Big Ten: Toughest schedules
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten has taken plenty of heat for its soft nonconference scheduling, and several teams on this list aren't helping. But other squads are stepping into the fire in the coming weeks, and their performances could loom large come bowl time.
Here's a look at Big Ten schedules, from toughest to easiest.
1. Purdue -- Getting to a bowl in Joe Tiller's final season won't be easy for the Boilers. After a tune-up against Northern Colorado, they host Pac-10 power Oregon before visiting an improved Notre Dame team. Back-to-back MAC champ Central Michigan is also on the slate, and Purdue has trips to Columbus and East Lansing.
2. Ohio State -- A return to the national title game hinges on stellar play away from Ohio Stadium. The nonconference slate is manageable outside of the USC game, but a visit to the Trojans counts extra for degree of difficulty. Ohio State also must travel to Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State.
3. Michigan State -- The Spartans can back up their preseason hype right away with a road win against California. They also host rival Notre Dame, which has won its last three games at Spartan Stadium. Sun Belt champion Florida Atlantic also visits Michigan State, which doesn't get a bye until Nov. 15.
4. Michigan -- Rich Rodriguez makes his Michigan debut against an experienced Utah squad expected to hover around the Top 25 all season. The Wolverines also must visit Notre Dame, a team they've embarrassed the last two seasons. Things get no easier in Big Ten play, as Michigan opens with Wisconsin, followed by Illinois, Penn State and Michigan State.
5. Illinois -- The annual opener against Missouri should always keep Illinois among the leaders in scheduling difficulty. The rest of the nonconference portion looks easy, but the Illini must travel to Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin before hosting Ohio State in a showcase game Nov. 15.
6. Wisconsin -- Ohio State makes the toughest nonconferene road trip among Big Ten teams, but Wisconsin's journey to Fresno State isn't far behind. With a new starting quarterback (Allan Evridge) and some health questions, the Badgers could be in trouble against a veteran Fresno State team that loves to knock off BCS foes. Wisconsin also faces trips to the Michigan schools but will host league title contenders Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State.
7. Penn State -- A home game against Oregon State is the only notable contest on the nonconference slate, but Penn State should be tested in league play. The Nittany Lions open with Illinois and face a brutal three-game stretch in October that features trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State and a home game with Michigan, which has beaten Penn State nine straight times.
8. Minnesota -- A road trip to Bowling Green and a home game against Florida Atlantic highlight the nonconference schedule, which is typically manageable but not as soft as ones from the past. The Gophers' Big Ten road itinerary is brutal, with trips to Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue.
9. Iowa -- The nonconference portion is tougher than Minnesota's, with a road trip to Pitt, a preseason Top 25 team, and the annual meeting with Iowa State. But Iowa can do some damage in the Big Ten slate, which doesn't include Ohio State or Michigan. The Hawkeyes have home opportunities to knock off Wisconsin and Penn State.
10. Northwestern -- The Wildcats' annual nonconference stumbles have kept them out of bowl games in 2004 and 2007, but they enter another manageable stretch with the chance to go 4-0. Northwestern misses Wisconsin and Penn State on the league slate, and all of the first nine games are winnable before a tough closing stretch.
11. Indiana -- After snapping a 14-year bowl drought last fall, Indiana should have no trouble getting back to the postseason. The Hoosiers play eight home games, which includes all four nonconference contests. Central Michigan and Ball State won't be easy, but Indiana should survive and capitalize on a Big Ten schedule that doesn't feature Ohio State or Michigan.