Ranking the Big Ten's Toughest Non-Conference College Football Schedules in 2019

Shea Patterson and Michigan take on a pair of teams in Army and Notre Dame that combined for 23 wins last season

A handful of in-state rivalry games with non-conference opponents and a couple of games that could carry some weight in the College Football Playoff and New Year's Six bowl lineup highlight the Big Ten's non-conference matchups this season. Although this may be a relatively down year as far as non-conference spotlight opportunities go for the Big Ten, there are some good games to keep an eye on here and there.

 

But which Big Ten team faces the stiffest non-conference schedule this fall? Michigan has what could be the biggest non-conference game of the season when the Fighting Irish head to Ann Arbor in October. Ohio State will have to fend off an upset bid by Cincinnati as the Bearcats look to be Ohio's New Year's Six team. Penn State and Pitt play the final time on their scheduling agreement, and Iowa and Iowa State square off once more in a game that is difficult to forecast any given year.

 

While these games are certainly highlights, we are taking everything into consideration here in ranking each Big Ten members' non-conference schedule. The difficulty of opponent, location, and when the game will actually be played all come into play here. Teams may lose some points for scheduling FCS opponents (Penn State, Maryland, and Minnesota each play an FCS school this season) and teams may get bonus points for playing road games or playing power conference opponents. Of course, not all opponents are created equal, as we will explore a bit in these rankings. Here are the Big Ten non-conference schedules, ranked from best to worst.

 

1. Michigan

Aug. 31 vs. Middle Tennessee

Sept. 7 vs. Army

Oct. 26 vs. Notre Dame

 

Michigan's home game against the Fighting Irish could have College Football Playoff implications, and it is certainly the biggest non-conference game on the Big Ten schedule this season. But Army is not to be taken for granted after the Black Knights put a scare into Oklahoma in Norman last season. Michigan's non-conference opponents combined to go 31-9 last season.

 

2. Purdue

Aug. 30 at Nevada

Sept. 7 vs. Vanderbilt

Sept. 14 vs. TCU

 

The Boilermakers start the year on the road at Nevada and host two power conference teams at home. Purdue going 3-0 could be a real possibility, and doing so with wins against the SEC and Big 12 would certainly be a nice early boost for respect.

 

3. Maryland

Aug. 31 vs. Howard

Sept. 7 vs. Syracuse

Sept. 14 at Temple

 

Maryland begins the year with a matchup against an FCS program but follows that up with a dangerous Syracuse at home. The Terps then head up to Philly to take on Temple, which could be a good test.

 

4. Iowa

Aug. 31 vs. Miami (Ohio)

Sept. 14 at Iowa State

Sept. 28 vs. Middle Tennessee

 

Iowa's non-conference slate is broken up with a conference game and a bye week. The biggest hurdle should be their in-state rivalry game with Iowa State, which can be as unpredictable as it is ugly and entertaining. If things start well, it could potentially be a matchup of two top 25 teams for the first time in the history of the rivalry.

 

5. Ohio State

Aug. 31 vs. FAU

Sept. 7 vs. Cincinnati

Sept. 21 vs. Miami (Ohio)

 

Ohio State opens at home against Lane Kiffin and his FAU program and heads into Week 2 looking to avoid any possible scare from AAC contender Cincinnati, coached by former Ohio State assistant and interim head coach Luke Fickell. Ohio State has never lost to Cincinnati though, and that streak likely continues this fall.

 

6. Penn State

Aug. 31 vs. Idaho

Sept. 7 vs. Buffalo

Sept. 14 vs. Pitt

 

Penn State plays Pitt for the 100th and seemingly last time for quite a while this year in Happy Valley. The defending ACC Coastal Division champs are the highlight of Penn State's non-conference slate, but Buffalo is coming off a 10-4 season and won't be shoved around.

 

7. Northwestern

Aug. 31 at Stanford

Sept. 14 vs. UNLV

Nov. 16 vs. UMass

 

Northwestern starts the year on the west coast against Stanford, which should be a stingy test for the Wildcats. But a home game after a Week 2 bye against UNLV and a mid-November game at home against UMass should be some expected wins for Pat Fitzgerald's bunch. The Rebels and Minutemen combined to go 8-16 last season.

 

8. Nebraska

Aug. 31 vs. South Alabama

Sept. 7 at Colorado

Sept. 14 vs. NIU

 

A revival of the series with Colorado didn't go Nebraska's way last season in Lincoln, and now the growing Huskers must go to Boulder for Round 2. NIU had the best record of Nebraska's non-conference opponents last season and celebrated a win in Lincoln two years ago.

 

9. Minnesota

Aug. 29 vs. South Dakota State

Sept. 7 at Fresno State

Sept. 14 vs. Georgia Southern

 

P.J. Fleck may not be setting his Gophers to row any boats against power conference competition this season, but Fresno State and Georgia Southern went a combined 22-5 last season, and FCS opponent South Dakota State went 10-3.

 

10. Michigan State

Aug. 30 vs. Tulsa

Sept. 7 vs. Western Michigan

Sept. 14 vs. Arizona State

 

Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils scored a bit of a statement win against the Spartans last season, so Michigan State will be looking for a little revenge. But home games against Tulsa and Western Michigan shouldn't be much of a problem for Mark Dantonio's program.

 

11. Rutgers

Aug. 30 vs. UMass

Sept. 21 vs. Boston College

Oct. 26 vs. Liberty

 

Rutgers has a bit of an odd non-conference schedule, but all three games at home could end up being wins. The Scarlet Knights open against UMass before a quick jump into Big Ten play on the road. But they get a bye week to recover from Iowa to take on Boston College. A late October game against Liberty could end up being a much-needed win.

 

12. Wisconsin

Aug. 30 at USF

Sept. 7 vs. Central Michigan

Oct. 5 vs. Kent State

 

Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers open the year on the road against USF in Tampa, which could potentially put Wisconsin on upset alert out of the gates, but home games against Central Michigan and Kent State should be walks in the park. Both finished last in their respective MAC divisions last fall.

 

13. Illinois

Aug. 31 vs. Akron

Sept. 7 at UConn

Sept. 14 vs. Eastern Michigan

 

If Illinois is going to make a bowl game, it has to take advantage of a favorable non-conference schedule. A home game against Akron and a road game at UConn may be the two most likely wins on the slate for the Illini, but a possible 3-0 start is not at all impossible.

 

14. Indiana

Aug. 31 vs. Ball State (Indianapolis)

Sept. 7 vs. Eastern Illinois

Sept. 21 vs. UConn

 

No team in the Big Ten faces a less intimidating non-conference schedule than the Hoosiers. No power conference opponent. No team with a winning record last year, including the FCS opponent (Eastern Illinois). The biggest challenge will be the placement of Ohio State in a Week 3 Big Ten contest in the middle of the non-conference slate.

 

— 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.

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