Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
If you check out the college football front page, you'll notice a bar graph displaying schedule strength around the country. The Big Ten, needless to say, doesn't pack much punch in its nonconference slate for 2009.
Colleague Mark Schlabach examined the easiest and most challenging nonconference schedules from around the country, and the Big Ten comes in at No. 1 on his list of cupcake collectors.
1. The little five
Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin hail from the Big Ten, but you wouldn't know it by glancing at their nonconference schedules. Combined, they play five FCS opponents, five smaller directional schools and only three opponents from BCS conferences (and that includes Syracuse twice). The five schools combined play only four non-Big Ten road games, and Michigan and Penn State don't play a single nonconference game away from home. Indiana plays at Akron and Virginia. Northwestern plays at Syracuse. Wisconsin plays at Hawaii. No wonder Penn State coach Joe Paterno didn't want Notre Dame in the Big Ten. Why would he want to give up playing Akron, Syracuse, Temple and FCS opponent Eastern Illinois at home?
A lot of the criticism is justified, and it never helps when big-name programs like Penn State and Michigan schedule the way they have for 2009. Big Ten teams have been increasingly reluctant to give up home games and increasingly willing to add FCS opponents (Purdue and Ohio State are the only league members not facing FCS foes this fall). And as the league continues to get rich, its members will continue to pay large guarantees for these games.
But as I've stated before, I don't think the Big Ten is immune from these practices, and the conference seems to take more abuse than other leagues that do the same thing (ahem, SEC and Big 12). It's also worth restating several factors that have contributed to the decline of Big Ten scheduling:
Notre Dame is no longer guaranteed to be a marquee opponent, which can hurt Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and any other Big Ten team that faces the Irish.
While other BCS leagues are located closer to the better non-BCS leagues (Pac-10 and WAC, Big 12 and Mountain West), the Big Ten continues scheduling games against the MAC, which has fallen off a lot since its breakthrough season in 2003. Nonleague games against the likes of BYU, Utah, Boise State and even East Carolina are seen as more challenging than those against even a top-level MAC program like Central Michigan.
Several rivalries that Big Ten teams schedule with other BCS foes have really lost some luster. Iowa State isn't considered a marquee opponent for Iowa. Neither is Syracuse for Penn State.
For what it's worth, one Big Ten team made Schlabach's list of hardest schedules:
9. Illinois Fighting Illini
Unlike most of their Big Ten brethren, the Illini are actually playing a very aggressive nonconference schedule this season. Illinois opens the season against Missouri in St. Louis on Sept. 5. After playing FCS opponent Illinois State on Sept. 12, Illinois plays eight consecutive Big Ten opponents. Then the Illini finish the regular season with non-Big Ten games at Cincinnati on Nov. 27 and home against Fresno State on Dec. 5. Scheduling nonconference games so late is a risk, but the Illini might help their bowl chances by winning one or both contests.