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Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 5 Toughest in-Conference Schedules

David Fitzgerald IICorrespondent ISeptember 11, 2013

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 5 Toughest in-Conference Schedules

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    A conference schedule can make or break the championship hopes for many teams, and the Big Ten is no different in 2013. This begs the question: what teams have the toughest roads remaining to the conference championship in Indianapolis?

    Although most Big Ten teams will not start conference play until September 28 or October 5, the first conference game is a little over a week away (Purdue at Wisconsin).

    Thus, this weekend is the final weekend where all 12 conference teams will play non-conference games. Most of what will be known about these teams before Big Ten play has therefore already been established in the first two weeks of 2013.

    There are three criteria that have been used to evaluate the relative strength of schedule for Big Ten teams this year: (1) tough road games, (2) non-favorable cross-division games and (3) brutal two-to-four week stretches of nothing but difficult games. These are the items that tend to sidetrack title contenders on an annual basis.

    It is incredibly difficult to defeat a good or mid-quality team on their own home field, thanks to the inherent advantages of having a raucous fan base behind it. Similarly, a higher density of games against the top teams in the conference caused by rough cross-division matchups also makes it very hard to run the table.

    If teams could hand pick schedules, the big games would be punctuated by lesser games and bye weeks so that the team could really gear up for these bigger contests. Larger breaks also allow a team to get healthier between major conference games as well.

    With these three criteria in mind, five teams have schedules that stood out in at least two of the three criteria categories. The following teams will have the toughest schedules and paths to Indianapolis.

     

    * Honorable mention goes to Illinois, Ohio State and Nebraska, who just missed the list. However, they only fit one of the three criteria, even if these teams fit that single criteria well.

5. Northwestern

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    Northwestern achieved double-digit wins and a bowl victory in 2012, which led many to pick them as a sleeper contender in the conference for this season. Unfortunately, the Wildcats also take a huge step up in schedule difficulty right when the team appears to be peaking.

    Northwestern faces a tough road schedule that includes Wisconsin and Nebraska, two of the (arguably) four best teams in the league outside Evanston. Add home dates against Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, and Northwestern basically plays every other team seriously contending for a conference title.

    The Wildcats also received no favors in the cross-division schedules, adding Wisconsin and Ohio State to replace easier competition from the Leaders Division. With both of those games kicking off the conference schedule, a lot will be known about the strength of NU right away once conference play begins.

    If Northwestern can protect the home field by avoiding more than one loss at home, then a mere split of the two tough road games may be sufficient to win the Legends Division.

    That may not look the best from the outside, but it would show that the conference is becoming deeper in talent. After all, when the Vanderbilt, Stanford and Northwestern types of schools are good, it raises the profile of all their respective conferences.

4. Penn State

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    Penn State fits the same criteria as Northwestern in much the same manner, so it was difficult to rank these two schedules. However, the Nittany Lions come out with a slightly higher rank and tougher schedule because of their more difficult road games.

    Those road games in conference play include Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Unlike centrally-located Northwestern in Chicago, the Nittany Lions must travel extremely long distances to play in different time zones when they go to Madison and Minneapolis.

    That type of effect with long travel and a depleted roster cannot be understated. In addition, the Hoosiers and Golden Gophers appear to be teams on the rise, albeit with some problems still lingering, like the Indiana defense.

    No matter how poised and composed Christian Hackenberg has looked so far, he will likely be rattled by the settings in Wisconsin and Ohio State. Add to that a ridiculously tough draw of Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota from the Legends Division, and this schedule is a recipe for a worse conference record than the 6-2 mark in 2012.

    Although Penn State may upset one of the top four teams in the conference, a 5-3 conference record looks to be the best that can be realistically expected given this tough conference schedule.

3. Michigan

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    Coming in as a bit of a surprise this high on the toughest schedule list is the team from Ann Arbor, which may be making a case for Big Ten co-favorite alongside the Buckeyes now. Although Nebraska has a chance to make a statement against UCLA this weekend, no team has looked more impressive or has a bigger win than Michigan in the Legends Division.

    Michigan does qualify under all three criteria considered. The road schedule will be a good test for Brady Hoke's team, as it includes trips to Penn State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa. Only the game in Iowa City should be easy from that lot.

    Michigan also has the misfortune of the protected cross-division game with Ohio State, which means the mere rotation of Penn State onto the schedule makes the cross-division schedule less favorable than most other Legends Division teams. At least the Buckeyes have to come through Ann Arbor, just like Nebraska.

    Michigan also must survive a brutal three-game stretch to begin November: at Michigan State, followed by Nebraska and at Northwestern. Those are the three games likely to decide the division title, and getting them back-to-back is no picnic.

    Add to that the final two weeks at Iowa and then the big game against OSU, and November will be one to remember in Ann Arbor. At least, it will be if Michigan keeps playing at such a high level.

2. Iowa

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    Now it comes down to the two toughest schedules in Big Ten conference play, and both of the teams at the top qualify under all three criteria discussed throughout this article. In addition, both of these top teams suffer from having at least one criterion be especially difficult.

    For Iowa, the good news is that it does not have the toughest schedule in conference play. The bad news is that the Hawkeyes still look ill-equipped to handle even an above-average difficulty level, let alone what faces Kirk Ferentz's team.

    One would expect that a team having a protected crossover game against lowly Purdue (hooray the Black and Gold Bowl...crickets) would not have the misfortune of a tough inter-division schedule. But Iowa draws the worst possible other two games, with a road game at Columbus and a home game against rival Wisconsin.

    Iowa has not won at Columbus since 1991. It's a black hole of despair.

    In addition to the Buckeyes, Iowa also has the "pleasure" of visiting Purdue, Minnesota and Nebraska for other road games. The trips to Columbus and Lincoln are more than enough to qualify as a difficult road schedule, plus Minnesota will not be easy as a rivalry game.

    Iowa also faces a defining three-game stretch from October 19 through November 2: at Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Even with a bye week to prepare for the first of these games, it will be surprising to see any wins in this stretch.

    That will make it highly difficult to get back to six wins and a bowl game.

1. Indiana

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    When Indiana failed to avenge last season's loss to Navy last weekend, that made the task of getting back to a bowl much tougher for Kevin Wilson's team. Although the final two non-conference games are at home, it could be difficult to win over both a sneaky Bowling Green team and Missouri.

    And then comes the Big Ten schedule, which looks more and more difficult by the day.

    Indiana cannot afford losses at home because the road schedule is near impossible. That slate includes games at Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Notably, those four games come in two sets of consecutive weekends, which makes the schedule even tougher.

    Add a home game against Minnesota to the mix and it becomes clear that the Hoosiers also did not get the best shake from cross-division play. Instead of having a team like Iowa on the schedule again, Indiana must step up in difficulty in 2013.

    Indiana may technically have two brutal stretches caused by the consecutive road game pairs listed above, but the first of those is kicked off in October by a home game against Penn State before the consecutive trips to the Michigan schools. That is simply too tough for the Hoosiers, in all likelihood.

    An 0-3 start to conference play would kill morale, but that may just be what happens. Then Indiana could fade back to the bottom of the division, perhaps even letting Purdue sneak another win away from Bloomington.

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    Thanks for reading! Please comment on how you would rank the toughest league schedules in the comments below, and I can also be found on Twitter (@DA_Fitzgerald for sports only and article links, @BuckeyeFitzy for personal and game-day commentary purposes).

    See you later this week with more analysis and stories, including live game grades for Michigan on Saturday.

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