Big Ten: Juron Criner

The Big Ten takes a little longer than most leagues to release its full football schedule, but for the most part, we know which teams will be playing and when. Nonconference scheduling has been a sore subject in the league for quite some time, but things are gradually improving and should be better in future seasons.

Which teams are truly stepping out on a limb this fall?

Here's a look at the five most challenging nonconference games involving Big Ten teams.

1. Penn State at Alabama, Sept. 11: When you face the defending national champs in their house early in the season, you've got a good chance of being at the top of this list. A young quarterback will lead Penn State into Tuscaloosa to face Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones and the Crimson Tide. Penn State will need to control the clock with Evan Royster and the run game and get a huge performance from its defense to keep pace with Bama.

2. USC at Minnesota, Sept. 18: USC went through a coaching transition and comes off its worst season since 2001. Minnesota also gets the Trojans in its home stadium. But USC will be better on defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, and Matt Barkley also should make strides in his second season. There's so much talent on the Trojans roster, and Minnesota will be tested in every aspect of the game.

3. Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11: There will be a ton of buzz around this matchup, and I probably would have ranked it higher before watching Miami crumble against Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl. Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes still have something to prove on the national stage, and they'll get a chance against a ferocious Buckeyes defense led by Cameron Heyward. Miami's speed and athleticism will test the Buckeyes, and the matchup between Harris and Terrelle Pryor will be a lot of fun.

4. Iowa at Arizona, Sept. 18: The Hawkeyes passed all but one of their road tests in 2009, and they'll be challenged with an early trip to the desert. Arizona brings back a lot of offensive firepower, including quarterback Nick Foles, running back Nic Grigsby and wide receiver Juron Criner. The Wildcats lost only one home game in 2008, a double-overtime heartbreaker against Pac-10 champion Oregon. Iowa will need to be sound on defense and limit mistakes on offense.

5. Purdue at Notre Dame, Sept. 4: It was close between Purdue-ND and Illinois-Missouri for the fifth spot, but Notre Dame seems to always win games like this one. Since Frank Leahy became Notre Dame coach in 1941, only one Fighting Irish head man has lost his first game on the job (Lou Holtz endured a 1-point defeat to No. 3 Michigan in 1986). Both teams will have new starting quarterbacks and questions on defense, but it will be tough to know what to expect from innovative play-caller Brian Kelly in Week 1.

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