Taking a look at Big Ten league schedules

October, 28, 2011
10/28/11
2:03
PM ET
Ohio State was tabbed as the consensus Big Ten favorite on media day Thursday in Chicago -- and the conference certainly plans to reward the Buckeyes early on in league play.

Examine the conference schedules of the contenders and it's clear that, barring early missteps or injuries, the Bucks should get out to a solid start early on and get out to a comfortable league lead.

Let's examine six of the more interesting schedules in the Big Ten this season:

The favorite

Ohio State

First eight: Northwestern, at Indiana, Nebraska, at Iowa, at Illinois, Indiana, at Nebraska, Penn State
The Buckeyes don't play a ranked team until Michigan on Jan. 29. They should be 8-0 heading into that game.

The middle six: Michigan, at Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Michigan
Clearly there are speed bumps here with the UW road game and plenty of danger spots along the way.

The final four: Illinois, Wisconsin, at Northwestern, at Michigan State
Ohio State has struggled in the past at Northwestern. This could be a dicey finish to the season if these last two games matter. Wisconsin will get its last shot in Columbus, but will it be too late for the Badgers? The Buckeyes also will be in tournament form by the time they get to this stage.

The contenders

Wisconsin

First eight: at Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, at Michigan, at Purdue, Nebraska, Northwestern, at Illinois
There are four road games in here, and none will be easy. The Badgers might have a hard time keeping pace with Ohio State early in the conference race. Nebraska will be up for its first Big Ten home game. Winning at Michigan, Purdue and Illinois will be quite a chore for this team. The Badgers run the risk of being two to three games behind Ohio State.

The middle six: Indiana, at Penn State, Ohio State, at Minnesota, at Michigan State, Penn State
Wisconsin doesn't get much of a break here, either. The Badgers will be looking at a three-game grouping of OSU, at Minnesota and at Michigan State. Keeping pace with OSU in the middle of the conference will be exceedingly difficult.

The final four: at Iowa, at Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois
The Badgers might have to concede the Big Ten title by the time it gets to the road game at Ohio State -- unless the Buckeyes have slipped up. The final two games should give the Badgers the momentum needed to be strong going into the Big Ten tournament.

Michigan State

The first eight: Indiana, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin, Iowa, at Northwestern, at Michigan, Purdue, Minnesota
The Spartans will have to play four of the first six on the road. Michigan State will be road tested by this time with the games against North Carolina in San Diego, versus Duke in New York and at Gonzaga. Still, the environments will be tough. MSU will have to weather this to stay in the race early.

The middle six: at Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, at Ohio State, Wisconsin, at Purdue
Once again, the Spartans have a consistent schedule in which no grouping is free of potholes. They will have to steal a road game in this group to stay in the race.

The final four: at Minnesota, Nebraska, at Indiana, Ohio State
If the Spartans are still in the race, hosting OSU to end the season is a coup. It could also dramatically help MSU's seed potential in the NCAAs. The most dangerous game, though, could end up being at Minnesota. That could turn out to be a pivotal game for both schools.

Michigan

The first eight: Penn State, Minnesota, at Indiana, Wisconsin, Northwestern, at Iowa, Michigan State, at Purdue
The Wolverines could get off to a contending start with this opening. Don't be surprised to see Michigan, instead of the Badgers, on Ohio State's heels early in the conference season based on this schedule.

The middle six: at Ohio State, Indiana, at Michigan State, at Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio State
This is where we'll know whether Michigan is a pretender or contender. The Wolverines get two shots at Ohio State in this group, go to Michigan State and face a possible danger game at Nebraska.

The final four: at Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois, at Penn State
Michigan could be in the chase and might need another road win here or could be positioning itself well for seeding in the Big Ten tournament.

No favors for the rebuilder

Iowa

The first eight: Purdue, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Ohio State, at Michigan State, Michigan, at Purdue, Nebraska
The Hawkeyes are expected to be improved this season, but the record in the Big Ten might not look that way early with road games at Wisconsin, Minnesota and MSU, plus Ohio State in Iowa City, in the first five games.

The middle six: at Indiana, Minnesota, Penn State, at Northwestern, at Penn State, Indiana
If it still has confidence, Iowa has a chance to pick up a significant number of wins here.

The final four: Wisconsin, at Illinois, at Nebraska, Northwestern
The Hawkeyes are a legit spoiler in this scenario and could have a strong finishing kick to be trouble in the Big Ten tournament.

Can the Cats finally do it?

Northwestern

The first eight: at Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Purdue
Northwestern hasn't had great starts in the Big Ten. This won't be an easy chore with road games at OSU, Michigan and Wisconsin. But that does mean getting three of the toughest out of the way early.

The middle six: Nebraska, at Illinois, Iowa, at Purdue, at Indiana, Minnesota
This is where the Wildcats have to make up ground and mount a bid campaign. Stumble here and the bid-less streak could continue.

The final four: Michigan, at Penn State, Ohio State, at Iowa
The Wildcats have an intriguing finish. OSU will be a struggle, of course, but Northwestern does have a schedule that provides a strong opportunity to impress the committee. The key will be weathering that rough start.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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