To some, non-conference schedules don’t mean much. To others, it means a lot. The others being referred to tend to have to rely on pivotal out of conference games to boost their resume versus those that play in tougher conferences.
This just adds fuel to the Big Ten vs. SEC debate, year in and year out. Last year, Michigan’s non-conference schedule stood out above the rest by playing the national champion (Alabama) and the runner-up (Notre Dame). Not one stands out as much this year.
Below is each Big Ten school’s 2013 non-conference slate, counting down from the weakest to the toughest in the league.
12. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota went undefeated last year out of conference, and it looks like they’re trying to keep that streak up this year with the weak slate they have put together. When your toughest game is possibly San Jose State, you know you’re in good shape. Adding D-1 FCS foe Western Illinois to the schedule doesn’t help matters much. Three less than stellar FBS teams topped off with an FCS cupcake is why Minnesota has the weakest out of conference schedule in the league.
11. Iowa Hawkeyes
The big game for Iowa every year is Iowa State, that’s no secret. It’s also usually the best non-conference game on the Hawkeyes’ schedule. The Hawkeyes lost that contest last year, 9-6, and also lost to Central Michigan. While Central Michigan isn’t the same animal as Western Michigan, they’re still no cupcake. Decent middle-tier opponents give this schedule merit, as we remember NIU’s march to the Orange Bowl last year. There’s no Goliath on this schedule, but there’s no one to overlook either.
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers
This schedule holds some merit because of the appearance of UCLA again. In the Rose Bowl last year, the Cornhuskers lost a thriller, and they didn’t exactly blow out Southern Miss in Lincoln either. Wyoming isn’t a great program, but they aren’t as bad as New Mexico State. South Dakota State’s appearance is warranted because of two decent games, but another FCS foe should be an easy win for the Cornhuskers who continue their trend of playing at least one current FCS opponent since 2010.
9. Indiana Hoosiers
This schedule might not look intimidating to many, but even though Indiana continues to get better it’s no cake walk. Besides the obvious visit from Missouri, Navy beat the Hoosiers last year 31-30. That’s not the only red flag though. Indiana State also only lost by seven in Bloomington. Look for the Sycamores and also the Falcons from Bowling Green to give this team fits.
8. Wisconsin Badgers
BYU is always a solid team and UMass is a new addition to the FBS which all adds up to a couple of okay contests. The big one here, however, is the visit to Tempe to face the Sun Devils. Tennessee Tech weakens this slate a lot or it would be a lot higher on this list. While one big game is great, it’s not enough to bring too much panic into Madison.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State’s big resume game this schedule is playing on the road against the California Golden Bears. Without the “on the road” part, this schedule could easily have dropped a spot or two on this list. It’s the first tough road game we’ve seen on this list and has a lot of weight when putting this list together. Buffalo and San Diego State should be two easy wins for the Buckeyes followed by a tune up against Florida A&M before conference play starts. This schedule should help Ohio State have a shot at another undefeated season.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State and Ohio State could have easily swapped spots on this list, but I think the Nittany Lions schedule is just a tad tougher, cumulatively. Penn State is only one of two B1G schools to not have a FCS opponent on their schedule. The visit to East Rutherford for the neutral site game is a test, but is followed up by the easiest game on the slate with a visit from Eastern Michigan. The combo of UCF and Kent State (who was one quarter away from the Orange Bowl last year) edges out OSU’s San Diego State and Buffalo tandem, but just barely.
5. Michigan State Spartans
Notre Dame is a staple of the Spartans schedule, and they get credit for that. USF is also no slouch and can easily upset a big program like Michigan State if the Spartans aren’t ready. The only reason the Spartans schedule isn’t listed higher is the inclusion of FCS opponent Youngstown State. The Penguins also visited East Lansing in 2011. First of all, no football team should be referred to as the Penguins. Second of all, USF and the Fighting Irish aren’t quite enough by themselves to put the “wow” label on this slate.
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois is playing, maybe, the highest profile game in the league when Washington comes to Chicago to take on the Illini. The neutral field (if you can call it that) always adds a bit of uncertainty. As always, Cincinnati is no cup cake and they have Munchie Legaux at the helm. Once again, FCS opponent Southern Illinois weakens the slate, but hopefully college football fans don’t have to deal with that too much longer. Barry Alvarez gave us a sneak peak of the future regarding FCS schools and their relationship with the Big Ten.
3. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan slid up on this list not because of who they scheduled, but rather who they didn’t schedule: an FCS school. Notre Dame once again makes it’s normal appearance. Central Michigan is a pretty solid program and the Big Ten knows that. Connecticut should be a victory, but facing them on the road adds a little bit of difficulty. Ultimately, an overall decent slate holds more merit than a good slate with an FCS school.
2. Northwestern Wildcats
Northwestern checks in at number two. Another Big Ten team visits California, and yet another team puts together a solid non-conference schedule. Maine being the lone weak spot, Northwestern could come out of this four game stretch with just one loss and be very, very satisfied. Syracuse is a trap game, especially if the Wildcats are high off of emotion after returning from California.
1. Purdue Boilermakers
I never thought Purdue would end up at the top of this list, but here they are. Purdue put together a solid set of games here, but that could spell trouble for the Boilermakers if they aren’t prepared for each one. While each game is very winnable if Purdue plays well, they are also not easy at all.
Cincinnati, Munchie Legaux, and company should give the defense fits on the road and, of course, Everett Golson and 2012 national runner-up Notre Dame will be a huge test. Once again Northern Illinois makes an appearance on a Big Ten schedule looking to make a splash after the Orange Bowl. As Purdue will learn, stopping Jordan Lynch and the Huskies’ offense is no fun at all. If Purdue can run the table in the non-conference, they will have tons of momentum headed into the meat of their conference schedule.
Clayton Tinkle is a contributor to FBSchedules.com. Follow him on Twitter @Tink_CFB.