The Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, meaning fewer non-conference battles to evaluate from the 14-team conference. Even though the number of non-conference tilts has been reduced, there are still some good quality matchups to put some of the Big Ten’s programs to the test.
Related: Big Ten Football 2016 Predictions
If the College Football Playoff selection committee is going to continue to give some bonus points for playing a challenging schedule, then potential Big Ten Playoff contenders could be in good shape with the schedules in front of them this season. Pay particular attention to Sept. 17 when Big Ten teams take on the defending Big 12 champion as well as Notre Dame on the road, while one Big Ten division champion from a season ago takes on a mighty FCS powerhouse nobody should overlook.
The Big Ten will collectively have an opportunity to prove the conference may not be as down this year as some expect with contests against the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and even the SEC all in games that will take place away from a Big Ten campus. The bar has been raised, but can the Big Ten clear it in 2016?
Here are the top 10 non-conference games on the Big Ten schedule this season, along with a few other matchups to keep an eye on.
1. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17)
This is quite possibly the biggest game of the season for the Big Ten (and perhaps the Big 12). J.T. Barrett will look to keep Ohio State’s offense chugging along as it fills some key holes in what amounts to a mid-September Heisman Trophy contender showdown with Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. The winning quarterback puts himself in firm position in the Heisman conversation, but more importantly, the winner of this game could eventually help determine if the Big Ten or Big 12 gets a spot in this season’s College Football Playoff.
2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Lambeau Field, Sept. 3)
The game most people are looking forward to will be the second regular season neutral field matchup between Wisconsin and LSU. With the game taking place at historic Lambeau Field, the festive scene for the opening of the new season will be plenty of fun. Can Wisconsin hold off Leonard Fournette and the Tigers in the opener, unlike when the last time these two met in Houston two seasons ago? If the Badgers can, Wisconsin will score a nice victory for the Big Ten against the SEC out of the gate.
3. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Sept. 17)
The Spartans and Fighting Irish always make for an entertaining and competitive game, and this season should be no exception. A new-look Michigan State squad will have to be in full swing on the road in South Bend, Ind., as the Irish will try to spread things open offensively. Could we see any crazy plays this time? You just never know.
4. Oregon at Nebraska (Sept. 17)
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley is quite familiar with his mid-September opponent from the Pac-12. The former Oregon State head coach goes back to work against the Ducks, which are coming off a relatively disappointing season in 2015 and facing some questions heading into this fall. Oregon and Nebraska may have had rough seasons a year ago, but Nebraska will be put to the test of slowing down what should be a difficult offense.
5. Penn State at Pittsburgh (Sept. 10)
The in-state rivalry between Penn State and Pitt is finally renewed for the first time in 16 years, and it should be well worth the wait. The running back showdown between Saquon Barkley and Pitt’s James Conner is well worth watching as bragging rights are up for grabs. The importance of this game for Penn State is mighty, especially considering the Nittany Lions lost on the road in Pennsylvania last year at Temple. To do so again would be a tough blow to James Franklin’s “Dominate the State” mantra.
6. North Carolina at Illinois (Sept. 10)
With a new head coach, the reason for optimism is rising at Illinois. In Week 2 the Illini take on defending ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina, and this will be no easy task. The Tar Heels ambushed a disoriented Illinois squad last year at Chapel Hill, 48-14. Smith may be a good defensive coach, but that is a big gap to close.
7. Rutgers at Washington (Sept. 3)
Coming off a wildly entertaining home-and-home series with Washington State, Rutgers shifts to the other Apple Cup opponent with a road game at Washington this season. The Huskies are a program on the rise in the Pac-12 and some feel Chris Petersen’s team could push Stanford for the North Division crown. New Rutgers head coach Chris Ash is taking over a rebuilding project and may not have his team ready to take down Washington on the west coast just yet, but if he did it would be a great victory for the Big Ten.
8. Duke at Northwestern (Sept. 17)
The Academic Bowl between Northwestern and the ACC’s Duke is part of a key slate in mid-September. Northwestern’s stingy defense will hope to slow down Duke’s sometimes big-play offense as the Wildcats go for a third straight win in the series against the Blue Devils.
9. North Dakota State at Iowa (Sept. 17)
FCS super-giant North Dakota State has a knack for taking down opponents from the FBS. The Bison have an impressive 8-3 record against teams from the next level up, and that includes a pair of victories against the Big Ten, both against Minnesota. A year after topping Iowa State, the Bison return to the state of Iowa to take on defending Big Ten West champion Iowa. The Bison may have lost quarterback Carson Wentz to the NFL, but not even Iowa’s defense should overlook what North Dakota State will be capable of doing.
10. Western Michigan at Northwestern (Sept. 3)
Northwestern opens the season against Western Michigan, the prohibitive preseason favorite in the MAC. That means the Wildcats will have to be on top of their game against what could be a dangerous team. Western Michigan will bring a dynamic and experienced offense to Evans Field that should challenge Northwestern’s defense.
Best of the Rest
Fresno State at Nebraska (Sept. 3)
Bowling Green at Ohio State (Sept. 3)
Colorado at Michigan (Sept. 17)
Temple at Penn State (Sept. 17)
Cincinnati at Purdue (Sept. 10)
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)