Michigan didn't have many tough contests in 2011, but its first prime-time game turned into an instant classic.
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.
Why does a drum major need shin guards?
Sept. 1: vs. Northern Iowa
Sept. 8: at Oregon State
Sept. 15: vs. Utah State
Sept. 22: vs. UTEP
Wisconsin's 2011 season was almost certainly hampered by its weak non-conference schedule; the Badgers struggled mightily to rise in the rankings as they started the season 4-0, since none of the wins were of any merit, and one could easily make the case that the Badger defense was unprepared for the strength of the Big Ten thanks to playing a slate full of cupcakes early.
That cupcakery continues unabated in 2012, with the only BCS-level team being Oregon State—quite possibly the worst team in the Pac-12. Northern Iowa should provide scant resistance for the Badgers, and if Wisconsin doesn't hang a 50-spot on Utah State or UTEP, it's because the Badgers just didn't try for long enough.
The Badgers will go 4-0 with this slate. That's a mortal lock. Whether that's even a good thing for Wisconsin is debatable.
This was pretty much the best Indiana football picture from 2011 on Getty. Positive yardage! Probably!
Sept. 1: vs. Indiana State
Sept. 8: at Massachusetts
Sept. 15: vs. Ball State
Oct. 20: at Navy
This schedule's going to be tough for Indiana because literally any schedule in the FBS would be tough for Indiana, but compared to the rest of the Big Ten, it's really not very good. Massachusetts—a new addition to the MAC—is going to be feisty, and nobody actually enjoys facing Navy and its flexbone offensive attack.
But Navy's the closest thing to a BCS-level program on that entire slate, and in terms of BCS quality, Navy ain't that. Most Big Ten teams would sweep this schedule with ease. We expect at least two wins from Indiana, and God help us all if they can't manage that.
Sept. 1: vs. Miami (Ohio)
Sept. 8: vs. Central Florida
Sept. 15: vs. California
Sept. 22: vs. UAB
Four games, four dates at Ohio Stadium. Three of the teams didn't qualify for a bowl game, and the fourth is Cal, who lost to Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Cal brings back QB Zach Maynard and star receiver Keenan Allen, but that's about it for the passing game. Likewise, the Cal defense was tops in the Pac-12 last year, but everyone who even registered at least 50 tackles has graduated.
The only reason this schedule isn't in last place is because Ohio State scheduled four FBS teams. Give the Buckeyes that—unless it's Youngstown State, OSU just doesn't schedule FCS teams.
/checks future schedules
/sees Florida A&M on 2013 slate
Aug. 30: at UNLV
Sept. 8: vs. New Hampshire
Sept. 15: vs. Western Michigan
Sept. 22: vs. Syracuse
For all the Week 1 excitement in college football, it's worth noticing that Minnesota's going to be leading off the Big Ten's year with a trip out to Las Vegas on Thursday, Aug. 30. That should be a slap-fight for the ages, as the Rebels and Gophers are both really not so great at football. Still, unless Minnesota's players develop debilitating gambling habits there in Vegas, this should probably be a Gophers victory.
And after that, well, Western Michigan is relatively decent (as MAC teams go), and Syracuse is still trying to get back in business on a yearly basis under Doug Marrone. These aren't compelling opponents, regardless of which Big Ten team is fielding that slate, and while that's sorta par for the course around the conference these days, it's not fun to watch.
Sept. 1: vs. Northern Illinois (at Chicago, IL)
Sept. 8: vs. Iowa State
Sept. 15: vs. Northern Iowa
Sept. 22: vs. Central Michigan
The trip to Soldier Field should be an interesting one for Iowa. Northern Illinois is coming off some rather remarkable success (at least, as NIU football goes), but QB Chandler Harnish and offensive coordinator Matt Canada have both gone on to bigger and better things. Plus, it's a MAC team, and despite the fact that NIU looks like it has the geographic advantage at Soldier Field, expect Hawkeye fans to dominate the balance of fan allegiance there.
Past that, there's not a whole lot to see. Iowa State has been roughly Iowa's equal over the last 15 years or so, but the Cyclones haven't won in Kinnick since a horrific Hawkeye meltdown in 2002, and the last matchup in Iowa City was painfully lopsided. Northern Iowa is strong as FCS programs go, but Iowa really has no business losing that game. CMU might be worse than UNI.
So it's an eminently manageable slate of games for Iowa (and most of the rest of the Big Ten), and if the Hawkeyes don't get through this one unmarked, it might be a rough year for the black and gold.
Sept. 1: vs. Ohio
Sept. 8: at Virginia
Sept. 15: vs. Navy
Sept. 22: vs. Temple
Sure, there's the requisite three home games against non-BCS competition on Penn State's docket this year, but that road game in Week 2? You don't want your team going on the road to Virginia. No way, no how, doesn't matter what Big Ten team you've got. Mike London is putting together a solid team there in Charlottesville, and he could probably beat the vast majority of Big Ten teams there.
Also, don't look now, but Steve Addazio has Temple—Temple, people!—looking like a legit MAC contender. The Owls quite nearly took down Penn State in Happy Valley last year, won nine games in 2011 and will probably give PSU four more tough quarters this year.
And then there's pesky, tricky Navy. Penn State's probably good enough defensively to make that game only a minor concern, but then again, this isn't a Nittany Lions team that's going to be running the score up on many opponents, so there's some danger there. Just some.
Sept. 1: vs. Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 8: at Notre Dame
Sept. 15: vs. Eastern Michigan
Sept. 29: vs. Marshall
To be clear, this is essentially a one-game non-con schedule. But what a game it is. Brian Kelly may not have Notre Dame in championship contention, but the fact of the matter is going to South Bend is much more ambitious than what most teams in the Big Ten are attempting this year.
Granted, this is an annual rivalry game and not just the whim of an athletic director, but we're judging ends here, not the means.
The rest of the slate is dreck.
Sept. 1: at Syracuse
Sept. 8: vs. Vanderbilt
Sept. 15: vs. Boston College
Sept. 22: vs. South Dakota
OK, so Northwestern is the only team in the Big Ten that plays three other BCS-conference teams in the non-con slate, and for that the Wildcats deserve some recognition.
That said, it's entirely debatable whether any of those three "BCS" teams are any good whatsoever this year. Syracuse took a major step back in 2011, especially against Big East competition, and Boston College looked worse last year than it had in over a decade. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has two settings: "Jay Cutler is our quarterback" and "terrible." A quick perusal of the Commodores' roster for 2012 confirms that they will be terrible.
So pardon us if we're not entirely enthused by Northwestern's appeal to conference name recognition over opponent quality. It could definitely be worse—this does still qualify as the fifth-best slate—but please, let's be smarter than to consider what Northwestern did here a major act of scheduling bravery.
Sept. 1: vs. Western Michigan
Sept. 8: at Arizona State
Sept. 15: vs. Charleston Southern
Sept. 22: vs. Louisiana Tech
That trip to Tempe is a doozy, but it's hardly the only trouble spot. Western Michigan is traditionally tougher than its MAC standing would let on; in the last 10 years, it boasts wins over Illinois and Iowa, plus several one-possession losses to other Big Ten teams. The Broncos are going to miss Alex Carder at quarterback, but Bill Cubit usually puts out a solidly-coached team. This should be a good barometer for how well-prepared Illinois is coming into the season
Additionally, Louisiana Tech's coming off an eight-win season that saw the Bulldogs lose a hard-fought Poinsettia Bowl to TCU, and there's some talent still there. If Illinois is a contender, we'll see them put Tech away at home, but don't mark this one down as a W yet.
Sept. 1: vs. Southern Mississippi
Sept. 8: at UCLA
Sept. 15: vs. Arkansas State
Sept. 22: vs. Idaho State
At first blush, seeing one BCS-conference team and one road game on Nebraska's slate is disappointing. And yes, the Idaho State game is an absolute howler. But there's a lot of intrigue on this schedule.
Southern Miss is riding an 18-year streak of winning seasons, and last year saw the Golden Eagles upend undefeated Houston in the Conference USA championship, then edge Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl to finish 12-2.
Yes, USM will be missing QB Austin Davis and leading tackler Ronnie Thornton, but RB Jamal Woodyard is a star in the making and USM's defense is well-coached enough to give Nebraska's option attack fits.
The road game at UCLA shouldn't be too much of a hassle, since the Bruins were painful enough to get Rick Neuheisel sacked, and Jim Mora probably doesn't have that team in position to contend this early.
But the real treat might be Arkansas State, which will run Gus Malzahn's special brand of offensive wizardry. The talent might not be there for the Red Wolves as yet, but if Nebraska's defense spends the entire game chasing instead of stopping, the talent gap might not matter as much.
Aug. 31: vs. Boise State
Sept. 8: at Central Michigan
Sept. 15: vs. Notre Dame
Sept. 22: vs. Eastern Michigan
Michigan State is one of the Big Ten's leading candidates for winning the conference, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Spartans could easily start the season 1-2 without playing a single BCS-conference team or leaving the state of Michigan.
Of course, that's a completely misleading way to describe the Spartans' non-conference schedule, which is nasty. Boise State's only a non-BCS school because its Big East contract begins in 2013, and Notre Dame is, obviously, a BCS-level team that just doesn't have a conference. Weirdos.
The CMU game is on the road and might be something of a trap game sandwiched between BSU and the Fighting Irish, but that's really not a good team that MSU'll be facing and the only real question is how long the Chips can force the Spartans to keep their starters in.
Sept. 1: vs. Alabama (at Dallas, TX)
Sept. 8: vs. Massachusetts
Sept. 15: vs. Air Force
Sept. 22: at Notre Dame
When your season kicks off against the defending national champions on a neutral field (one that's bound to be more crimson than maize or blue), that's a pretty good trump card on the rest of the conference as far as non-conference scheduling. That a trip to South Bend also looms is icing on the cake—a cake nobody in their right mind should ever want.
A 4-0 start here is possible—anything is possible in college football, and Michigan found that one out in its '07 season opener—but it strains credulity at this point, especially with Fitz Toussaint's status still yet to be determined. With any luck, this is a 3-1 start, and if Michigan gets through this slate at that, it probably doesn't deserve much (if any) of a drop in the polls.