Breaking Down the 2013 Big Ten Football Schedule
We're one week removed from the end of the college football season and two weeks from the last game the Big Ten played on the season, and we're already in deep enough withdrawal that we're perusing the 2013 football schedules for our next fix. Can you blame us? Of course you can't blame us.
Not all schedules are created equal, of course. Nebraska ended up facing the 20th-toughest schedule in the country in 2012, per the Sagarin ratings; Ohio State's was 60th.
So, with that in mind, let's take a look at the slate facing the Big Ten teams in 2013 and where it might leave them as they fight toward a bowl game, a Big Ten Championship Game bid—or possibly more.
Iowa fans hoping for a quick return to the bowl season may be in for a rude surprise in 2013, as the Hawkeyes schedule looks to be a major hurdle on their road back to success. The nonconference schedule is manageable enough, though the trip to Iowa State usually means a loss for Kirk Ferentz. It's what happens in the Big Ten that should doom Iowa, however.
The Legends Division should once again be one of the toughest divisions top-to-bottom in all of college football, and Iowa gets no favors from the scheduling gods when it comes to interdivisional play. Here, Iowa is saddled with games against Ohio State, Wisconsin and perennial "rival" Purdue.
All told, Iowa faces all seven Big Ten bowl teams from 2012—and the eighth game is the worst of them all, a trip to Ohio State.
The Hawkeyes might be better on paper than they were in 2012, but with a conference schedule that doesn't have a single easy win (even the Purdue and Minnesota games are on the road this year), their record might be right back in 4-8 territory.
Ohio State sort of has a built-in advantage when it comes to scheduling since it's the only school in its division that never has to play Ohio State. Nonetheless, the Buckeyes' last schedule before the resume-conscious 2014 slate hits is an exercise in cupcakery (new word alert).
The offseason schedule is a joke, as a trip to slumping California is the only thing that could conceivably challenge the Buckeyes. Divisional rivals Wisconsin and Penn State both come to Columbus, and the only major test on the docket is a trip to Michigan to close out the regular season—at which point Urban Meyer could easily be 23-0 as Ohio State's head coach.
As mentioned before, this is the last year the Buckeyes can get away with a cream puff schedule like this; Virginia Tech and Cincinnati are on cue for next season, and those Penn State and Wisconsin games are away from the friendly confines of the 'Shoe. But for now, Ohio State fans, kick your feet up and relax: It's going to be a smooth ride in 2013.
Northwestern may be ascendant in its quest to join the big boys of the Big Ten, but it's going to have a brutal spree of games starting in October that could easily derail its hopes for even a decent bowl in 2013.
After a bye week caps Northwestern's typically placid nonconference schedule, the Wildcats are greeted by a home game against Ohio State. They then go on the road to Wisconsin (where Northwestern has won twice in the last 25 years) before hosting a surging Minnesota.
Next is a trip to Iowa—another historically poor venue for Northwestern, even in the good years—and then the Wildcats cap the five-game stretch by traveling further west for a game at Nebraska.
Here's how rough that stretch is: Northwestern should be happy to go 2-3 there. A very, very good team would go 2-3. You don't want to see 0-5, of course, but that's certainly less far-fetched than 5-0.
Oh, and things barely get better for the Wildcats. After another bye week, Michigan and Michigan State await. At least both are playing in Evanston, though.
Who Avoids Whom
The Big Ten's six-team divisions mean each team gets five divisional games a year and three interdivisional games, including one annual protected rivalry. Here are the three teams each Big Ten school gets to miss in 2013.
In the Leaders Division, Illinois avoids Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota. Indiana also won't play Iowa; the Hoosiers also miss Nebraska and Northwestern.
Ohio State won't play Michigan State, Minnesota or Nebraska, while Penn State gets the luxury of avoiding Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern. Purdue won't see Michigan, Minnesota or Northwestern, and Wisconsin is avoiding Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.
Over in the Legends Division, Iowa won't face Illinois, Indiana or Penn State. Michigan also misses Illinois; also missing from the Wolverines' docket are Purdue and Wisconsin. Michigan State avoids Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
To finish it all off, Nebraska is missing Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin, while Northwestern won't face Indiana, Penn State or Purdue.
Roadblocks to Conference Championship
Here are the games that could derail each conference title contender's season. If your team's not listed, it's either because it's ineligible for making the conference championship (Penn State) or bad enough that every game is a plausible loss (everyone else).
Ohio State: The season-ending trip to Michigan is by far the toughest game on Ohio State's schedule, but a home loss to either Penn State or Wisconsin could prove more damaging as the Buckeyes fight for a second straight Leaders Division title.
Wisconsin: The Badgers have to open up the conference season with a visit to the 'Shoe against Ohio State, and a late rivalry game against a well-coached foe like Minnesota could prove troublesome for first-year head coach Gary Andersen.
Michigan: Here's the thing about Michigan's schedule: The Wolverines aren't going to go anywhere near 0-8—even 4-4 is a stretch—but if Minnesota and Indiana continue their progressions up the ladder, there isn't an automatic win on that entire Big Ten slate. Plenty of likely wins, but even if Michigan falls to, like Iowa, what more is there to say than "hey man, Big Ten road games in November, look out"?
Michigan State: November looks brutal for Sparty. Sure, the season ends with a reasonably sure win at home against Minnesota, but prior to that are a game with Michigan then two road dates with Nebraska and Northwestern—two teams you should want absolutely no part of late in the Big Ten season.
Nebraska: If a home game against Northwestern doesn't count as a roadblock (and as 2011 proved, it should), certainly the following three games—at Michigan, vs. Michigan State, at Penn State—would qualify. A 2-2 record in that stretch is plausible. Going 3-1 is enough to earn Nebraska a division title.
Northwestern: As mentioned earlier, the five-game stretch between bye weeks that features Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska (to say nothing of tricky matchups with Iowa and Minnesota) could easily derail Northwestern's title hopes.
Roadblocks to BCS Championship
There aren't many BCS Championship contenders in the Big Ten, but here's what stands in the way for the conference's elite.
Ohio State: A road trip to California may trip up the Buckeyes if they sleepwalk their way through the nonconference schedule as badly as they did in 2012, but it's wholly reasonable to think Ohio State will be 11-0 when it travels to Ann Arbor to face Michigan.
Michigan: Notre Dame comes to town in what might be the most highly anticipated nonconference game of the Big Ten season (more on that later), and despite some heavy losses, the Irish will still have a level of talent to give Michigan all it can handle. Also, the Legends Division is basically one roadblock after another.
Nebraska: The Huskers should be happy to see UCLA come to town this year after the Bruins shellacked the Nebraska defense early on in 2012, but that's still going to be the same UCLA offense with the same quarterback—and Brett Hundley's only going to be more dangerous than last year, his freshman campaign.
Best Nonconference Matchups
Missouri at Indiana: Missouri struggled through its first season in the SEC, but the Tigers are dangerous enough to hang points on anyone—especially the porous Hoosier defense. Don't you dare count Kevin Wilson out of a fireworks show, though.
Notre Dame at Michigan: The Wolverines want revenge for a 13-6 loss that wasn't nearly that close, and getting the Irish in Ann Arbor may be the opportunity they need to jump-start a special season in 2013.
Michigan State at Notre Dame: Notre Dame was miles ahead of the Spartans in 2012, but both programs will be in rebuilding mode, and MSU could steal an enormous road win here.
UCLA at Nebraska: The Huskers will want to avenge last year's 36-30 loss at UCLA, and the "Blackshirt" defense will be particularly in pursuit of restoring some pride after the Bruins hung 643 yards of offense on the Huskers last year.
Wisconsin at Arizona State: Nobody's going to mistake Todd Graham's Sun Devils for the elite of the Pac-12, but their demolition of Navy in the Fight Hunger Bowl and eight-win season served notice that you go to Tempe at your own peril. Wisconsin should be in for a 60-minute fight here.
BYU at Wisconsin: The Badgers are the only two-time member of this list, which should give some indication as to how weak the Big Ten's nonconference slate is in 2013. At any rate, this rare October non-con game should go a long way in determining bowl destinations for both schools.
Early Games of the Season
We're going to ignore in-state games and FCS opponents because that is what any reasonable person would and should do with Week 1 snoozers. That said, there are a few intriguing matchups in the opening week.
Northern Illinois at Iowa: Going into the bowl season, NIU was the highest-ranked team anyone in the Big Ten had beaten in 2012—and Iowa was the team that pulled it off. Football is weird sometimes. Anyway, there might be some revenge at stake here, but NIU is breaking in a new coach, so the Huskies might fall once again.
Northwestern at California: Northwestern continues its annual tradition of scheduling major-conference lightweights in September, and this is yet another game that's more impressive than a MACrifice while still eminently winnable. Clever fellows, those Wildcats.
Penn State vs. Syracuse at East Rutherford: This game should be entertaining, as longtime rivals Syracuse and Penn State are getting back at it with a game at the new Meadowlands. The historical value probably outweighs the on-field quality, as both teams are likely .500-ish squads in 2013, but it'll be a sight for sore eyes for longtime football fans in the Northeast all the same.
Purdue at Cincinnati: Cincinnati is one of the better Big East teams out there, but like Purdue, the Bearcats are undergoing more flux than they'd like heading into 2013. Someone's catching someone off guard in this one, and if it's Purdue on top, that's a big win for the Big Ten.
Worst Nonconference Matchups
We could go 20-deep on this list. For your sake we won't.
Wyoming at Nebraska: We're perversely hoping the announcers refer to this game as a "border war," as if there's anyone living within 100 miles of the Wyoming-Nebraska border.
Indiana State at Indiana: In-state rivalries like this are why Indiana is a basketball state.
UNLV at Minnesota: For the second straight year, the Rebels and Gophers kick off the season a couple days early, and for the second straight year, it will be one of the most insanely idiotic games we have ever watched. At no point in the rambling, incoherent contest will they be close to anything considered quality football. Everyone in that stadium and watching on television will be dumber for having watched it. We award these teams no wins, and may God have mercy on their souls.
Illinois vs. Washington at Chicago: They're not seriously putting in a game's worth of foot traffic on the notoriously dodgy Soldier Field grass for an Illinois football game, are they?
Florida A&M at Ohio State: Braxton Miller might get in a quarter of work before his day is done. Yawn.
Tennessee Tech at Wisconsin: The Golden Eagles weren't even good by FCS standards; they went 3-8 in a weak Ohio Valley Conference in 2012.
Worst Bye Weeks
The 2013 calendar is slightly unusual, as there's one more Saturday between Labor Day and Thanksgiving than normal, so between that and the Big Ten's recent embracing of late November games, there are two bye weeks to go around.
As such, we see several quirks of scheduling arise around these two breaks, and not all of them are positive.
Nebraska fans get a wrench thrown into their regular football schedule with all of ONE home game in October, thanks to a five-week stretch that goes bye week, vs. Illinois, at Purdue, bye week, at Minnesota. That's an excellent way to derail any sense of a weekly routine of following the team—to say nothing of demolishing the players' seasonal rhythm.
Penn State also has one home game in that stretch, thanks to bye weeks on the same dates and road games following each. Woof.
Ohio State's first bye week comes between games at Northwestern and against Iowa, so if in early October you wonder why you haven't seen any Buckeye highlights on ESPN for three weeks, there's why. The @Purdue-bye-@Illinois stretch might be even worse.
There is a team that at least has a road game with Michigan leading to one bye week and a home date with Penn State preceding the other. That team is frickin' Minnesota. Well, at least nobody can accuse the Big Ten of playing favorites with its scheduling.