Ranking the Big Ten nonconference schedules
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Now it's time to get more specific and look at the nonconference schedules for each Big Ten team. The Big Ten has taken a lot of heat for softening its nonleague slates, though other BCS conferences, namely the SEC, are also guilty of the practice.
Here's how they stack up, from toughest to easiest.
1. ILLINOIS -- vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), Illinois State, at Cincinnati, Fresno State
It's not just the opponents that make the slate tough, but also unusual dates of the games. Illinois must finish with two tough nonleague foes in late November and early December, when a bowl berth likely will be on the line. The Illini have lost their last five games against Missouri in St. Louis.
2. PURDUE -- Toledo, at Oregon, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame
First-year head coach Danny Hope has his work cut out for him early on this fall. Oregon is the toughest nonconference road game for a Big Ten team this season, and Notre Dame has been pegged as a BCS bowl contender (jury's still out for me) and lit up the Boilermakers' defense last year in South Bend. Northern Illinois also could be a very tough game for Purdue.
3. MINNESOTA -- at Syracuse, Air Force, California, South Dakota State
Arguably no Big Ten team has a tougher opening stretch than the Gophers. Sure, Syracuse is down, but Doug Marrone's first game and the possible debut of Greg Paulus at quarterback should get the Carrier Dome cranked. Air Force and especially Cal provide major tests at the new TCF Bank stadium.
4. OHIO STATE -- Navy, USC, vs. Toledo (at Cleveland), New Mexico State
The USC factor simply can't be overlooked on what is otherwise a soft slate for the Buckeyes. Ohio State's matchup with USC once again serves as the league's premier nonconference matchup and a chance for the Buckeyes and the Big Ten to gain some redemption. Navy is never an easy game, especially in the opener.
5. IOWA -- Northern Iowa, at Iowa State, Arizona, Arkansas StateThe Hawkeyes are consistently solid in scheduling, and this slate shouldn't generate too many complaints. If you're going to play an FCS team, Northern Iowa is a darn good one. Mike Stoops returns to Iowa City with an Arizona team coming off of a bowl victory in 2008. Iowa shouldn't have much trouble going 4-0 -- rival Iowa State remains a disaster -- but the competition isn't terrible.
6. MICHIGAN STATE -- Montana State, Central Michigan, at Notre Dame, Western Michigan
The Spartans' slate isn't as challenging as it was last season, but a trip to what should be an improved Notre Dame team could be tough. Michigan State has won three straight against the Irish, who crumbled on offense last year in East Lansing. Two tough MAC opponents with talented quarterbacks (Western Michigan's Tim Hiller and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour) should test Michigan State's defense.
7. INDIANA -- Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan, at Akron, at Virginia
The Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team to play two true nonconference road games, which stands for something even though both Akron and Virginia have struggled recently. Western Michigan also provides a big test in Week 2 for a Hoosiers defense hoping to turn a corner behind Jammie Kirlew, Greg Middleton and Matt Mayberry.
8. MICHIGAN -- Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Delaware State
Michigan doesn't deserve to be ranked this high, but the Wolverines' schedule looks like a gauntlet compared to the sorry slates belonging to some other Big Ten teams. Western Michigan presents a sizable challenge in the opener, as Greg Robinson's defense faces off against Hiller. A transitioning Michigan offense might need to keep pace on the scoreboard. Notre Dame also will test the Wolverines with its high-powered passing attack.
9. WISCONSIN -- Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Wofford, at Hawaii
Soft scheduling has been a hot topic in Badger Nation, and this year's rundown won't do much to quench the fire. Northern Illinois and Fresno State are decent teams, but the lack of a BCS opponent drags down the quality of the schedule. Hawaii has been tough to beat at home in recent years, and Wisconsin could be fighting for bowl position when it heads to Oahu.
10. NORTHWESTERN -- Towson, Eastern Michigan, at Syracuse, Miami (Ohio)
Northwestern is trying to make bowl games on a more consistent basis, and another visit to Cupcake City should help. All four of these teams have new head coaches, and the lone "test," a trip to Syracuse, certainly isn't what it used to be. The watered-down slate certainly won't remedy Northwestern's attendance problems, and the school should (and will) take a more aggressive approach to scheduling in the future.
11. PENN STATE -- Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Eastern Illinois
This is the hard truth for Penn State: A desire to fill Beaver Stadium eight times could very well keep the Nittany Lions out of the national title game. We won't get a true read on Penn State until Iowa visits Happy Valley on Sept. 26, and anything less than an undefeated season will prevent the Lions from reaching the BCS championship in Pasadena. Sure, Penn State had no idea Syracuse would be this bad, but the absence of a road game against a decent opponent could really hurt the national profile of the team and its individual stars this fall.