As Big Ten Media Days kicks off and pundits go into overdrive with their preseason predictions and expectations, which will win their respective divisions, and which will be the next team to receive a bowl ban, it is worth considering the path to the conference championship.
In other words, which program faces the toughest course to the Dec. 3 matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis?
Even though both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for both the conference championship game and a bowl game, they will be included in this countdown.
The first Big Ten game has Michigan State facing Boise State on Aug. 31, just 36 days away.
That game will play a substantial part in determining which team—starting with the softest and finishing with the strongest—has the conference's toughest schedule.
09/01: Indiana State Sycamores (FCS)
09/08: At Massachusetts Minutemen
09/15: Ball State Cardinals
09/29: At Northwestern Wildcats
10/06: Michigan State Spartans
10/13: Ohio State Buckeyes
10/20: At Navy Midshipmen
10/27: At Illinois Fighting Illini
11/03: Iowa Hawkeyes
11/10: Wisconsin Badgers
11/17: At Penn State Nittany Lions
11/24: At Purdue Boilermakers
Missing from the conference slate: Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota
The out-of-conference (OOC) includes one FCS team and another—UMass—that was an FCS program last year. Neither of the other OOC opponents went to bowls in 2011, though Ball State was bowl eligible.
In-conference, Indiana misses two of the top three teams in the Legends Division. The only daunting road trip is to Penn State, and, as anybody that has turned on the TV, picked up a paper or read an online sports site in the last nine months knows, PSU has some issues.
The only ranked teams the Hoosiers are likely to play are Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and all of those are at home.
If this were any team but Indiana, it would be a guarantee of bowl eligibility.
09/01: Northern Illinois Huskies at Soldier Field, Chicago
09/08: Iowa State Cyclones
09/15: Northern Iowa Panthers (FCS)
09/22: Central Michigan Chippewas
09/29: Minnesota Golden Gophers
10/13: At Michigan State Spartans
10/20: Penn State Nittany Lions
10/27: At Northwestern Wildcats
11/03: At Indiana Hoosiers
11/10: Purdue Boilermakers
11/17: At Michigan Wolverines
11/23: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Missing from the conference slate: Wisconsin, Ohio State and Illinois
First of all, Iowa doesn't play a true roadie until the middle of October. Secondly, Iowa's toughest OOC foe is Iowa State, which went 6-7 last season and hasn't beaten Iowa in Kinnick Stadium since 2002.
The Hawkeyes miss the three top teams from the Leaders Division, and they get Nebraska at home.
The road games at Michigan and MSU will be tough, and Northern Illinois is a tough "cupcake" draw, but this schedule should help make the Hawks look much better than they are.
09/01: Western Michigan Broncos
09/08: At Arizona State Sun Devils
09/15: Charleston Southern Buccaneers (FCS)
09/22: Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
09/29: Penn State Nittany Lions
10/06: At Wisconsin Badgers
10/13: At Michigan Wolverines
10/27: Indiana Hoosiers
11/03: At Ohio State Buckeyes
11/10: Minnesota Golden Gophers
11/17: Purdue Boilermakers
11/24: At Northwestern Wildcats
Missing from the conference slate: Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska
Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech are tough cupcake draws, but shouldn't present any real problems for the Illini.
A roadie to Arizona State is never easy, but the Sun Devils only return eight starters—tied for fourth-fewest returning starters in the country, per Phil Steele—and will be breaking in a new coach.
Illinois misses two of the top three from the Legends Division. The conference road slate is brutal, but outside of trips to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, there is nothing on this schedule that looks particularly imposing.
09/01: Northern Iowa Panthers (FCS)
09/08: At Oregon State Beavers
09/15: Utah State Aggies
09/22: Texas-El Paso Miners
09/29: At Nebraska Cornhuskers
10/06: Illinois Fighting Illini
10/13: At Purdue Boilermakers
10/20: Minnesota Golden Gophers
10/27: Michigan State Spartans
11/10: At Indiana Hoosiers
11/17: Ohio State Buckeyes
11/24: At Penn State Nittany Lions
Missing from the conference slate: Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa
Three of the OOC foes will be a cakewalk, though Oregon State is tougher than first appears. Plus, playing two time zones away is never an easy task.
The Badgers' only tough roadies are at Nebraska and Penn State, and the latter won't be competitive this year (for both on-the-field and off-the-field reasons).
Wisconsin misses Northwestern and Iowa, both of whom are competitive but neither of whom would present a substantial threat to the Badgers.
However, missing the Wolverines will be a big boon to ensuring Wisconsin's second straight trip to Indianapolis.
09/01: Ohio Bobcats
09/08: At Virginia Cavaliers
09/15: Navy Midshipmen
09/22: Temple Owls
09/29: At Illinois Fighting Illini
10/06: Northwestern Wildcats
10/20: At Iowa Hawkeyes
10/27: Ohio State Buckeyes
11/03: At Purdue Boilermakers
11/10: At Nebraska Cornhuskers
11/17: Indiana Hoosiers
11/24: Wisconsin Badgers
Missing from the conference slate: Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota
The OOC is deceptively challenging. Ohio is a legitimate double-digit win team this coming season and will push Penn State to its limits. In fact, chalk that one up as a game with major upset potential.
A road trip to Virginia will not be easy, Navy—with their option game—is always challenging, and Temple is no longer a pushover.
In-conference, PSU gets the benefit of missing Michigan and MSU, but also miss Minnesota. Roadies at Iowa and Nebraska will be challenging, but the Nits get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home.
This year, a loss in the OOC might be the difference between a winning and losing record.
08/30: At UNLV Rebels
09/08: New Hampshire Wildcats (FCS)
09/15: Western Michigan Broncos
09/22: Syracuse Orange
09/29: At Iowa Hawkeyes
10/13: Northwestern Wildcats
10/20: At Wisconsin Badgers
10/27: Purdue Boilermakers
11/03: Michigan Wolverines
11/10: At Illinois Fighting Illini
11/17: At Nebraska Cornhuskers
11/24: Michigan State Spartans
Missing from the conference slate: Ohio State, Indiana and Penn State
A roadie to Vegas is tough, but UNLV is not actually good, having managed four wins over the last two seasons.
Western Michigan is a tough cupcake draw and Syracuse may or may not be on its way back, but both are at home and are winnable.
All of the conference roadies are challenging, and Minnesota misses Indiana, unarguably the worst team in the Big Ten this year. Moreover, Penn State won't be especially good either.
On the other hand, missing Ohio State helps.
09/01: Eastern Kentucky Colonels (FCS)
09/08: At Notre Dame Fighting Irish
09/15: Eastern Michigan Eagles
09/29: Marshall Thundering Herd
10/06: Michigan Wolverines
10/13: Wisconsin Badgers
10/20: At Ohio State Buckeyes
10/27: At Minnesota Golden Gophers
11/03: Penn State Nittany Lions
11/10: At Iowa Hawkeyes
11/17: At Illinois Fighting Illini
11/24: Indiana Hoosiers
Missing from conference slate: Michigan State, Northwestern and Nebraska
South Bend will be tough, but other than that, Purdue will be able to add three easy wins to their record.
In-conference, the Boilers miss two of the top three teams in the Legends Division.
Road trips to Ohio State and Iowa will prove challenging, but the Boilers get Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State at home.
09/01: At Syracuse Orange
09/08: Vanderbilt Commodores
09/15: Boston College Eagles
09/22: South Dakota Coyotes (FCS)
09/29: Indiana Hoosiers
10/06: At Penn State Nittany Lions
10/13: At Minnesota Golden Gophers
10/20: Nebraska Cornhuskers
10/27: Iowa Hawkeyes
11/10: At Michigan Wolverines
11/17: At Michigan State Spartans
11/24: Illinois Fighting Illini
Missing from the conference slate: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue
Syracuse, Vandy and BC are hardly Virginia Tech, Bama and Florida State, but Northwestern is the only Big Ten squad with three AQ teams on their OOC slate. It is feasible that NU could end their OOC 1-3.
The conference schedule is more favorable, relatively speaking, with Northwestern missing the top two teams in the Leaders Division and three of the top four.
At Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State will be tough, but the Wildcats get Nebraska and Iowa at home. Also, they get a well-timed bye week before the roughest part of the schedule.
09/01: Southern Miss Golden Eagles
09/08: At UCLA Bruins
09/15: Arkansas State Red Wolves
09/22: Idaho State Bengals (FCS)
09/29: Wisconsin Badgers
10/03: At Ohio State Buckeyes
10/20: At Northwestern Wildcats
10/27: Michigan Wolverines
11/03: At Michigan State Spartans
11/10: Penn State Nittany Lions
11/17: Minnesota Golden Gophers
11/23: At Iowa Hawkeyes
Missing from the conference slate: Illinois, Purdue and Indiana
Southern Miss and Arkansas State are actually worthy draws, and are two teams that could conceivably pull an upset.
UCLA won't be a tough opponent, but, as mentioned before, a road trip two time zones to the west is always difficult.
The Huskers miss the two middling teams from the East—Illinois and Purdue—but they also have the misfortune of missing Indiana, which would arguably be an easier win than Arkansas State or Southern Miss.
The Cornhuskers get Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State at home, but road games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa will test them.
09/01: Miami (OH) RedHawks
09/08: Central Florida Knights
09/15: California Golden Bears
09/22: Alabama-Birmingham Blazers
09/29: At Michigan State Spartans
10/06: Nebraska Cornhuskers
10/13: At Indiana Hoosiers
10/20: Purdue Boilermakers
10/27: At Penn State Nittany Lions
11/03: Illinois Fighting Illini
11/17: At Wisconsin Badgers
11/24: Michigan Wolverines
Missing from the conference slate: Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota
Central Florida is a legitimate potential BCS-buster if it gets through Ohio State. And Miami (OH) is a tough draw, relatively speaking, from the MAC.
Also, Cal, while not USC, will not be a pushover.
The Bucks miss the middling programs from the west—Iowa and Northwestern—as well as the division's weakest team, though Minnesota won't be much weaker than Northwestern.
Roadies at MSU and Wisconsin will be tough. Penn State should be a safe win for the Buckeyes, but traveling to Happy Valley is always a test. Finally, OSU gets Nebraska and Michigan at home.
08/31: Boise State Broncos
09/08: At Central Michigan Chippewas, Kelly/Shorts Stadium, Mt. Pleasant, Mich.
09/15: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
09/22: Eastern Michigan Eagles
09/29: Ohio State Buckeyes
10/06: At Indiana Hoosiers
10/13: Iowa Hawkeyes
10/20: At Michigan Wolverines
10/27: At Wisconsin Badgers
11/03: Nebraska Cornhuskers
11/17: Northwestern Wildcats
11/24: At Minnesota Golden Gophers
Missing from the conference slate: Purdue, Penn State and Illinois
The Spartans have a tough OOC schedule, featuring home games against Boise State and Notre Dame.
Thankfully for the Spartans, Boise State has the fewest returning starters in the country, but the Broncos always play with a chip on their shoulder.
As for the Domers, Brian Kelly has to do something notable this season or his seat will catch fire. That will begin with the date at Spartan Stadium.
In-conference, the Spartans miss the Leaders' middling teams—Purdue and Illinois—as well as Penn State.
The Spartans do have Michigan and Wisconsin on the road, but the other conference road games should be knock-offs.
That leaves OSU, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern at home in what is arguably the toughest in-conference slate.
09/01: Alabama Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
09/08: Air Force Falcons
09/15: Massachusetts Minutemen
09/22: At Notre Dame Fighting Irish
10/06: At Purdue Boilermakers
10/13: Illinois Fighting Illini
10/20: Michigan State Spartans
10/27: At Nebraska Cornhuskers
11/03: At Minnesota Golden Gophers
11/10: Northwestern Wildcats
11/17: Iowa Hawkeyes
11/24: At Ohio State Buckeyes
Missing from the conference slate: Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana
'Bama at a neutral site and Notre Dame on the road will start Michigan off with a bang. Even Air Force, which has been bowl eligible for each of the past five seasons, won't be easy.
In-conference, the Wolverines are spared Wisconsin, but missing Penn State and Indiana do Big Blue no favors.
Add to that a road slate that includes at Nebraska and OSU and the Wolverines have the toughest overall road to Indianapolis in the Big Ten conference this year.