- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is not a ranking of the Big Ten's nonconference schedules. Repeat: This is NOT a ranking.
But certain national rankings like this are out, and it got me thinking how tough it will be to accurately evaluate the Big Ten's nonleague slates for 2014. It comes down to this: What should get more weight, a schedule with no cupcakes but no headliner or one with a truly marquee opponent and the rest snoozers?
My friend Bruce Feldman rates the nonleague schedules based on a system that awards points for the quality of nonleague opponents. Two Big Ten teams make his national top 10, and both fall under the limited cupcakes/no headliner label. Ohio State and Northwestern are tied for seventh with a total of three points. The Buckeyes face Virginia Tech (home), Cincinnati (home), Navy (neutral) and Kent State (home) this season, while Northwestern takes on Notre Dame (road), Northern Illinois (home), Cal (home) and Western Illinois (home).
Both schedules are certainly respectable, but is either a true challenge? A lot depends on whether Virginia Tech restores its place among the ACC's elite and Notre Dame surges following the return of quarterback Everett Golson. Cincinnati and Navy should be solid foes, and Northern Illinois has won 12, 12 and 11 games the past three seasons. But the Huskies are beginning life without star quarterback Jordan Lynch, as well as safety Jimmie Ward, a first-round draft pick. Cal won't go 1-11 again, but the Bears have a lot of problems and must play Northwestern on the road.
Clemson, tied with both Ohio State and Northwestern for seventh place, faces both Georgia and South Carolina in nonleague play. That seems like a much tougher schedule, even though the Tigers face Georgia State and South Carolina State in their other two contests.
There's no team on Ohio State's or Northwestern's nonleague slate that rivals Oregon, which Michigan State visits in Week 2. The LSU team that Wisconsin opens the season against in Houston also is projected higher than anyone either Ohio State or Northwestern faces. Those two games -- Michigan State-Oregon and Wisconsin-LSU -- have more bearing on Big Ten perception and potential playoff positioning than any others.
The problem is Michigan State's remaining nonleague schedule: Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming. I just threw up in my mouth.
Wisconsin's remaining slate isn't much better: Western Illinois, Bowling Green and South Florida. I like Bowling Green's trajectory and its new coach, Dino Babers. It could be a tricky game, but Wisconsin will be heavily favored in all three contests.
So which type of slate is tougher: one with a single significant challenge or one with only one true breather? Better yet, which would you like to see in the future as nonconference scheduling gets even trickier?