Ranking the Best (and Worst) Big Ten Nonconference Schedules

By Jay Beck

The Big Ten will kickoff the 2012 season with a bang on opening weekend with Michigan facing Alabama and Michigan State playing host to Boise State which should be two of the best out-of league games you’ll find on anyone’s schedule.

While they are the usual cupcakes we’ve come to expect in college football, overall the Big Ten’s nonconference slate will provide plenty of intrigue over the first month of the season.

Here’s a look from top-to-bottom at who has the toughest opening month of the season.  If Michigan doesn’t get some credit from the pollsters with the way they’ve scheduled, well, then I  don’t what to tell you.

1. Michigan: Alabama (in Arlington, Texas) Air Force, UMass, @ Notre Dame

The Wolverines butting heads with the defending national champions in the season’s opening week pretty much makes the top choice a slam dunk.  No other team is even in the same ball park when it comes to the nonconference slate.

The Wolverines follow up their battle with the Crimson Tide by hosting Air Force who is never easy to prepare for (not to mention the potential letdown factor after facing Bama). They’ll then host UMass which is their only breather followed by a trip to South Bend for a night game against Notre Dame.

In total, four games against three quality opponents with only two coming on Michigan’s home field.  I have a feeling Michigan will be more than ready when the Big Ten schedule gets underway.

Predicted start: 3-1

2. Michigan State: Boise State (Friday night), @ Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan

It might not be as tough as Michigan’s schedule, but the Spartan’s September schedule won’t be a cake walk, either.   The Spartans open with a visit from Boise State and although they might not be as good as previous seasons, the Broncos still figure to be a top 25 team.

Notre Dame also has to make a trip to East Lansing sandwiched between MAC opponents Central and Eastern Michigan.  The good news for MSU, the three toughest games will all be on their home field.

Predicted start: 4-0

3. Nebraska: Southern Miss, @ UCLA, Arkansas State, Idaho State

The Huskers first three opponents all will have new coaching staffs in 2012 so Nebraska’s biggest challenge won’t necessarily be the competition, but not knowing exactly what to prepare for in the opening weeks.

Southern Miss is coming of a 12-2 season that included a CUSA title.  UCLA is rebuilding under Jim Mora but playing in Pasadena will be easy.  Arkansas State finished 8-0 in the Sun Belt and now have Gus Malzahn running the offense with experience returning at quarterback.

Predicted start: 4-0

4.   Penn State: Ohio, @ Virginia, Navy, Temple

The Nittany Lions schedule isn’t loaded with big brand name programs, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come with its share of potential potholes.  Ohio is coming off a 10 win season and its first every bowl victory.  Virginia finished 8-5 last season and beat both Georgia Tech and Florida State.  Temple also won a bowl game last season and nearly knocked off Penn State losing only 14-10.

That said, Bill O’Brien and Penn State could very well be undefeated when Big Ten play begins.

Predicted finish: 4-0

5. Northwestern: @ Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota

The Wildcats open with three BCS conference opponents which is more than a lot of teams around the country can say.  Vanderbilt figures to be the most difficult although Syracuse and Boston College won’t be slam dunk victories.  It’s not hard to envision Northwestern entering Big Ten play at 4-0, although 2-2 isn’t out of the question, either.

Predicted start: 3-1

6. Iowa: Northern Illinois (at Soldier Field), Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Central Michigan

Iowa toughest opponents figure to come during the season’s first two weeks.

Northern Illinois won their final nine games in 2011 which included a MAC championship and bowl victory.  Iowa State knocked off the Hawks in triple overtime last season although Iowa gets the Cyclones at home this season.  As far as FCS teams go, Northern Iowa is usually solid and the last time the met in 2009, Iowa escaped with a 17-16 win.

Predicted start: 4-0

7. Ohio State: Miami (OH), Central Florida, Cal, UAB

While there aren’t any heavyweights on Ohio State’s nonconference schedule, there aren’t any complete creampuffs, either, although it might look like it after Urban Meyer gets done with them.

Cal figures to be the toughest game coming off a 7-6 season in the Pac-12 and a bowl loss to Texas.  Central Florida and UAB finished a combined 8-16 in CUSA last season.

The Buckeyes don’t leave the friendly confines of the Horseshoe during the season’s opening month.

Predicted start: 4-0

8. Purdue: Eastern Kentucky, @ Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Marshall

The highlight for the Boilermakers is obviously their trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame, but after that the competition falls off dramatically.

Eastern Michigan and Marshall are respectable, however, finishing with a combined record in 13-12 in 2011.  Eastern Kentucky, although an FCS school, nearly knocked off Kansas State in Manhattan last season by a score of 10-7 when KSU threw a touchdown pass with only 1:30 remaining in the game.

Predicted start: 3-1

9. Illinois: Western Michigan, @ Arizona State, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech

Give the Illini credit for going on the road to a BCS conference school although great things aren’t expected from the Sun Devils in Todd Graham’s first season in Tempe.  Louisiana Tech is coming off a nice 8-5 season which included a respectable 31-24 bowl loss to TCU.

Predicted start: 3-1

10.  Wisconsin: Northern Iowa, @ Oregon State, Utah State, UTEP

Like Illinois, Wisconsin hits the road to take on a team from the Pac-12 but Oregon State has won only eight combined games over the past two seasons. Other than it being a road game this season, the Beavers shouldn’t much more of a test than they were last year in Madison when Wisconsin shut them out 35-0.

Predicted start: 4-0

11.  Minnesota: @ UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan, Syracuse

The Gophers stand a reasonable chance to start the season 4-0 although it’s important to keep in mind this is Minnesota and nothing is guaranteed.  Jerry Kill begins his second season in Minnesota and looks to be turning things around, however, and starting 4-0 is a great place to show this isn’t going to be your typical Gopher squard.  Anything less than 3-1 against this slate will be a major disappointment.

Predicted start: 3-1

12. Indiana: Indiana State, @ UMass (in Foxboro, Mass), Ball State, @ Navy

About the only tough thing about Indiana’s schedule is that two games are away from home.   Playing at Navy won’t be easy and Ball State returns 16 starters from last year’s 6-6 team.  The Hoosiers won only one game in 2011 and should very well could triple that in the season’s first month.

Predicted start: 2-2

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