Big Ten strength of schedule rankings: Michigan State, Purdue face tough tracks

Strength of schedule has become more important than ever before in college football. With the College Football Playoff selection committee choosing four teams to compete for the national title every season, it's not just important to win as many games as possible, but you want to beat the best teams possible to help boost your resume.

Which is why we've seen Power Five teams scheduling more and more Power Five opponents in their nonconference games in recent seasons. Some conferences, like the Big Ten, have even adopted policies stating that they don't want their schools scheduling any more games against FCS school. And then there are conferences like the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 that have moved to nine-game conference schedules rather than the traditional eight.

And they've done all of this in an effort to improve their strength of schedule. To help ensure that their best teams have strong resumes worth considering for the CFP at the end of the season.

It's with all of this in mind that I decided I wanted to figure out which teams were playing the toughest schedules in 2017 before the season even started. Now, there's no perfect way to decide strength of schedule, but I found a method I believe works well enough. I went through each Power Five team's 2017 schedule and rated teams based on how they've performed in my own personal rankings -- the same mathematical rankings I use to compile the Fornelli 50 and Bottom 25 -- over the last three years. This gave me a baseline. A baseline I then tinkered with a bit.

It's one thing to play Alabama Crimson Tide , but are you playing them in Tuscaloosa? At a neutral site? Are you coming off a bye?

These are all variables I considered and weighted a bit. Road games are always more difficult, and having to play a team without having a Saturday off for the last month can wear on your team as well.

As no formula is perfect -- teams always surprise you, whether it's by exceeding expectations or failing to meet them -- I averaged each teams' individual ranking based on the last three years rather than just last season. This should give us a good idea of what to expect each team will be facing in the 2017 season.

Here's how things break down for the Big Ten in 2017, from most to least difficult.  

Big Ten Strength of Schedule Rankings
This one really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Not only does Michigan State Spartans play both Western Michigan Broncos and Notre Dame Fighting Irish in its nonconference schedule, but it also plays in the Big Ten East where it must contend with Ohio State Buckeyes , Michigan Wolverines and Penn State Nittany Lions . Of those three opponents, only Penn State will be coming to East Lansing. Also, while Michigan State avoids both Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers out of the West, it still must go on the road for Minnesota Golden Gophers and Northwestern Wildcats while getting Iowa Hawkeyes at home.
Yes, Purdue Boilermakers 's schedule strength is helped out by not having to play Purdue, but there are plenty of other factors contributing to its schedule being ranked so highly here. Not only does the season open with Louisville Cardinals in Indianapolis, but after a home date against Ohio Bobcats , the Boilermakers hit the road to take on Missouri Tigers . That's two Power Five opponents in three nonconference games. The Boilers also draw Michigan from the East while having to play Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa all on the road. The good news is the home slate does provide winnable games against Minnesota, Illinois Fighting Illini  and Indiana Hoosiers .
Illinois' schedule is difficult to judge on the surface. The nonconference includes two strong Group of Five opponents in Western Kentucky and South Florida Bulls (in Tampa), but both of those programs will be led by new coaches this year, so it's possible they won't be as strong as they have been recently. Things don't get a whole lot easier in the Big Ten because while the Illini may get Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Indiana from the East, they also get a road trip to Columbus to take on Ohio State. Also, a couple of their more winnable conference games against Minnesota and Purdue both come on the road, making those wins significantly more difficult to achieve.
As if playing the East Division powers wasn't difficult enough, Maryland Terrapins starts its season with a road trip to take on Texas Longhorns . Its cross-divisional draw in conference play includes road trips to Minnesota and Wisconsin, while another tough team in Northwestern will come to College Park. The good news is that both Indiana and Rutgers come to Maryland as well this season, and those two are looking like a couple of very important games in the Terps quest for bowl eligibility.
Michigan certainly has one of the more impressive nonconference slates in the Big Ten, as it will open the season against Florida Gators in Texas and follow that up with games against respectable foes in Cincinnati Bearcats and Air Force Falcons . The Big Ten schedule is not as difficult as it could be, though, as the Wolverines will get to face their two biggest rivals -- Ohio State and Michigan State -- in Ann Arbor. Still, there are road trips to both Penn State and Wisconsin on the schedule, and neither of those will be easy.
Nebraska's nonconference schedule is bolstered by a road trip to Autzen Stadium to take on Oregon Ducks in the second week of the season. Arkansas State Red Wolves and Northern Illinois Huskies should provide a challenge themselves, but nothing like what the Huskers will face with the Ducks. In conference play, the Huskers didn't get many favors from the schedule makers, as they draw both Ohio State and Penn State from the East. Luckily it's offset a bit by Ohio State having to come to Lincoln and a home date with Rutgers as well. Nebraska will also get to face two of its divisional rivals in Wisconsin and Iowa at home as well.
While Penn State will play Pitt in September, having both Akron Zips and Georgia State Panthers on its nonconference schedule as well gives the Nittany Lions one of the easier nonconference slates among its Big Ten brethren. That's all offset by its conference schedule, though, as the Nittany Lions not only have to play the East powers but also get Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern from the West. Both Iowa and Northwestern will be road games.
Iowa is in a similar position to Penn State in that it has a relatively weak nonconference schedule ( Wyoming Cowboys , at Iowa State Cyclones , North Texas Mean Green ), but finds itself with quite a gauntlet to manage within the conference. Iowa gets no breaks in its cross-divisional draw as it will have to play Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State out of the East this season, though only the Spartans on the road. Within the division, the Hawkeyes have to hit the road to take on Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska. All in all, it's one of the most difficult road schedules within the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes get Oklahoma Sooners in Columbus this season, which boosts a nonconference schedule that also features home dates with Army West Point Black Knights and UNLV Rebels . Neither of those latter two should provide much of a challenge to the Buckeyes. Things get more difficult in conference play. The Buckeyes will hit the road to play Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan this year. Other road games against Rutgers and Indiana are much more manageable, and the home slate is favorable even with Penn State and Michigan State on it.
The Rutgers schedule is one of extremes. It includes games against half the 2016 College Football Playoff field as the Knights open the season against Washington Huskies and get Ohio State later in the year. The silver lining is both teams come to New Jersey. On the flip side, two of the three teams Rutgers must play from the West happen to be the West's two weakest teams in Illinois and Purdue. What really drags this schedule down, though, is the fact that Rutgers is the only Big Ten team with an FCS opponent this season as it will play Morgan State.
While we shouldn't take anything for granted when it comes to college football's Chaos Team, the Hoosiers have a very manageable nonconference schedule. They get Florida International Golden Panthers and Georgia Southern Eagles while going on the road to take on a Virginia Cavaliers team that's been one of the weakest in the ACC. They're also lucky to get both Ohio State and Michigan in Bloomington, though that Ohio State game will be the season opener. From the West, Indiana gets Wisconsin, but the Badgers come to Bloomington, and the two road games are winnable ones against Illinois and Purdue.
Wisconsin has one of the easier schedules in the Big Ten this year, but after the one it played last season, we'll have to forgive the Badgers for it. Nonconference games against Utah State Aggies and Florida Atlantic Owls shouldn't provide much resistance, though a road trip to take on Brigham Young Cougars could get interesting. After that, the Badgers find themselves with a very manageable road slate in the conference as they'll play Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota outside of Camp Randall. Aside from Indiana, the cross-divisional draw features Maryland and a game against Michigan in mid-November that could have major consequences for both teams.
Northwestern's nonconference schedule includes three teams that combined to go 13-23 last season in Nevada Wolf Pack , Duke Blue Devils and Bowling Green Falcons , though at least Duke will be a road game. While the cross-divisional draw includes both Penn State and Michigan State, both teams will be coming to Evanston, as will other foes like Iowa and Minnesota. The toughest tests will likely be road trips to both Wisconsin and Nebraska.
The Gophers will not be rowing their boat through the choppiest of waters this season. The nonconference features winnable games against Buffalo Bulls , Oregon State Beavers and Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders , while both Nebraska and Wisconsin head north to Minneapolis this season. The toughest game on the slate is a road trip to Ann Arbor in early November.
CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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