One of the most crucial aspects of a team's success every year has very, very little to do with the amount of hard work that goes into creating and sustaining a top-notch program.
That X-factor is, of course, the schedule: the 12-game regular season slate by which every team is over-analyzed and nitpicked. And since not all schedules are created equal, one tough game here or unexpected cupcake there can swing the momentum of an entire season just by itself.
And while teams are essentially handed their conference schedules, for better or worse, they do decide their non-conference opponents—usually several years in advance. So while championships aren't won in September, they can certainly be lost then, and here's a look at the non-conference slate of each Big Ten team and what it means for the season ahead.
Of course, this is still a talent-driven game, and just as good teams find ways to win, mediocre teams find ways to lose, so don't read too much into these rankings. Still, we have some instances where a team might be better on paper than last year, but could end up with a worse record thanks to an improved slate of teams.
And just imagine how important all of this'll be once strength of schedule becomes a playoff component.