The Big Ten embraced the idea of a nine-game conference schedule a few years ago with the intent of increasing the overall strength of schedule for the conference. So far, the results have been mixed. While the strength of schedule factor has been on the rise, the Big Ten has been left out of the College Football Playoff each of the past two seasons. Is there a connection there, or is it simply a coincidence?
Heading into the 2019 season, the Big Ten is hoping the overall strength of schedule will finally pay off in a big way down the line. But the question here is what team in the conference faces the stiffest schedule challenges this fall? What schools have the most favorable schedules to take advantage of, and what schools have the toughest path to a Big Ten championship shot in Indianapolis at the end of the season. And for some, what games could make or break their College Football Playoff hopes and dreams?
Here is a ranking of the Big Ten schedules this season, beginning with the most imposing and working our way down to the most favorable schedules found in the conference in 2019.
Non-Con: at USF, Central Michigan, Kent State
West Home: Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue
West Away: Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota
Crossover: Michigan, Michigan State, at Ohio State
The Wisconsin Badgers will certainly have to earn their way back to the Big Ten Championship Game with the hand they have been dealt in Big Ten play. The Badgers are the only team in the Big Ten West that will face Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in crossover play. Wisconsin also has a trip to Tampa to face USF to start the season, which could be tricky. But at least Wisconsin will get a few key division matchups in Madison.
Non-Con: Middle Tennessee, Army, Notre Dame
East Home: Rutgers, Michigan State, Ohio State
East Away: Penn State, Maryland, Indiana
Crossover: at Wisconsin, Iowa, at Illinois
The Wolverines have the most attractive game on the Big Ten's non-conference schedule with Notre Dame making the trip to Michigan Stadium in late October. Michigan also gets Ohio State at home with Jim Harbaugh aiming for his first win against the Buckeyes, but the Wolverines' playoff hopes may come down to how they fare on the road at Penn State and Wisconsin. Iowa comes to Ann Arbor but could be in for a defensive battle either way. And don't sleep on Army. The Black Knights gave Oklahoma a real scare last year and hope to do the same to Michigan this season.
3. Ohio State
Non-Con: Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio)
East Home: Michigan State, Maryland, Penn State
East Away: Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan
Crossover: at Nebraska, at Northwestern, Wisconsin
The Buckeyes play their biggest game of the year on the road at the end of the season (Michigan) but face some interesting matchups before that. A stretch from September into October will focus on crossover play against Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin, with a home game against Michigan State thrown in the middle before a bye week. Ohio State also has to host Penn State the week prior to playing at Michigan. Early on, Cincinnati will look to pull a major upset in Columbus.
4. Michigan State
Non-Con: Tulsa, Western Michigan, Arizona State
East Home: Indiana, Penn State, Maryland
East Away: Ohio State, Michigan, Rutgers
Crossover: at Northwestern, at Wisconsin, Illinois
The road schedule is not kind to the Spartans in 2019. Michigan State makes trips to Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northwestern and none will be a breeze. The home schedule is much more manageable with Penn State likely to be the biggest hurdle in East Lansing, although Arizona State could be difficult too. If the Spartans can pull off a winning record on the road, that will be an achievement.
Non-Con: Howard, Syracuse, at Temple
East Home: Penn State, Indiana, Michigan
East Away: Rutgers, Ohio State, Michigan State
Crossover: at Purdue, at Minnesota, Nebraska
Maryland opens with an easy game but will face a surging Syracuse program and make a trip to Philadelphia to play a bit of a wild card Temple program for an intriguing non-conference slate. Big Ten play opens at home against Penn State, although the Nittany Lions could turn that into a home atmosphere if history is any indication. The Terps also have to face Ohio State and Michigan State on the road, and Maryland has typically struggled on the road against the Big Ten’s top teams.
Non-Con: at Nevada, Vanderbilt, TCU
West Home: Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska
West Away: Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Crossover: at Penn State, Maryland, Indiana
The Boilermakers face two power conference programs in non-conference play with Vanderbilt (SEC) and TCU (Big 12) each making a visit to Big Ten land. Purdue could get off to a great start if the Boilermakers play well at home, but the biggest challenges in conference play will all come on the road with trips to Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin in Big Ten West play and a road trip to Penn State. But no Michigan, no Ohio State and a chance to play Nebraska and Minnesota at home could help keep Purdue's division hopes alive for a while.
Non-Con: at Stanford, UNLV, UMass
West Home: Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota
West Away: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois
Crossover: Michigan State, Ohio State, at Indiana
The defending Big Ten West Division champions open the season on the road against always-difficult and physical Stanford, but the other non-conference games at home should be easier. The Wildcats will have to play in Madison and Lincoln for key division showdowns, but at least Northwestern will get Iowa at home. The crossover slate throws Michigan State and Ohio State at the Wildcats, but both games will be played in Evanston (although Ohio State fans are known to fill up the seats in Ryan Field).
Non-Con: Miami (Ohio), at Iowa State, Middle Tennessee
West Home: Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois
West Away: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Crossover: Rutgers, at Michigan, Penn State
There are many reasons to like Iowa this season as a Big Ten West contender. Their schedule is not one of them. In addition to drawing back-to-back games against Michigan (road) and Penn State (home), the Hawkeyes will play their top three division threats on the road (Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Nebraska). That leaves Iowa with a slim margin for error in a division that could go down to the final week. Even home games against Purdue and Minnesota could be a threat to Iowa's division hopes.
9. Penn State
Non-Con: Idaho, Buffalo, Pittsburgh
East Home: Michigan, Indiana, Rutgers
East Away: Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State
Crossover: Purdue, at Iowa, at Minnesota
Penn State's non-conference slate is highlighted by a home game against Pittsburgh, but a home game against Buffalo could catch the Nittany Lions napping for a while. Michigan comes to Happy Valley this year as the teams exchange home blowouts, and Penn State will be faced with hitting the road against Michigan State and Ohio State. Both the Spartans and Buckeyes have stung Penn State the last two seasons. Penn State's last trip to Iowa also went down to the final play of the game.
Non-Con: Ball State, Eastern Illinois, UConn
East Home: Ohio State, Rutgers, Michigan
East Away: Michigan State, Maryland, Penn State
Crossover: at Nebraska, Northwestern, at Purdue
The Hoosiers get the luxury of hosting Ohio State and Michigan, and sometimes goofy things happen in Bloomington. The non-conference schedule is far from intimidating for Indiana, giving the Hoosiers a pretty decent chance to get to a bowl game without having to do too much in Big Ten play.
Non-Con: UMass, Boston College, Liberty
East Home: Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan State
East Away: Michigan, Indiana, Penn State
Crossover: at Iowa, Minnesota, at Illinois
A home game against Boston College highlights the non-conference slate for Rutgers, but home games against UMass and Liberty cannot be taken for granted for a Rutgers program still trying to build something. The crossover schedule is about as favorable as it can get with a road trip to Iowa being the biggest challenge thrown at Rutgers outside of division play. Rutgers must travel to Michigan and Penn State while the Scarlet Knights get the Buckeyes and Spartans at home. But will it ultimately matter in November, when Rutgers faces Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State to close out the regular season?
Non-Con: Akron, at UConn, Eastern Michigan
West Home: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern
West Away: Minnesota, Purdue, Iowa
Crossover: Michigan, Rutgers, at Michigan State
Few teams have as easy a non-conference schedule as Illinois, at least among Big Ten teams. In fact, as much as Illinois has room to improve, the schedule has a path to a possible bowl bid if things fall into place. Even though the Michigan schools are on the crossover rotation for Illinois, the Illini will face three of their toughest division opponents at home. If there is any improvement for Illinois, scoring a couple of wins in that mix could go a long way.
Non-Con: South Alabama, at Colorado, Northern Illinois
West Home: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa
West Away: Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue
Crossover: Ohio State, Indiana, at Maryland
Nebraska has become one of the preseason favorites in the Big Ten West for a few reasons. The schedule is most certainly one of the biggest factors in the Cornhuskers' favor. They get a solid crossover schedule that includes Ohio State but brings the Buckeyes to Lincoln. Nebraska also gets the top three division contenders at home (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa). Nebraska may have a long way to go before being considered a top Big Ten or even a College Football Playoff contender, but the schedule certainly smiles upon Nebraska this season.
Non-Con: South Dakota State, at Fresno State, Georgia Southern
West Home: Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
West Away: Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern
Crossover: at Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State
Don’t sleep on Minnesota's non-conference schedule. Fresno State and Georgia Southern are winning programs in their respective right, and even South Dakota State is a strong FCS program not to be taken too lightly in the opener. But in the grand scheme of things, Minnesota's schedule is the easiest you will find in the Big Ten this season. The crossover slate includes Rutgers and Maryland. Penn State is there too, but the Gophers get the Nittany Lions at home after a bye week. Upset potential? Absolutely. Minnesota also gets Nebraska and Wisconsin at home, which could be important in the division standings, although trips to Iowa, Purdue, and Northwestern leads to some problems. There are a bunch of potential swing games on Minnesota's schedule before anyone should go predicting the Gophers row to the Big Ten Championship Game.
— 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.