittany Lions must score revenge in two games at home this season. Pittsburgh of the ACC and Michigan were the only two teams to beat Penn State in the regular season last fall, and both make their way to Happy Valley this season. Penn State also must play tricky road games at Iowa and Northwestern, and hosts Nebraska in mid-November. Penn State may be a Big Ten favorite, but the schedule is a challenge.
Non-Con: Washington, Eastern Michigan, Morgan State
Big Ten Home: Ohio State, Purdue, Maryland, Michigan State
Big Ten Road: Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, Indiana
Rutgers has a long way to go to be competitive in the Big Ten, and the schedule this season throws the Scarlet Knights few softballs outside of Morgan State. Rutgers faces two College Football Playoff teams (Pac-12 champion Washington, Ohio State) and plays road games in the division against Michigan and Penn State and make a trip to Nebraska in the longest-distance game of the season in the Big Ten. Good luck Rutgers. You’re going to need it.
Non-Con: Arkansas State, at Oregon, Northern Illinois
Big Ten Home: Rutgers, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern, Iowa
Big Ten Road: Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Penn State
Nebraska heading to Oregon should be entertaining in Week 2 for the Cornhuskers. In Big Ten play, Nebraska gets back-to-back home games against Wisconsin and Ohio State before hitting a bye week. A road trip to Penn State in mid-November could be a potential Big Ten Championship Game preview, but home games against Northwestern and Iowa are always tricky too.
6. Michigan State
Non-Con: Bowling Green, Western Michigan, Notre Dame
Big Ten Home: Iowa, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland
Big Ten Road: Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Rutgers
Michigan State begins the year with a couple of games against MAC opponents, including Western Michigan. The Broncos went 2-0 against the Big Ten in the regular season in 2016, but should take a step back this fall with head coach P.J. Fleck now at Minnesota and the loss of some key players. A home game against Notre Dame has lost some luster given how each team played last season, but maybe this year will be different. The Big Ten schedule pits Michigan State against Penn State and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks, and the Spartans head to Ann Arbor and Minnesota this season.
Non-Con: at Texas, Towson, UCF
Big Ten Home: Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan, Penn State
Big Ten Road: Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Michigan State
Maryland loses style points by having a home game against Towson, but the season kicks off in Austin against Texas in Tom Herman’s Longhorns debut and a home game against UCF could be a hurdle worth watching. Maryland also must play road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin, and road trips to Minnesota and Michigan State could be challenging as well. November also includes home games against the Wolverines and Nittany Lions.
Non-Con: Wyoming, at Iowa State, North Texas
Big Ten Home: Penn State, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue
Big Ten Road: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Iowa isn’t receiving high marks for its non-conference scheduling this season, and draw the unlucky cross-division matchups of both Ohio State and Penn State this season. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes get both of those games at home, but they must go on the road to play key division games against Wisconsin and Nebraska in November.
Non-Con: Louisville (in Indianapolis), Ohio, at Missouri
Big Ten Home: Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana
Big Ten Road: Wisconsin, Rutgers, Northwestern, Iowa
The Boilermakers begin a new era with Jeff Brohm as head coach, but it could get off to a bumpy start against 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville in Week 1 in Indianapolis. Purdue plays a team from the ACC and SEC this season and must play road games at Wisconsin and Iowa. The Boilermakers get Michigan at home and manage to avoid Ohio State and Penn State, but it could be a rough transition year for the program in 2017.
Non-Con: at Virginia, FIU, Georgia Southern
Big Ten Home: Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Rutgers
Big Ten Road: Penn State, Michigan State, Maryland, Illinois, Purdue
Indiana has a front-loaded Big Ten schedule that begins with a Thursday night season opener against Ohio State and continues on the road at Penn State with three non-conference games in between. If the Hoosiers get out of September with a winning record, they will have earned it. After Penn State, Indiana gets a week off to prepare for Michigan and a road game at Michigan State and Maryland. Indiana also draws Wisconsin in cross-division play, which will be no walk in the park in early November.
Non-Con: Ball State, Western Kentucky, at USF
Big Ten Home: Nebraska, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Indiana, Northwestern
Big Ten Road: Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Ohio State
The Fighting Illini play a sneaky and deceptively challenging non-conference schedule against Western Kentucky and at South Florida. Both programs figure to be contenders in their respective Group of Five conferences. Once Big Ten play hits, Illinois alternates home and road games, which includes a road trip to Ohio State and Iowa.
Non-Con: Utah State, FAU, at BYU
Big Ten Home: Northwestern, Purdue, Maryland, Iowa, Michigan
Big Ten Road: Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota
Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule is intriguing with a game against Lane Kiffin and a road trip to scenic BYU, but the conference schedule appears to be pretty favorable. The Badgers get Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan at home and must face Nebraska and Minnesota on the road, but things look to be pretty manageable for the Badgers for a path back to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Non-Con: Nevada, at Duke, Bowling Green
Big Ten Home: Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota
Big Ten Road: Wisconsin, Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois
Northwestern is rarely one to be recognized for its non-conference scheduling, but a game against Duke has a chance to be fun to watch. Big Ten play for the Wildcats opens up with back-to-back games against last year’s division champions (at Wisconsin, Penn State), but they do get a bye following their non-conference slate to prepare for that challenge. Getting Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan State at home could help lean the odds in Northwestern’s favor.
Non-Con: Buffalo, at Oregon State, Middle Tennessee
Big Ten Home: Maryland, Michigan State, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
Big Ten Road: Purdue, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern
P.J. Fleck sure seems to have picked a good season to take on the Minnesota job. The non-conference schedule is far from imposing, the Big Ten schedule avoids games against Ohio State and Penn State, and the Golden Gophers get both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home in November. Back-to-back road games at Iowa and Michigan are not to be forgotten, but Minnesota has a seemingly favorable schedule for Year 1 of the Fleck era.
— 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 contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.