It's easy to laugh off the excitement of fans reacting to a schedule release as a symptom of boredom from a long offseason, but the schedule is one of the most decisive factors for any program's season. It can make or break you.
Suppose you're seen as a perennial powerhouse in your conference. In that case, the schedule could prove to be the difference between winning the conference and reaching the College Football Playoff or a disappointing season. If you're in that second or third tier of a conference, the right breaks in your schedule could lead to a surprise Cinderella season or leave you home for bowl season.
And if you're in the bottom tier, the right breaks might get you to a bowl game and help you kick on to sustained success.
So the schedule is important, and if something is important in college football, we need to rank it, so that's what I've done. I've ranked the Big Ten schedules from most difficult to least using a highly-scientific process that only our world's brightest minds can understand. The process resulted in these highly accurate rankings.
Before we get to them, let's be clear: while some schedules are considered easier than others, they're only in the context of the Big Ten. There isn't an "easy" schedule among them, but some provide more significant obstacles than others. Let's get to it.
|The Terps are coming off their first bowl appearance since 2016 after a 7-6 record last season, but they could have difficulty getting back. The nonconference slate features winnable games against Buffalo and Charlotte (why it's in Charlotte, North Carolina, I don't know), but SMU won't be easy. The conference slate starts with Michigan on the road before Michigan State comes to College Park, Maryland. It's never easy for any Big Ten East team outside the top programs, but getting Michigan and Penn State on the road is hard. Plus, the draw from the West includes a road trip to Wisconsin. The killer stretch is November with the road game against Wisconsin, followed by the road trip to Penn State and a home date with Ohio State. By the time the Terps get to Rutgers, they could be banged up.|
|Typically when we do these rankings, the best teams in the league find themselves at the bottom because they don't get the "boost" of playing themselves. Ohio State finishes with the second-toughest schedule in the Big Ten because, even if it doesn't play itself, it opens the season with Notre Dame. Objectively speaking, it's the biggest nonconference game for a Big Ten team. That's followed by Arkansas State and a Toledo team that's proven to be one of the MAC's toughest programs. Conference play doesn't get much easier, as the Buckeyes get Wisconsin and Iowa from the West (at home at least), but will hit the road for Michigan State and Penn State. As usual, the season finishes with Michigan. The Buckeyes will play three teams that have reached the College Football Playoff during the upcoming regular season and could face the top five teams in the conference outside of themselves.|
|Rutgers brought back coach Greg Schiano hoping he'd know how to establish the program in the Big Ten, and one thing I hope Schiano has done is explain to his bosses the importance of nonconference scheduling. Big Ten teams shouldn't be scheduling two road games outside of the conference, especially Big Ten teams in the East, which already have to deal with the conference heavyweights. Boston College on the road won't be easy, and while Temple could be one of the worst teams in the country, playing the game in Philly adds an unnecessary layer of difficulty. The draw from the West could've been worse, but Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota could all be bowl teams in 2022. As for the "Big Four" games, the Scarlet Knights get Michigan and Penn State at home, but will hit the road for Ohio State and Michigan State. Getting to a bowl with this slate will not be easy.|
|We're four teams into the rankings and we finally have a Big Ten West team. That's what happens when your cross-division draw includes Ohio State and road trips to Penn State and Maryland. The nonconference isn't awful with Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) all in Evanston, Illinois, but the year does begin in Ireland against Nebraska. In division, the Wildcats get Wisconsin at home, but road trips to Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue will be challenging. This team went 1-8 in the Big Ten last year, and this year's schedule doesn't seem interested in adding many more wins to the 2022 total.|
|After a Cinderella 2020 season, Indiana's clock struck midnight with extreme malice last season as the Hoosiers went 2-10 and winless in the Big Ten. It's reasonable to expect improvement, but getting to a bowl game will be tough. The season opens at home against Illinois on a Friday night. Still, after what should be a win against Idaho, the Hoosiers have two tricky nonconference games against Western Kentucky and a road tilt at Cincinnati. The good news is the West draw was kind, as the Hoosiers avoided the heavy-hitters. I mentioned the Illinois game, and Indiana also gets Nebraska on the road and Purdue at home. It'll get the Buckeyes and Spartans on the road and the Wolverines and Nittany Lions at home. The swing games here will be Illinois, WKU, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. If Indiana doesn't win at least four of those games, a bowl berth is unlikely.|
|Illinois' nonconference schedule could look tougher on paper than in practice. Wyoming is a solid Mountain West program, but it lost several crucial pieces to the transfer portal this offseason. The Illini get Virginia at home, but after getting crushed by the Cavaliers on the road last year, this year's Virginia team could still be getting acclimated to its new coaching staff. Chattanooga shouldn't pose much of a threat. The East draw isn't very kind, though. The Illini have Indiana on the road on a short week after the opener against Wyoming and will welcome Michigan State to Champaign in early November before heading to Ann Arbor to face Michigan a few weeks later. The divisional games could be worse. Wisconsin on the road isn't easy, but Illinois isn't likely to beat the Badgers anywhere. Meanwhile, getting Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue at home makes those games a little easier to deal with. A bowl game isn't out of reach here, but a solid start to the season will be critical.|
|Penn State's road game against Auburn seemed a lot more difficult when it was scheduled than it might be when the teams take the field. It's still a road game against an SEC team, but it's an SEC team many think could finish last in its division this season. The Lions fill out the nonconference with home games against Ohio and Central Michigan, both of which are tough. What keeps the Penn State schedule from being ranked higher than this is its draw from the West. Getting Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota (only Purdue is on the road in the season-opener) is the best draw Penn State could hope for. In the division, the Lions get Ohio State and Michigan State in Beaver Stadium, and their road trip to Michigan comes after a bye week. Also, the most demanding games are spaced well, so while it's not going to be easy, it could've been a lot worse.|
|The Spartans have one of the most challenging nonconference games in the Big Ten with a road trip to Washington in Week 3, but it's hard to imagine Sparty will have much trouble with two home games against Western Michigan and Akron to open the year. Where they get unlucky is having to go on the road for Michigan and Penn State late in the season. The good news is that they get Illinois, Rutgers and Indiana between those games. That's nice. What isn't as nice is a stretch of games from mid-September to mid-October. It starts with the road trip to Washington, followed by Minnesota, a road game against Maryland, then Ohio State and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks. Michigan State is going to need the bye week that follows.|
|Iowa's nonconference schedule isn't a bear, but it's not to be ignored, either. South Dakota State is one of the better FCS programs, and there's the annual rivalry game with Iowa State. However, Nevada shouldn't be too difficult. The Big Ten schedule starts with Rutgers, which is the conference's way of saying, "we're sorry we're making you play both Michigan and Ohio State this season," because that's what it's done. The good news for Iowa is that it gets Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium late in the year, but road games against Purdue and Minnesota will be tricky.|
|I mentioned earlier that Ohio State's game against Notre Dame is the toughest nonconference game in the Big Ten this season. I'd have Nebraska's date with Oklahoma second. Had there not been uncertainty about the Sooners with Lincoln Riley leaving, it'd be first. Anyway, The Greatest Three-Win Team In History (not sarcasm) opens the year against Northwestern in Ireland before a nonconference game that features Oklahoma and two winnable games against North Dakota and Georgia Southern. The Huskers do well with their draw from the East. While playing Michigan on the road isn't fun, getting Indiana and Rutgers as the other two games helps. However, if Nebraska wants to get to a bowl this year, it would be best served to get the wins early. November is a monster. It starts with Minnesota at home, then Michigan on the road, Wisconsin, and at Iowa on Black Friday.|
|Purdue has been tabbed as a potential darkhorse in the Big Ten West this season, and it has a schedule that seems manageable on the surface. While the season begins with Penn State, it is at home, and the other two games against East teams are Maryland and Indiana. The nonconference has a road trip to Syracuse, but Indiana State and FAU surround it. Where I become skeptical about Purdue's chances in its division are the road games against Minnesota and Wisconsin. There's also a tough stretch of games that sees the Boilermakers playing Nebraska before a road trip to Wisconsin and then Iowa at home. At least there's a bye between Wisconsin and Iowa. Also, those "coin flip" games that can determine a season against Maryland, Illinois and Indiana are all on the road.|
|Wisconsin has one of the softest nonconference schedules in the conference this season. The Badgers will play Illinois State, Washington State and New Mexico State in Madison. While the Cougars may provide resistance, I don't see the other two hanging within four scores. The toughest game on the schedule is the first Big Ten game of the season: at Ohio State to finish September. The Badgers also get a road game against Michigan State in mid-October. Still, as tough as those games will be, the most pivotal stretch of the season will be November. That's when Wisconsin will face its primary competition for the West. The final three games of the year are at Iowa, at Nebraska and at home against Minnesota. A friendly reminder that just because it's one of the "easier" schedules in the Big Ten doesn't mean it's an easy schedule.|
|I ranked Michigan's schedule as one of the toughest in the conference last season, and it won the Big Ten and reached the College Football Playoff. So what will it do against this slate? There is nothing to fear in the nonconference, which features three home games against Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn. While there is no such thing as an easy Big Ten schedule, Michigan's is as manageable as you could hope. Sure, there's the season finale at Ohio State, but the Wolverines get both Penn State and Michigan State in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a bye in between. Also, while it's never easy going to Kinnick Stadium to play Iowa, drawing home games against Nebraska and Illinois is a fair trade-off. If you're writing the Wolverines off already, you may want to reconsider.|
|I can't remember how long I've been doing this, but Minnesota has routinely finished with one of the easiest Big Ten schedules. Considering the recent results, I will not hold it against them! It's hard to imagine anything other than a 3-0 start with a nonconference slate featuring New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado at home. But that's where the easy stuff ends. The Big Ten schedule starts with Michigan State on the road, and that's the first of a demanding road schedule. Minnesota will be leaving home for games against Illinois (which beat it in Minnesota last year), Penn State, Nebraska and the regular-season finale against Wisconsin. The good news is the home slate is manageable, as the Gophers host Purdue, Rutgers, Northwestern and Iowa. It's hard to imagine the Gophers missing out on a bowl against this schedule, but drawing Michigan State and Penn State as road games from the East probably means winning the division isn't a realistic goal.|