Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, August 2, 2016
There is no better way for a team to test itself than by playing a tough non-conference foe in September. There are some interesting clashes between Big Ten squads and quality Power Five foes in 2016, but opportunities to play big-time opponents are limited this season as Big Ten teams are playing just three non-conference games with nine Big Ten tilts on the docket.
Here is my pick for each team?s toughest non-league opponent.
Illinois. North Carolina?s visit on Sept. 10 will be a great test. Last year, the Illini waded into Kenan Stadium and got thumped, 48-14. That was a very good UNC squad that finished 11-3 and won the ACC Coastal Division. This will be a good litmus test for Illinois? new regime. Can the Illini compete with an established non-league foe and avoid a blowout?
Indiana. None of the three non-league games is daunting, but the visit from Wake Forest on Sept. 24 could be a pot hole. In 2015, the Hoosiers won 31-24 in Winston-Salem to start 4-0 for the first time since 1990, so the Demon Deacons will be looking for revenge. This is a well-coached under Dave Clawson, who went 3-9 in 2015 and is building a solid program.
Iowa. The battle for the Cy-Hawk trophy always is a humdinger. But let?s go with the next game as the toughest, a visit on Sept. 17 from FCS power North Dakota State. The Bison are better than most FBS squads, winning the last five FCS national championships. North Dakota State has toppled the likes of Kansas State, Minnesota, Iowa State and Kansas in recent years. Yes, QB Carson Wentz-the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft–is gone. Still, the Bison will be a tough out. You have been warned, Herky.
Maryland. Absolutely no bite to this non-con menu. In fact, this is one of the most bizarre non-league schedules in the Big Ten, as the Terps play road games at Florida International and at Central Florida-non-Power Five schools–after opening at home with FCS Howard. The game on Sept. 17 at Central Florida will be the toughest. Yes, UCF went 0-12 last season. Still, the Knights have a solid program with plenty of talent under first-year coach Scott Frost, the ex-Oregon offensive coordinator and Nebraska star quarterback who takes over for George O?Leary.
Michigan. There is no deadly or truly challenging non-conference game. So, let?s go with the visit from Colorado on Sept. 17, as the Buffaloes are the lone Power Five school on the non-league slate. But, this isn?t Bill McCartney?s CU, as the Buffs have been a floundering program for years, not going to a bowl since 2007 when Dan Hawkins was coach. Current boss Mike MacIntyre is 10-27 in three seasons. The Buffs? Hail Mary 27-26 win in Ann Arbor in 1994 will forever be remembered by Michigan fans. CU last visited in 1997, falling 27-3 with Rick Neuheisel as coach.
Michigan State. The game at Notre Dame on Sept. 17 will be an epic barometer for a Spartan program that is breaking in a new quarterback with retooled lines on both sides of the ball. ND and MSU have a storied rivalry, playing 77 times. But the series was put on hold the last two seasons after the programs had met every year since 1997. The Fighting Irish have won the last three meetings. The Spartans haven?t won in South Bend since 2007, dropping the last three under the Golden Dome. ND has some big holes to fill but still will be formidable in 2016 coming off a 10-3 season under Brian Kelly.
Minnesota. Let?s go with the Sept. 24 visit from Colorado State. The Rams are one of the nation?s top non-Power Five teams, going to nine bowls since 2000. The Gophers needed OT to dispatch CSU last year in Ft. Collins, taking a 23-20 win. The opener vs. Oregon State could be interesting, too. The Beavers are led by former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
Nebraska. The visit from Oregon on Sept. 17 will be daunting. The Ducks have become what the Cornhuskers used to be: A consistent national title contender. Oregon is in a bit of transition with a new QB. And the Ducks also have a new defensive coordinator: Brady Hoke, the ex-Michigan coach. These programs haven?t met since a two-game series in 1985-86, when both games were played in Lincoln and won the Nebraska, 63-0 and 48-14, respectively.
Northwestern. Not much heavy lifting. Let?s go with the visit from Duke on Sept. 17. The Wildcats waded into Durham, North Carolina, last year and took a 19-10 decision. This was a good Blue Devil squad that would go on to cap an 8-5 season with a win vs. Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl, the program?s fourth postseason trip in succession. David Cutcliffe always has a solid team.
Ohio State. The game at Oklahoma on Sept. 17 should be a doozy. These college football titans have met just two times, with OU taking a 29-28 decision in Columbus in 1977 and the Buckeyes prevailing 24-14 in Norman in 1983. Sooner coach and Youngstown, Ohio, native Bob Stoops would love to dump Ohio State and build on OU?s trip to the playoff last season. This will be the ultimate litmus test for a Buckeye squad that is being overhauled.
Penn State. Finally, Pitt and Penn State are playing. Too bad this isn?t an annual affair. But that?s a story for another day. Let?s enjoy the renewal of this fierce rivalry, as the Nittany Lions trek west to play the Panthers on Sept. 10. Penn State leads the all-time series, 50-42-4. Pitt won the last meeting, taking a 12-0 decision in the Steel City in 2000. Prior to that, the Nittany Lions had won seven in a row.
Purdue. The visit from Cincinnati on Sept. 10 will be tough. UC was the first opponent for Darrell Hazell at Purdue back in 2013 ? and the Bearcats throttled the Boilermakers, 42-7, in Cincinnati. The Bearcats are well coached under Tommy Tuberville, who has taken the Bearcats to bowls in each of his three seasons in the Queen City.
Rutgers. The opener on Sept. 3 at Washington will be a tough test for new coach Chris Ash. This will be the first meeting between the Scarlet Knights and Huskies, who are on the rise under Chris Petersen.
Wisconsin. No Big Ten team has a more daunting season opener, as the Badgers take on LSU in historic Lambeau Field on Sept. 3. These teams opened vs. each other in 2014, as the Tigers took a 28-24 win at Houston. LSU is 3-0 all-time vs. the Badgers. Adding spice to this opener: Former Wisconsin DC Dave Aranda is now running the Bayou Bengal defense.
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