Skip to main content

Ranking The Big Ten Teams' Schedules By Difficulty

Ohio State's Darron Lee laying a hit on a Wisconsin player.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 06: Sam Arneson #49 of the Wisconsin Badgers loses the ball next to Darron Lee #43 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Big Ten Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 6, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Buckeyes won the game 59-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Scheduling in college football is one of the things that makes the sport extremely unique. Even within conferences, the schedules are wildly unbalanced. Some top teams try to run the table, while others build in tough road games to boost strength of schedule rankings. Rebuilding teams may look to feast on cupcakes, or subscribe to the "hottest fire forges the strongest steel" theory.

The Big Ten is no different. A few months ago, we ranked the most difficult and easiest schedules ahead of the 2016 season. The league was well-represented on both lists, with three teams a piece. Now, we're ranking the slates for all 14 teams in the conference.

Which teams are challenging themselves this season, and which are scheduling for success? Here is our ranking of the Big Ten's schedules by difficult.

Next: No. 14 ??? >>>

14. Minnesota

Minnesota's non-conference slate doesn't feature any truly difficult teams, but it could be easier. However, the Big Ten slate really falls in place well for the Gophers to rack up some wins. This is a decent situation for a team about to enter its first full season under new head coach Tracy Claeys.

Sept.1 – Oregon State
Sept. 10 – Indiana State
Sept. 24 – Colorado State
Oct. 1 – at Penn State
Oct. 8 – Iowa
Oct. 15 – at Maryland
Oct. 22 – Rutgers
Oct. 29 – at Illinois
Nov. 5 – Purdue
Nov. 12 – at Nebraska
Nov. 19 – Northwestern
Nov. 26 – at Wisconsin

Oregon State and Colorado State are decent teams, but certainly not overwhelming. In the Big Ten, Minnesota does have a tough road game at Penn State, and trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin aren't easy, but the other crossover games are very manageable dates with Maryland and Rutgers. Having Iowa and Northwestern at home is nice, and that stretch with Rutgers, at Illinois, and Purdue has to look good at mid-season for Gopher fans. If the team takes care of business, it should be able to make a run to a fifth straight bowl games.

Next: No. 13 ??? >>>

13. Iowa

An easy 2015 schedule helped Iowa have a breakout season, in which they ran through the regular season undefeated and won the Big Ten West. We don't think Hawkeye fans would complain too much, no matter how much Colin Cowherd bloviates about it.

Sept. 3 – Miami (OH)
Sept. 10 – Iowa State
Sept. 17 – North Dakota State
Sept. 24 – at Rutgers
Oct.1 – Northwestern
Oct. 8 – at Minnesota
Oct. 15 – at Purdue
Oct. 22 – Wisconsin
Nov. 5 – at Penn State
Nov. 12 – Michigan
Nov. 19 – at Illinois
Nov. 25 – Nebraska

Iowa State is the only power conference team Iowa gets outside of Big Ten play, and while the Cyclones may be reenergized by the hiring of Matt Campbell, that rebuild probably won't take effect right away. North Dakota State is always terrifying, but a team that went to the Rose Bowl last season should handle the Bison. Like Minnesota, the only really tough road game Iowa has is Penn State, and the Nittany Lions are a bit of an enigma right now. Michigan is a tough crossover opponent from the East Division, but the Hawkeyes bring them to Kinnick Stadium.

Next: No. 12 ??? >>>

12. Purdue

The Boilermakers have been swimming upstream for some time now, so an easy schedule could really help them. Of course, Purdue has struggled against just about anyone it faces, so it is up to the team to take advantage.

Sept. 3 – Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 10 – Cincinnati
Sept. 24 – Nevada
Oct. 1 – at Maryland
Oct. 8 – at Illinois
Oct. 15 – Iowa
Oct. 22 – at Nebraska
Oct. 29 – Penn State
Nov. 5 – at Minnesota
Nov. 12 – Northwestern
Nov. 19 – Wisconsin
Nov. 26 – at Indiana

Cincinnati is a decent team, and Nevada is fairly competitive, going 7-6 in each of the last two seasons, but neither of these teams is striking fear into an average power five program. The Big Ten schedule, like the two teams listed before Purdue here, really works out well. Almost all of the toughest games—Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern, Wisconsin—are in West Lafayette, and Indiana, Maryland, and Penn State is one of the easier crossover trios available out of the Big Ten East. We don't expect Purdue to do much with the opportunity, but Boilermaker fans can't complain about the slate being too hard.

Next: No. 11 ??? >>>

No. 11 Michigan

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh-led rebuild seems to be off to a faster start than anticipated after a strong 2015 season, and Michigan has a pretty workable slate to deal with in 2016. The Big Ten East is the harder of the two divisions, with the Wolverines, Ohio State, and Michigan State in the mix, but UM doesn't have a huge non-conference game this fall.

Sept. 3 – Hawaii
Sept. 10 – UCF
Sept. 17 – Colorado
Sept. 24 – Penn State
Oct. 1 – Wisconsin
Oct. 8 – at Rutgers
Oct. 22 – Illinois
Oct. 29 – at Michigan State
Nov. 5 – Maryland
Nov. 12 – at Iowa
Nov. 19 – Indiana
Nov. 26 – at Ohio State

Michigan has a chance to run up a pretty solid win total really quickly. The team doesn't leave Ann Arbor until October 8, when it heads to face Rutgers. After that game, UM has a well-timed bye before hosting Illinois. The back end of the schedule is considerably more challenging, with trips to Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State in three of the last six weeks, but it is hard to see a loss on this schedule outside of those three games, aside from maybe Wisconsin on October 1. If Michigan builds on 2015, and picks up some momentum from the easy early-season slate, this year might be another really fun one for Wolverine faithful.

Next: No. 10 ??? >>>

10. Maryland

The Terps are coming off a miserable 3-9 season, with a 1-7 mark in Big Ten play. However, there's some positive energy around the program as first-year head coach D.J. Durkin has compiled a quality staff and reeled in enough quality recruits to make people excited about the future. 

As for this season, here's what Maryland is looking at on the docket, which includes the first nine-game Big Ten regular season slate.

Sept. 3 – Howard
Sept. 9 – @FIU 
Sept. 17 – @UCF
Oct. 1 – Purdue
Oct. 8 – @Penn State
Oct. 15 – Minnesota
Oct. 22 – Michigan State 
Oct. 29 – @Indiana
Nov. 5 – @Michigan
Nov. 12 – Ohio State
Nov. 19 – @Nebraska 
Nov. 26 – Rutgers

Those first three games aren't horrible, and neither is a home game against Purdue to open up conference play. The month of November is probably the hardest: there's road trips to Michigan and Nebraska, along with a home date against Ohio State. Still, there's a possibility that Durkin could turn things around enough that the Terps will be playing for bowl-eligibility against Rutgers in the regular-season finale. 

Next: No. 9 ??? >>>

9. Indiana

Indiana achieved bowl eligibility last season, finishing with a 6-7 overall record after losing to Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl. It was the first bowl game the Hoosiers had played in in eight years.

Here's what IU's 2016 regular season schedule looks like.

Sept. 1 – @FIU
Sept. 17 – Ball State
Sept. 24 – Wake Forest
Oct. 1 – Michigan State
Oct. 8 – @Ohio State
Oct. 15 – Nebraska 
Oct. 22 – @Northwestern 
Oct. 29 – Maryland
Nov. 5 – @Rutgers 
Nov. 12 – Penn State
Nov. 19 – @Michigan
Nov. 26 – Purdue

Even if the Hoosiers start out 3-0, making another bowl game won't be easy. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska seem like sure-fire losses. Penn State and Northwestern will be be favored over IU. Can Indiana beat Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue? Sure, but the odds go against them beating all three. 

Next: No. 8 ??? >>>

8. Penn State

The pressure is on for James Franklin and company after back-to-back 7-6 seasons. If the Nittany Lions don't improve in 2016, Franklin may be on the hot seat. 

Sept. 3 – Kent State
Sept. 10 – @Pittsburgh 
Sept. 17 – Temple
Sept. 24 – @Michigan
Oct. 1 – Minnesota
Oct. 8 – Maryland
Oct. 22 – Ohio State
Oct. 29 – @Purdue
Nov. 5 – Iowa 
Nov. 12 – @Indiana 
Nov. 19 – @Rutgers 
Nov. 26 – Michigan State

If PSU doesn't start out 3-1, something is wrong. October isn't particularly daunting, even if Ohio State is on the schedule. The Nittany Lions should be favored at home against Minnesota and Maryland and on the road at Purdue. In November, Penn State's two toughest games will both be at Beaver Stadium.

Looking at this schedule, even with a new quarterback, there's no reason why Penn State can't win 8 or 9 games this year. If they don't, watch out. 

Next: No. 7 ??? >>>

7. Illinois

Welcome to the Big Ten, Lovie Smith. The longtime NFL head coach's first foray into running a Division I program won't be an easy task. Since winning 10 games and making the Sugar Bowl in 2001, the Illini have as many seasons with two or less wins (four) as they do bowl appearances.

Last year, Illinois just missed qualifying for a bowl. Let's take a look at what Smith is up against in 2016. 

Sept. 3 – Murray State 
Sept. 10 – North Carolina 
Sept. 17 – Western Michigan
Oct. 1 – @Nebraska
Oct. 8 – Purdue
Oct. 15 – @Rutgers 
Oct. 22 – @Michigan
Oct. 29 – Minnesota
Nov. 5 – Michigan State
Nov. 12 – @Wisconsin
Nov. 19 – Iowa
Nov. 26 – @Northwestern

Well, North Carolina and Western Michigan aren't exactly easy home opponents in the first month of the season. After that, an early bye week ensures the Illini will have to run the Big Ten gauntlet without a break. 

Lastly, that November schedule is a nightmare. Road trips to Wisconsin and Northwestern, while hosting the two teams that played in last year's Big Ten title game. Good luck with that. 

Next: No. 6 ??? >>>

6. Rutgers

Chris Ash has taken over the reins at Rutgers and made sweeping changes to the program. Everything from facilities to uniforms to recruiting to spring football traditions has gotten a face-lift.

It's working on the recruiting trail. Ash has eight commitments from in-state prospects, and some others appear on the way. Can he maintain that momentum if the Scarlet Knights finish with a losing record for the second straight year? 

Sept. 3 – @Washington 
Sept. 10 – Howard
Sept. 17 – New Mexico 
Sept. 24 – Iowa 
Oct. 1 – @Ohio State 
Oct. 8 – Michigan
Oct. 15 – Illinois 
Oct. 22 – @Minnesota
Nov. 5 – Indiana
Nov. 12 – @Michigan State
Nov. 19 – Penn State 
Nov. 26 – @Maryland

The #AshEra, as it's known on social media, begins on the West Coast against an improved Washington team. After presumed wins over Howard and New Mexico, Rutgers delves into its Big Ten slate. 

Gone are Wisconsin and Nebraska as crossover opponents, though Iowa as a replacement is no slouch. The Scarlet Knights have to travel to Ohio State and Michigan State, where they were blown out in 2014.

Can RU squeeze out two or three conference wins? It's possible but won't be easy. There's just not enough talent or depth on this roster right now. 

Next: No. 5 ??? >>>

5. Nebraska

The Cornhuskers are looking to follow up on a lackluster year in 2016, but they'll have to really perform to see significant improvement when it comes to record. Nebraska plays in the Big Ten West, which is the less competitive of the two divisions, but they'll still battle some big dogs this year. Nebraska's crossover games come against Maryland, at Indiana Ohio State.

Nebraska has to play some of its toughest division games on the road too - at Iowa and at Wisconsin.

Sept. 3 - Fresno State
Sept. 10 - Wyoming
Sept. 17 - Oregon
Sept. 24 - @Northwestern
Oct. 1 - Illinois
Oct. 15 - @Indiana
Oct. 22 - Purdue
Oct. 29 - @Wisconsin
Nov. 5 - @Ohio State
Nov. 12 - Minnesota
Nov. 19 - Maryland
Nov. 25 - @Iowa

Plus, Nebraska challenged itself in the non-conference slate, scheduling Oregon for September 17. Fresno State and Wyoming should be wins, however.

Can Nebraska win nine or 10 games with this schedule? It's possible, but they'll need to score an upset or two. Mike Riley has his work cut out for him.

Next: No. 4 ??? >>>

4. Northwestern

Northwestern doesn't have a ridiculously hard non-conference schedule - the Wildcats get Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke. But their Big Ten slate is one of the more difficult in the league. Northwestern plays its usual round robin against the likes of Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois. But two of its three crossover games come on the road, and they're against...Michigan State and Ohio State.


Sept. 3 - Western Michigan
Sept. 10 - Illinois State
Sept. 17 - Duke
Sept. 24 - Nebraska
Oct. 1 - @Iowa
Oct. 15 - @Michigan State
Oct. 22 - Indiana
Oct. 29 - @Ohio State
Nov. 5 - Wisconsin
Nov. 12 - @Purdue
Nov. 19 - @Minnesota
Nov. 26 - Illinois

Northwestern actually won 10 games in 2015, but in games against top competition - Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee, they were blown out each time. They'll need to perform better in big games in 2016 if they want to keep the program's momentum going.

Next: No. 3 ??? >>>

3. Michigan State

Michigan State's road to repeating as Big Ten champion is a tough one. The Spartans have a loaded schedule - both in the conference and out of the conference. MSU's only easy win will likely come against Furman in the team's opener. After that, it gets real - real fast.

Michigan State has to travel to Notre Dame on September 17, before returning home for a contest against Wisconsin the next week. That's just the first month of the season.

Sept. 3 – Furman
Sept. 17 – @Notre Dame 
Sept. 24 – Wisconsin 
Oct. 1 – @Indiana 
Oct. 8 – BYU 
Oct. 15 – Northwestern 
Oct. 22 – @Maryland 
Oct. 29 – Michigan 
Nov. 5 – @Illinois 
Nov. 12 – Rutgers 
Nov. 19 – Ohio State 
Nov. 26 – @Penn State

MSU also takes on BYU - never an easy opponent - at home in October. And of course, they play Big Ten East foes Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, Ohio State and Penn State. 10 wins would be a real accomplishment.

Next: No. 2 ??? >>>

2. Ohio State

Ohio State, which lost just one game - to Michigan State - last year, will be looking to return to the top of the conference. They'll have to knock off pretty much every other league heavyweight to get it done. There's also a huge test in the non-conference portion of the schedule too.

After what should be easy victories over Bowling Green and Tulsa, Ohio State travels to Norman, Oklahoma to take on the Sooners. If they can prevail, they'll head into October with a 3-0 record and nine Big Ten games to go.

Oct. 3 – Bowling Green
Oct. 10 – Tulsa
Oct. 17 – @Oklahoma
Oct. 1 – Rutgers
Oct. 8 – Indiana
Oct. 15. – @Wisconsin
Oct. 22 – @Penn State
Oct. 29 – Northwestern
Nov. 5 – Nebraska
Nov. 12 – @Maryland
Nov. 19 – @Michigan State
Nov. 26 – Michigan

Ohio State plays its normal Big Ten East opponents - including Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State - along with crossovers Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska. Not easy.

Next: No. 1 ??? >>>

1. Wisconsin

Wisconsin's 2016 schedule is essentially as hard as its ever going to get for the Badgers. Here's why:

The Badgers open the season with LSU - one of the most hyped teams for next year - at Lambeau Field. After two winnable games against Akron and Georgia State, they open Big Ten play the last weekend of September. Their Big Ten slate is loaded.

Wisconsin, a member of the Big Ten West, plays its usual schedule of Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. Their three crossover games are Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. That's as hard as it gets in the conference.

Sept. 3 – LSU (neutral)
Sept. 10 – Akron 
Sept. 17 – Georgia State
Sept. 24 – @Michigan State
Oct. 1 – @Michigan
Oct. 15 – Ohio State
Oct. 22 – @Iowa
Oct. 29 – Nebraska
Nov. 5 – @Northwestern
Nov. 12 – Illinois
Nov. 19 – @Purdue
Nov. 26 – Minnesota 

Wisconsin won 10 games this past year, boasting the best defense in the Big Ten. Repeating that feat will be very, very difficult.

Next: 10 Most Intimidating CFB Stadiums In 2016