Big Ten 2019 strength of schedule rankings: Michigan, Wisconsin facing incredibly tough roads

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

Scheduling matters more than ever before in the College Football Playoff era. As we've seen in the history of the CFP, it's one of the most significant factors in deciding who gets a shot to play for a national title and who does not. It's not just whether you win your conference, but who you play along the way. It's also proven that it's not just about who you have beaten, but who you lost to during the season.

We've already seen numerous examples of teams missing out on the playoff not just because of who they lost to, but which teams they never gave themselves a chance to beat.

So it only makes sense that we try to get an idea of which teams will play the more demanding schedules before the season even begins, and that's precisely what we've done. Now, it isn't a perfect process, but it's one I think gives us a good idea of what to expect. I'll explain.

Methodology: Essentially what I do is look at which teams each program is playing, and how strong those teams have performed in my ranking system in past years. The history of a program is a better indicator of its future success than just about anything, though I did make a change this season.

In previous years I ranked programs based on how they fared the last five seasons. This year I've changed it to the last three seasons. Yes, the sample size is smaller, but what I noticed is that it's typically the same teams performing well over the last three as it was the previous five, but by changing it to three, it shows a bit more accuracy for the upcoming season. For example, playing UCF last season wasn't worth as much as it probably should have been when considering UCF's previous five seasons. Now, considering only the last three, UCF is much stronger. On the flip side, there's a program like Oregon, which is the No. 27 team overall over the previous five seasons but is only No. 47 in the last three. Considering the Ducks haven't finished any of the previous three seasons ranked in the AP Top 25 poll, that No. 47 ranking better reflects their overall strength at present than the previous five seasons ranking.

Finally, I consider other factors like where the game is played, as well as when it's played. For example, if you're playing Boston College on the road and it's your fifth game in five weeks, that's more difficult than if you were playing Boston College on the road following a bye. The same can be said if your opponent is coming off a bye while you've played a month straight. There's also the issue of playing on a short week.

I then crunch all the numbers, and in the end, I get something that gives us all a good idea of which teams are most likely to face the most difficult schedules in 2019.

And, without further ado, here are your 2019 Big Ten strength of schedule rankings.

2019 Big Ten Strength of Schedule Rankings
1
The Wolverines finish with what I project to be the most difficult schedule in the Big Ten, and one of the most difficult in the country. It's not hard to see why when you look at the schedule, either. The Wolverines open the season with Middle Tennessee, which shouldn't pose much of a threat. But then it's Army, and their other nonconference game is Notre Dame in late October in what will be the sixth of seven games in a seven-week stretch. Also, the Wolverines draw both Wisconsin (on the road) and Iowa from the West, as well as a road trip to Illinois, which balances it a bit, but it's still a road game. The good news is that while Penn State's on the road, Army, Iowa, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State all have to come to Ann Arbor. The bad news is Michigan still has to play all of them.
2
Wisconsin's noncon isn't nearly as tricky as Michigan's. The season opens with a road game against South Florida, but Central Michigan and Kent State don't provide much of a challenge. What tips the scales here, however, is that the Badgers East draw is about as bad as it gets. Wisconsin may as well be in the East because it'll have to play Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State this season, along with all its West Division counterparts. If there's any good news, it's that of all of Wisconsin's fiercest opponents, only Ohio State will be outside of Madison. They have to travel to Lincoln too, and while Nebraska doesn't project to be as strong this year based on the last three seasons, that game could prove to be a lot more difficult than my projections currently show.
3
Like all East Division teams, the Spartans will play two of their cross-divisional games on the road this season. The two road games the Spartans draw? Oh, just Northwestern and Wisconsin, the two teams that have won four of the five West Division titles since the current divisional alignment was created. Within the division, the Spartans will travel to both Michigan and Ohio State as well, all of which makes for a difficult time. The noncon isn't too bad, though, as Tulsa, Western Michigan and Arizona State all must make the trip to East Lansing.
4
This is where I feel the need to point out that the difference between No. 4 and No. 11 in these rankings is practically a rounding error. The schedules are all so similar as far as projected difficulty is concerned. Nebraska's noncon is headlined by a road trip to Colorado and has two home games against South Alabama and Northern Illinois. The Huskers draw Ohio State from the East, but that's in Lincoln, and it's also balanced out by getting Indiana and Maryland in their other cross-division games. Things could have been far worse. Ask Wisconsin. Speaking of Wisconsin, the Huskers do have the fortune of getting Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa in Lincoln this season.
5
The Terps don't have the easiest noncon in the world. They open with Howard, which should be a win, but the next week it's Syracuse coming to town. The week after that it's a road game against a Temple team that's proven to be one of the stronger programs in the AAC in recent seasons. The Terps get both Penn State and Michigan at home this year, but must travel to Ohio State and Michigan State. They also get Purdue, Minnesota and Nebraska from the West. Nebraska is the only one at home.
6
While the annual rivalry game with Iowa State only gets more difficult with each passing season (and it's in Ames this year), games against Miami (Ohio) and Middle Tennessee shouldn't be that big of a deal. What is a big deal is drawing a road trip to Michigan, as well as a home date with Penn State, though I suppose Rutgers at home helps soften that blow a bit. In the division, the Hawkeyes must go on the road for key games against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, the home slate projects to result in a lot of fans leaving Kinnick Stadium with a smile on their face this year.
7
Cincinnati had a nice season last year, but when the Bearcats are headlining your noncon, your noncon isn't that impressive. Which is where the Buckeyes sit heading into Ryan Day's first season running the program. FAU and Miami (Ohio) both come to The Horseshoe as well. In conference, the Buckeyes get Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State at home, but have to hit the road for Nebraska, Northwestern and the season finale against Michigan.
8
Starting the season with a road game against Stanford isn't easy, but two other noncon games against UNLV and UMass cancel that out a bit in these projections. The most challenging part of Northwestern's schedule will come between Sept. 21 and Oct. 26. Over those six weeks, they'll play Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa, with a bye between Nebraska and Ohio State. That's the stretch that's going to decide the 2019 season for these Wildcats. Also, the fact that Northwestern finishes the year with seven straight games could lead to an unexpected loss late in the season as well.
9
Purdue's nonconference schedule is quite respectable. They open with a road game against Nevada (why I do not know) and follow it up with home dates against Vanderbilt and TCU. That's two Power Five opponents and a G5 program that seems to be on an upward trend. Where they lose points in relation to their Big Ten brethren is in conference play. The Boilermakers do have to go on the road for Penn State but avoid Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Instead, they get Maryland and Indiana. The division schedule is a bit more complicated, as they'll be on the road for Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
10
Rutgers' noncon won't do much for its cause should it be in playoff contention this year. Boston College is respectable enough, but UMass and Liberty don't do anything to move the needle. The Knights also benefit from a friendlier cross-division draw, getting Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. In the division, they get Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan State at home, while going on the road for Michigan, Indiana and Penn State.
11
Illinois has one of the easier nonconference schedules in the Big Ten, playing Akron, UConn and Eastern Michigan. The UConn game is on the road, however, and Eastern Michigan has been one of the MAC's stronger teams of late, but still, it's Akron, UConn and Eastern Michigan. The Illini do draw both Michigan and Michigan State from the East, as well as Rutgers. In the division, they could benefit from getting Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern in Champaign, but you can also argue getting their more "winnable" games against Minnesota and Purdue on the road is a detriment.
12
I think it's safe to say that if Penn State's going to reach the playoff in 2019, it'll have to do so by winning the Big Ten because it's nonconference schedule of Idaho, Buffalo and Pitt won't boost the resume much. The Lions also avoid the West's bigger powers for the most part, as they'll travel to Iowa, but also get Purdue and Minnesota. In the East, they get Michigan at home but must go on the road for both Michigan State and Ohio State.
13
The Gophers noncon is more complicated than it looks. South Dakota State should be an easy win, but a road trip to Fresno State won't be (remember, Fresno nearly won at Minnesota last season), and an option team like Georgia Southern always causes problems. Minnesota's conference schedule is broken into two parts. There's the more accessible part and the more difficult part. The easier part is the open of conference play, which sees the Gophers playing at Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, at Rutgers and Maryland over five weeks. Then, following a bye, comes the harder part: Penn State, at Iowa, at Northwestern and Wisconsin in the final month. The Gophers will need to get off to a good start if they want to go bowling in 2019.
14
The Hoosiers play the softest nonconference slate in the conference. Like Illinois, they play UConn, but unlike Illinois, they get them at home. The rest of the noncon is Ball State in Indianapolis to open the season and Eastern Illinois. Of course, a home game with Ohio State is tossed between them as well, and UConn is immediately followed with a road trip to Michigan State, as well as dates with Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan. Still, when you add all of it up, Indiana's overall SOS projection is dragged down quite a bit by that nonconference slate.
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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