Ranking the Big Ten’s Toughest Non-Conference College Football Schedules in 2017

Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines will open their season in AT&T Stadium against Florida

The importance of the non-conference schedule supposedly has been increased in the College Football Playoff era, and the Big Ten has instituted a new scheduling policy to give the conference-wide strength of schedule a boost. This season sees a few notable matchups against programs like Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Oregon, Notre Dame and more to put the Big Ten in a national spotlight.

 

Winning those games as a conference will go a long way to give the conference some margin for error after having two straight Playoff participants shutout by the eventual national champion (Michigan State by Alabama in the 2015 season and Ohio State last season by Clemson). If the Big Ten is going to have a Playoff contender this season, having the rest of the conference perform well will be key.

 

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. Michigan

Sept. 2 vs. Florida (Arlington, TX)

Sept. 9 vs. Cincinnati

Sept. 16 vs. Air Force

 

No team in the Big Ten has as attractive a non-conference schedule as the Wolverines this season. Jim Harbaugh is taking his team down to Arlington for a season-opening contest against Florida in Jerry Jones’ football palace. After that, Michigan plays at home against Cincinnati and Air Force. While neither of those two should be considered too challenging, neither should be considered too easy either.

 

2. Ohio State

Sept. 9 vs. Oklahoma

Sept. 16 vs. Army

Sept. 23 vs. UNLV

 

Michigan may have the best overall non-conference schedule, but Ohio State’s home game against defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma is the best non-conference game on the Big Ten schedule in 2017. The Buckeyes actually play the Sooners a week after opening the season on the road at Indiana on a Thursday night, which gives them two extra days to prepare. After Oklahoma, Ohio State hosts Army and UNLV. Neither should pose much of a threat to Ohio State.

 

3. Nebraska

Sept. 2 vs. Arkansas State

Sept. 9 at Oregon

Sept. 16 vs. Northern Illinois

 

Nebraska will venture out to the West Coast to play Oregon in Eugene, which should be a fun matchup. The Huskers also host one of the more consistent Sun Belt programs in Arkansas State and welcome Northern Illinois, a MAC team that has enjoyed some success in recent years and is hoping to bounce back this season.

 

4. Michigan State

Sept. 2 vs. Bowling Green

Sept. 9 vs. Western Michigan

Sept. 23 vs. Notre Dame

 

The Spartans scored one of their few wins last season against Notre Damea and it came in South Bend. This year the Fighting Irish return to East Lansing for what may be one of the more attractive games on the Big Ten non-conference schedule. That is based on the belief that at least one of these schools will be back in a bowl game in 2017, if not both. Michigan State also gets defending MAC champion Western Michigan, but will the Broncos still be as viable a threat as they were in 2016 when they took down two Big Ten opponents in the regular season?

 

5. Purdue

Sept. 2 vs. Louisville (Indianapolis)

Sept. 8 vs. Ohio

Sept. 16 at Missouri

 

The Boilermakers open up the 2017 season against Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville in Indianapolis. That should be quite the challenge for new head coach Jeff Brohm. A home game against Ohio may be a bit of a toss-up for Purdue at this point, and a road trip to Missouri should be a decent test for the program as well. Missouri has seen better times and lost to Indiana the last time the Hoosiers visited a few years ago.

 

6. Maryland

Sept. 2 at Texas

Sept. 9 vs. Towson

Sept. 23 vs. UCF

 

Michigan won’t be the only Big Ten team in the state of Texas in Week 1. Maryland is heading down to Austin to face Texas in the first game of the Tom Herman era. Texas may be in a rebuilding mode, but so is Maryland. This is a good test for Maryland and returning home would not be a shock. A game against FCS member Towson gets a pass from the Big Ten for now, but do not look past a home game against UCF. The Knights might be one of the more entertaining teams to watch in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) this year, and they could give Maryland some trouble.

 

7. Rutgers

Sept. 1 vs. Washington

Sept. 9 vs. Eastern Michigan

Sept. 16 vs. Boston College

 

Rutgers opened up the 2016 season on the road against Washington. This year, the Huskies head to New Jersey for the second game in a home-and-home deal. Opening against the defending Pac-12 champion and College Football Playoff entrant is no easy task for Rutgers. Eastern Michigan is coming off its first bowl season in decades and Boston College can at least play some defense.

 

8. Penn State

Sept. 2 vs. Akron

Sept. 9 vs. Pittsburgh

Sept. 16 vs. Georgia State

 

The big highlight for Penn State this year will be the in-state rivalry game with Pittsburgh from the ACC. The Nittany Lions got off to a slow start and couldn’t quite pull off a comeback last year, so revenge is on the mind this year for the Big Ten champs. A season-opening game against Akron should be a yawner, as should a game against Georgia State despite the program’s success last year in the Sun Belt.

 

9. Wisconsin

Sept. 1 vs. Utah State

Sept. 9 vs. Florida Atlantic

Sept. 16 at BYU

 

This one almost got bumped up at least a spot just because it brings Lane Kiffin into a Big Ten stadium as head coach of FAU. Home games against Utah State and FAU should be little problem for the Badgers, but a road trip to Provo is always a gamble. Anyone who scheduled a game on the road against BYU deserves respect (BYU visited Wisconsin last year).

 

10. Illinois

Sept. 2 vs. Ball State

Sept. 9 vs. Western Kentucky

Sept. 15 at USF

 

The Illini don’t play a team from another power conference, but the Big Ten is letting them slide. That doesn’t mean things will come easily for Illinois though, because the Illini are taking on two of the top Group of Five contenders out there with Conference USA juggernaut Western Kentucky and AAC-contender USF. Considering where Illinois is as a program right now, neither game should be a walk in the park even with those programs being led by new head coaches in 2017.

 

11. Northwestern

Sept. 2 vs. Nevada

Sept. 9 at Duke

Sept. 16 vs. Bowling Green

 

Northwestern heads down to Durham for an Academic Bowl with Duke in what should be a good game. The Wildcats also host a pair of Group of Five schools in Nevada and Bowling Green. Neither of those teams will be as good as Western Michigan was last season, but the Wildcats know they cannot take either of those games lightly.

 

12. Iowa

Sept. 2 vs. Wyoming

Sept. 9 at Iowa State

Sept. 16 vs. North Texas

 

The Hawkeyes suffered a tough loss in non-conference play last season at home against FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. No FCS teams this year as Iowa steps things up a little bit. Wyoming just played for the Mountain West Conference championship last season and could be an interesting obstacle out of the gates this season. And the rivalry aspect to playing on the road at Iowa State should not be overlooked either.

 

13. Indiana

Sept. 9 at Virginia

Sept. 16 vs. FIU

Sept. 23 vs. Georgia Southern

 

The Hoosiers actually open the season on Aug. 31 at home against Ohio State on a Thursday night. Will that have an impact on what happens in the non-conference games to follow? Indiana heads down to Virginia the following week and then hosts an FIU team now coached by Butch Davis and a Georgia Southern team that could potentially be a handful.

 

14. Minnesota

Aug. 31 vs. Buffalo

Sept. 9 at Oregon State

Sept. 16 vs. Georgia Southern

 

This year’s least threatening non-conference schedule among Big Ten fans belongs to P.J. Fleck’s new program, Minnesota. A home game against Buffalo should not be much of a challenge. Georgia Southern could be slightly dangerous, but the Gophers should have enough to prevail. A road trip to the West Coast would be more of a threat if it wasn’t Oregon State.

 

— 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.

Event Date: 
Sunday, March 26, 2017 - 15:09

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