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Ranking the Big Ten's Toughest Non-Conference College Football Schedules in 2016

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The Big Ten looks to make some noise this season with some high-profile, non-conference matchups against the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. Will the conference hold its head above water or will it crumble under pressure and lead many around the nation to declare the Big Ten dead before mid-September?

Related: Ranking the Big Ten’s Toughest College Football Schedules in 2016

Below is a look at the non-conference games each Big Ten team will play this season, ranking each respective team's slate from toughest to easiest. Keep in mind this season the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule, which means teams only have three non-conference games to fill as opposed to the four they have had for years.

1. Ohio State

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Sept. 3 vs. Bowling Green

Sept. 10 vs. Tulsa

Sept. 17 at Oklahoma

Ohio State takes the top spot in this year’s non-conference scheduling ranking on the strength of having to go on the road to take on defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma. The Sooners, coincidentally enough, also have the top non-conference schedule among Big 12 programs. The Buckeyes also open at home against the defending MAC champions for a little in-state fun, and Tulsa was a bowl team a year ago too.

2. Michigan State

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Sept. 2 vs. Furman

Sept. 17 at Notre Dame

Oct. 8 vs. BYU

Michigan State has a solid argument for the most difficult non-conference schedule with a road trip to rival Notre Dame in mid-September and an early October matchup at home against stingy BYU, but the Spartans open at home against a cupcake to lose some ground overall compared to the Buckeyes.

3. Wisconsin

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Sept. 3 vs. LSU (Green Bay, WI)

Sept. 10 vs. Akron

Sept. 17 vs. Georgia State

Wisconsin arguably has the toughest schedule overall among Big Ten teams, but the non-conference schedule is front-loaded with LSU at Lambeau Field as the season opener. Akron could give Wisconsin a scare, but the Badgers should get through their two home games in non-conference play without too much trouble.

4. Illinois

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Sept. 3 vs. Murray State

Sept. 10 vs. North Carolina

Sept. 17 vs. Western Michigan

The Lovie Smith era will face a couple of good challenges against last year’s ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina (who torched the Illini at Chapel Hill a year ago) and feisty Western Michigan out of the MAC. A split in those two alone might be promising for Illinois, but the season opener should be a good walkthrough opportunity.

5. Nebraska

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Sept. 3 vs. Fresno State

Sept. 10 vs. Wyoming

Sept. 17 vs. Oregon

The home game against Oregon should be a ton of fun, and it comes at a good time for the Huskers with the Ducks having stepped back a little from their national title contending status in recent years. Two home games against Mountain West opponents will be against teams that combined for five wins last year.

6. Penn State

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Sept. 3 vs. Kent State

Sept. 10 at Pittsburgh

Sept. 17 vs. Temple

Penn State renews its rivalry with Pittsburgh on the road in week 2, and the Panthers should be a good test for a new-look Nittany Lions offense. Temple also abused Penn State last year, but the Owls come to State College with a less experienced defense this time around.

7. Rutgers

Sept. 3 at Washington

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Sept. 10 vs. Howard

Sept. 17 vs. New Mexico

Rutgers opens the year on the west coast against a potentially rising and trendy Washington team, but follow that up with favorable home matchups against Howard and New Mexico. Getting to Big Ten play at 2-1 should be expected.

8. Northwestern

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Sept. 3 vs. Western Michigan

Sept. 10 vs. Illinois State

Sept. 17 vs. Duke

Northwestern may end up being too low on this list if Western Michigan and Duke remain competitive this fall, but for now the Wildcats can sit right here thanks to having Illinois State bog them down. Northwestern also gets all three of these games at home, which should diminish some of the difficulty.

9. Purdue

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Sept. 3 vs. Eastern Kentucky

Sept. 10 vs. Cincinnati

Sept. 24 vs. Nevada

Purdue faces some good tests from Cincinnati, a potential American Athletic Conference (AAC) contender, and Nevada, coming off a bowl season. The Boilermakers get each at home, which is a benefit after getting an FCS opponent in the opener. If Darrell Hazell is going to change the narrative, going 2-1 is not an impossible feat for a struggling Purdue program.

10. Minnesota

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Sept. 1 vs. Oregon State

Sept. 10 vs. Indiana State

Sept. 24 vs. Colorado State

The Gophers get three home games in non-conference play, and they very well should be thinking of going 3-0 in them. Opening at home against a Pac-12 team is nice, but the Beavers went 2-10 last fall. Colorado State may have hit its peak a couple years ago, but the Rams should still be a threat in late September.

11. Iowa

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Sept. 3 vs. Miami (Ohio)
Sept. 10 vs. Iowa State

Sept. 17 vs. North Dakota State

Yes, Iowa does get an FCS opponent on the schedule in mid-September, but it’s North Dakota State. The Bison have won each of the past five FCS national titles and have taken down a handful of FBS opponents in recent years, so this is not one to blink at. The defending Big Ten West champs should manage to pick up two wins against their other non-conference opponents though, and then we’ll see what happens against North Dakota State.

12. Michigan

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Sept. 3 vs. Hawaii

Sept. 10 vs. UCF

Sept. 17 vs. Colorado

Michigan’s schedule helps make it a legitimate Big Ten contender this season, and it begins with a very favorable non-conference slate in Ann Arbor. It begins at home against Hawaii (3-10 in 2015), continues against UCF (0-12) and concludes against Colorado (4-9). This is hardly 1994 Colorado, and the Wolverines could put together a string of early-season blowouts to make a quick rise in the polls, wherever they start. Will they be hollow victories, or confidence boosters for Big Ten play?

13. Indiana

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Sept. 1 at FIU

Sept. 10 vs. Ball State

Sept. 24 vs. Wake Forest

The Hoosiers open the season on the road against FIU (which actually hosts two Big Ten teams to start the year; see Maryland below), and the non-conference slate follows with two home games against woeful Ball State and Wake Forest. Sure, Indiana plays an ACC team, but the Demon Deacons are the ACC’s Purdue. Indiana should be flying high with a 3-0 record between non-conference contests.

14. Maryland

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Sept. 3 vs. Howard

Sept. 9 at FIU

Sept. 17 at UCF

Nobody in the Big Ten has an easier non-conference schedule than the Maryland Terrapins, even with two road games. They begin at home against Howard and then make back-to-back road trips to Florida for games against FIU one week and UCF the next. You can argue those back-to-back trips make this a more difficult non-conference schedule than Indiana’s but playing an FCS opponent at home holds Maryland below Indiana. The Hoosiers also get a bye week to work with, while Maryland gets a short week for its game at FIU and plays three straight before its bye.

— 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.