Rank it: Top B1G non-con schedules

Not all non-conference schedules are created equal, as you can see from my rankings, from 1-12, of the Big Ten non-league menus. Some are high calorie. Some are low-calorie. So, who has the toughest slate? And the easiest? Find out in this post. You can find all of my Big Ten football coverage here. Oh, and if you like rankings like this, you’ll want to check out this archive, where I’m ranking 2012 games, players and schedules.

Some notes:
FCS teams playing Big Ten teams: 10 (counting UMass, which is transitioning from FCS to FBS)
Fewest FCS teams played: Michigan State; Ohio State; Penn State with zero each
Most FCS teams played: Indiana with two
First game: Aug. 30, Minnesota at UNLV
Last game: Oct. 20 Indiana at Navy
Fewest home games: Indiana with two
Most home games: Ohio State and Iowa with four each

1. MICHIGAN
Alabama (at Arlington, Texas), Sept. 1
Air Force, Sept. 8
UMass, Sept. 15
At Notre Dame, Sept. 22

The skinny: Brutal, as a 2-2 start is a possibility. … Lots of heavy lifting, beginning with that game at Jerry Jones ginormous stadium in Arlington, Texas, against the defending national champion Crimson Tide. The last time Michigan opened vs. the defending national champ was 1989, when it played Notre Dame. … After dealing with Bama, the Wolverines come home to play an always-dangerous Air Force team and its always-confounding option offense. Is there enough time to prep? … UMass, which is transitioning from FCS to FBS, visits next. The Minutemen were 5-6 last year but have a good program. … Michigan has won three in a row and five of six vs. Notre Dame. But Brian Kelly may have his best team yet. Last year, Michigan claimed a 35-31 thriller over the Fighting Irish and won 28-24 at Notre Dame in 2010. The Wolverines have their bye week after the trip to South Bend, Ind., before embarking on the Big Ten menu at Purdue.

2. MICHIGAN STATE
Boise State, Aug. 31
At Central Michigan, Sept. 8
Notre Dame, Sept. 15
Eastern Michigan, Sept. 22

The skinny: Kinda tough, but the big boys come to East Lansing. … The opener vs. Boise State—now in the Mountain West–will be on a Friday night and have the nation’s attention. Chris Petersen’s teams always are prepared and have underrated talent, but the Broncos will be breaking in a new quarterback. So, this may be a good time to play the Broncos. The teams never have met. … Michigan State will play at Central Michigan for the first time. And the Chippewas are coached by former star Spartan quarterback Dan Enos. But he’s just 6-18 in two years in Mount Pleasant. … Notre Dame whipped Michigan State, 31-13, last year and has won two of the last three meetings, so the Spartans are thinking revenge. Notre Dame hasn’t won in East Lansing since 2006. … After the Eastern Michigan, coming off a 6-6 season, game, Michigan State opens Big Ten action with a visit from Ohio State.

3. NEBRASKA
Southern Miss, Sept. 1
At UCLA, Sept. 8
Arkansas State, Sept. 15
Idaho State, Sept. 22

The skinny: You don’t need to remind Husker fans about Southern Miss, which dumped Nebraska, 21-17, in Lincoln in 2004 and is coming off a 12-2 C-USA championship. But the Golden Eagles are working in a new coach in Ellis Johnson—the South Carolina defensive coordinator–and quarterback. … When Nebraska visits UCLA, it also will encounter a new coaching staff led by Jim Mora, Jr. The Bruins—6-8 in 2011 after playing in the Pac-12 title game and a bowl–and Huskers haven’t met since 1994, with Nebraska holding a 6-4 edge in the series. … Arkansas State will be the Cornhuskers’ third foe in a row with a new head coach, with former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn in control. And Nebraska needs to be on upset alert vs. a Red Wolves team that is led by dangerous quarterback Ryan Aplin. Arkansas State went 10-3 en route to winning the Sun Belt last season. … Idaho State figures to be little more than a speed bump, a FCS team from the Big Sky that went 2-9 last year. That’s good, because the Huskers open Big Ten play the next two weeks vs. Wisconsin and Ohio State.

4. PENN STATE
Ohio, Sept. 1
At Virginia, Sept. 8
Navy, Sept. 15
Temple, Sept. 22

The skinny: Danger abounds, as all four foes combined for 32 victories in 2011. … The opener vs. Ohio and coach Frank Solich is dangerous. The Bobcats have gone an aggregate 27-14 the past three seasons (19-5 in the MAC) and are coming off a MAC East title, bowl win and three bowl trips in a row. … A trip to Virginia also is problematic. Penn State has lost two of the last three meetings with the Cavs, who went 8-5 last season under Mike London. … Yes, Navy is coming of a 5-7 season, but the Midshipmen always are well coached by Ken Niumatalolo and a tough out with their confounding option offense. … Temple came this close to beating Penn State last season, falling 14-10 after the Nittany Lions scored the winning touchdown with 2:42 to play. The Owls will be the third bowl team Penn State will face in the non-conference.

5. ILLINOIS
Western Michigan, Sept. 1
At Arizona State, Sept. 8
Charleston Southern, Sept. 15
Louisiana Tech, Sept. 22

The skinny: This is tough, with three bowl teams. A 3-1 start would be darn good. … Western Michigan is coming off a bowl and always is one of the better MAC teams, thanks to the astute coaching of Bill Cubit. … Arizona State is a quality Pac-12 foe that lost at Illinois last year but has a new coach in Todd Graham. … Led by rising star coach Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech won the WAC in 2011. The Bulldogs can move the ball and score. … Charleston Southern is a FCS school—and an odd choice for an opponent. It went 0-11 last season playing in the Big South. … After the dangerous game vs. Louisiana Tech, the Fighting Illini start Big Ten action with a visit from Penn State.

6. INDIANA
Indiana State, Sept. 1
At UMass, Sept. 8
Ball State, Sept. 15
At Navy, Oct. 20

The skinny: The first three games are very winnable. And, honestly, it’s imperative the Hoosiers start 3-0. … The Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team that is playing just two home non-conference games. They also are the only school playing two FCS foes (Indiana State and UMass), but UMass is in the process of transition to FBS. The Sycamores were 6-5 in 2011 and are on the rise. The Minutemen were 5-6 last season. … Ball State beat Indiana, 27-20, last year in Lucas Oil Stadium. … The game at Navy won’t be played until October 20, a week after a visit from Ohio State and well after all the other Big Ten teams will have completed their non-conference schedules. … The Hoosiers have their bye week after the Ball State game and then start Big Ten play September 29 at Northwestern.

7. OHIO STATE
Miami (Ohio), Sept. 1
UCF, Sept. 8
Cal, Sept. 15
UAB, Sept. 22

The skinny: Very manageable. … Ohio State is one of two Big Ten plays that isn’t playing a road non-conference game. Iowa is the other. … In recent years, the Buckeyes played one marquee foe like Texas, USC or Miami (Fla.). Not this year. Cal visits from the Pac-12 coming off a 7-6 bowl season, but Jeff Tedford’s program is sliding. … Ohio State opens with Miami (Ohio), which was 4-8 in 2012 under first-year head coach Don Treadwell. … Let’s put the Buckeyes on upset alert when Central Florida visits. Yes, the Knights went 5-7 last season, but George O’Leary has a good team and strong defense that could pose a developing Ohio State offense some issues. … Like UCF, UAB is from Conference USA. The Blazers went 3-9 last season and have a new coach in Garrick McGee, the former Arkansas offensive coordinator. … Bottom line: The Buckeyes have a great chance to be 4-0 when it opens Big Ten play at Michigan State.

8. NORTHWESTERN
At Syracuse, Sept. 1
Vanderbilt, Sept. 8
Boston College, Sept. 15
South Dakota, Sept. 22

The skinny: Challenges abound, beginning with a trip to Syracuse, 5-7 last season. Still, a 4-0 mark is possible, as Northwestern plays one team that went to a bowl in 2011 (Vanderbilt). … The Wildcats played at Syracuse in 2009, falling 37-34. The Orange leads the series, 5-4, as Northwestern hasn’t won at Syracuse since 1940. … Vandy, 6-7 last year, comes to Evanston for the first time since 1952. The series is tied, 1-1, with the Wildcats winning, 23-21, in 2010. … NU won at Boston College, 24-17, last season; the Eagles return the visit coming off a 4-8 season. … South Dakota is a FCS team from the Great West Conference that went 6-5 last season. … After the South Dakota game, Northwestern opens Big Ten action vs. Indiana.

9. PURDUE
Eastern Kentucky, Sept. 1
At Notre Dame, Sept. 8
Eastern Michigan, Sept. 15
Marshall, Sept. 27

The skinny: There is a good chance to emerge 3-1, which would greatly augment the Boilers’ bowl hopes. Purdue hasn’t been to back-to-back bowls since 2006-07. … Danny Hope opens vs. his alma mater and the school he used to coach: FCS Eastern Kentucky of the Ohio Valley Conference, which went 7-5 in 2011. … Notre Dame has won four in a row and six of the last seven vs. Purdue, which hasn’t left South Bend with a smile since 2004. … Ron English has Eastern Michigan on the rise coming off a 6-6 mark. … Purdue has its bye week between the Eastern Michigan and Marshall games. Not ideal. … Marshall, which is 7-6 and coming off a bowl, will provide a nice test from Conference USA. Purdue jumps from playing Marshall to a rugged start to the Big Ten menu: Michigan; Wisconsin; at Ohio State.

10. IOWA
Northern Illinois (at Chicago), Sept. 1
Iowa State, Sept. 8
Northern Iowa, Sept. 15
Central Michigan, Sept. 22

The skinny: A 4-0 start is a strong possibility. No total gimmes with two bowl teams and a FCS power. … Iowa is one of two Big Ten plays that isn’t playing a road non-conference game. Ohio State is the other. … Northern Illinois is the defending MAC champion and has a roster filled with players who were overlooked by Big Ten teams. … Northern Iowa is a top-tier FCS program that lives to play its in-state FBS brethren. The Hawkeyes needed to block two Panther field-goal attempts in the closing seconds in 2009 to avoid embarrassment. … Kirk Ferentz is 6-7 vs. Iowa State, which dumped Iowa 44-41 in triple overtime last year en route to a bowl. Enough said. But Iowa has won the last four meetings in Iowa City. … Central Michigan is just 6-18 in two years under former Michigan State quarterback Dan Enos. … After the game with the Chippewas, Iowa opens Big Ten play with a visit from Minnesota, which has beaten the Hawkeyes the last two times they have met. But the Gophers haven’t won in Iowa City since 1999.

11. MINNESOTA
At UNLV, Aug. 30
New Hampshire, Sept. 8
Western Michigan, Sept. 15
Syracuse, Sept. 22

The skinny: Minnesota, which closed 2011 with a win over Illinois, could go 4-0. Really. … The Golden Gophers are the first Big Ten to play, opening on a Thursday night in Las Vegas. Bobby Hauck is making strides at UNLV, but the Rebels remain a work in progress. He is 4-21 in two years at Vegas. This will be like a bowl trip for Minnesota fans! … New Hampshire went 8-4 last season playing in the FCS Colonial Athletic Association. … Western Michigan is the only bowl team, as college football cognoscenti knows the Broncos are a strong program under Bill Cubit. … This will be the third meeting between Syracuse and the Gophers, with Minnesota holding a 2-1 edge. The Gophers topped the Orange, 23-20, in 2009 on the road. … After the visit from the Orange, 5-7 last year, the Gophers go to Iowa to open Big Ten play.

12. WISCONSIN
Northern Iowa, Sept. 1
At Oregon State, Sept. 8
Utah State, Sept. 15
UTEP, Sept. 22

The skinny: This is very manageable, as 4-0 start seems very possible. But, there are potential trapdoors. … Northern Iowa is a strong FCS program that went 10-3 last year in the Missouri Valley.  … Yes, Oregon State is coming off a 3-9 season and got clobbered, 35-0, in Madison last year, but the Beavers are well coached by Mike Riley. … Utah State was a bowl team last season and almost won at Auburn. Beware Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton. … UTEP, 5-7 in 2011, may be overmatched when it visits. … After the visit by the Miners, the Badgers open Big Ten action at Nebraska.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, and all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart. Send questions to his weekly mailbag, subscribe to his RSS feed, and check out his video Q&A.

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11 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (11 Comments)
aroznowski on 4/23/2012 @ 5:42pm EST Said:

This is exactly why Wisconsin is overrated and has been overrated over the last couple years or so. The Badgers play a bunch a cream puffs in nonconference play, which allows many of their flaws to go unexposed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Badgers have choked in two consecutive Rose Bowls.

Nate on 4/23/2012 @ 5:47pm EST Said:

IU at #6 has to be some sort of editing mistake. Unless you’re saying it’s tough because IU sucks.

Doug on 4/23/2012 @ 6:07pm EST Said:

After playing such a soft schedule last year, reality will set in for the Wolverines this year. MSU is traveling to CMU, say what you want, but you will never see other big name schools do something like that.

aroznowski on 4/23/2012 @ 6:17pm EST Said:

I have to give Michigan a slight edge over Michigan State when it comes to nonconference strength of schedule. Both teams play two great teams. However, Michigan plays those teams at a neutral site and on the road whereas the Spartans get those teams at home. By the way, watch out for Air Force. The Falcons have enough talent to give the Wolverines a run for their money.

Doug on 4/23/2012 @ 7:00pm EST Said:

yep, M’s schedule is tougher, they’ll get blown out by ‘Bama in Texas stadium and the media will still love them, whereas when MSU lost to ‘Bama in the cap one bowl (a bama team that was a play away from being in the national title game) the media was all against MSU

AF will scare M, UMASS will too, almost had them beat a couple years agao

Doug on 4/23/2012 @ 7:03pm EST Said:

actually, M plays only 2 non conference home games, playing ‘Bama in Texas, and ND in South Bend….both losses

Derpstradamus on 4/23/2012 @ 7:12pm EST Said:

Doug is clearly a little obsessed.

Regardless, Notre Dame returning it’s best team under Kelly? No. They lost their top offensive playmakers and return a defense that has gotten shredded by Robinson in consecutive years, and Toussaint didn’t even play against them last year.

Doug on 4/23/2012 @ 8:10pm EST Said:

Nope, all of Spartan nation is lying in the weeds..

Do agree now after thinking it over, would be shocked if ND finally beat Michigan

JBridge on 4/24/2012 @ 3:52pm EST Said:

Uh, Indiana at 6? Northwestern should flip with them…

Tom on 6/19/2012 @ 11:01pm EST Said:

Michigan’s schedule is far tougher than MSU’s. Boise will have a large drop off this year. EMU and CMU are almost nothing. Home games make a huge difference.

Meesch1122 on 8/14/2012 @ 3:35pm EST Said:

Who has the toughest schedule doesn’t matter off the field, unless it comes down to a bowl game at the end of the year when we can point to it, but Michigan does have the toughest by far. Comparing straight across against what seems to be the consensus #2 toughest schedule for MSU: Alabama is far superior than BSU. BSU lost their all time winning QB, starting RB, and are only returning 7 starters. Plus that game is at home, at night, and opening weekend. That should be a 2 touchdown win relatively easily even though Peterson is a great coach. ND would cancel out, but Michigan is on the road while MSU is at home. Air Force is a tougher opponent than CMU or EMU and even combined most likely. Since Lefeaver left CMU they have not been good and EMU has never been good. UMass is the weakest on the schedule are maybe comparable to Eastern a few years back. Not sure why it’s really a question when you lead off with Alabama, in Texas but I guess everything is up for discussion.