- Brian Bennett, College Football
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Now that spring practice is over in the Big Ten, we can start seriously looking forward to fall.
And when trying to determine a team's outlook, there's always one logical place to start: the schedule. Sometimes, we make too much out of a supposedly easy or an apparently demanding slate. Remember Iowa's dream schedule last year? Yeah ... Or how about Rutgers' incredibly brutal conference road? The Scarlet Knights still won eight games.
Yet it's also true that not all schedules are created equally. That's why we're ranking the difficulty of the schedules for both divisions this week, starting today with the East and hitting the West on Thursday morning. We're taking into account three factors: Nonconference schedules, Big Ten crossover games and intradivision road games.
Here's the ranking, from most to least advantageous:
1. Penn State
Noncon: at Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State, Army
Crossovers: Illinois, at Northwestern
Division roadies: at Ohio State, at Maryland, at Michigan State
The Nittany Lions have the potential to get to nine or 10 wins with this schedule, which offers very few obstacles in the nonconference season. The crossover games should be competitive but nothing too demanding; Penn State could have as many fans at Ryan Field as the Wildcats in its only crossover road game. Going to Ohio State and Michigan State is a major challenge, but there's so much else to like on this schedule.
Noncon: Southern Illinois, FIU, Western Kentucky, at Wake Forest
Crossovers: Iowa, at Purdue
Division roadies: at Penn State, at Michigan State, at Maryland
The Hoosiers wisely eased up on the nonconference slate after playing Missouri and Navy in the past couple of years (though watch out for an experienced Western Kentucky team pulling off an upset in Bloomington). The protected crossover with Purdue is one of Indiana's few guaranteed advantages, and playing Iowa at home is not a bad matchup. IU also gets Ohio State and Michigan at home, though it's not like it will have a huge homefield advantage there. Still, this schedule is light enough for the Hoosiers to make that elusive bowl game if all goes well.
3. Ohio State
Noncon: at Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan
Crossovers: Minnesota, at Illinois
Division road games: at Indiana, at Rutgers, at Michigan
The Buckeyes are smartly once again playing a nonconference schedule that's tough enough to avoid criticism but is mostly accident-proof. With Michigan State and Penn State at the Horseshoe and a crossover against a team it has dominated under Urban Meyer (Illinois), this schedule looks built perfectly for another playoff run. The only thing keeping it from the top two spots is a tougher crossover (Minnesota) than either Penn State or Indiana will face.
Noncon: at Utah, Oregon State, UNLV, BYU
Crossovers: Northwestern, at Minnesota
Division roadies: at Maryland, at Indiana, at Penn State
The nonconference schedule is full of potential potholes, as everybody but UNLV is at the very least capable of hanging with the Wolverines. But the two crossovers are navigable; yes, the Gophers thumped Michigan last year, but the Gophers' home atmosphere won't intimidate the Maize and Blue. The Wolverines also get Michigan State and Ohio State at home, which is huge.
Noncon: Norfolk State, Washington State, Kansas, at Army
Crossovers: at Wisconsin, Nebraska
Division roadies: at Penn State, at Indiana, at Michigan
Still no letup in the crossover games for the Scarlet Knights, who have once again drawn what looks like the toughest possible road versus the West. But look a little closer, and this schedule is not too daunting. The nonconference is set up for four wins. Ohio State and Michigan State have to come to Piscataway. Rutgers beat Michigan and took Penn State to the wire last year so the team should not be too flummoxed on the road against them.
Non-con: Richmond, Bowling Green, USF, at West Virginia
Crossovers: at Iowa, Wisconsin
Division roadies: at Ohio State, at Michigan State, at Rutgers
The good news is that the Terps won't have to leave the mid-Atlantic region in the first four weeks. But playing in Morgantown is no cupcake. Wisconsin proved a horrible matchup last year for Maryland, which now is replacing most of its defensive line. And going to both Columbus and East Lansing is as hard as it gets in the East.
7. Michigan State
Non-con: at Western Michigan, Oregon, Air Force, Central Michigan
Crossovers: Purdue, at Nebraska
Division roadies: at Rutgers, at Michigan, at Ohio State
The Spartans' degree of difficulty is much higher than Ohio State's, because they have to go to Nebraska as a crossover and play in the Horseshoe. Michigan might finally be ready to end the streak with Jim Harbaugh in charge and the game in the Big House. And, of course, the Oregon game alone has no peer among East teams' out-of-league contests. The good news: Michigan State's schedule had most of the same challenges last year, and the team still finished in the top 5.
Penn State has the most advantageous schedule in the East Division, with the potential to get to nine or 10 wins.