The Big Ten West is clearly the weaker half of the conference (at least at the top of the divisions) coming into 2017, but college football can always surprise us. There is certainly at least one team in the division (Wisconsin) that should be a dark horse Playoff contender, even though the Badgers certainly don’t have the non-conference schedule I would expect from a Playoff team.
But that’s why I’m here. I’m going to grade the schedules of all the Big Ten West teams and see who is playing up to their level and who isn’t.
Grading teams’ schedules is always a bit of a subjective art. After all, it would be foolish to expect Kansas to schedule the same teams as Alabama. A team expecting to be in the Playoff picture has to schedule better than a team who can’t even expect to make a bowl game. Also, I try to take into account when the game was scheduled as much as possible.
Just to review my format, I will grade each nonconference game that each team plays, with an explanation for that grade. Then, I will grade the entirety of the non-conference schedule overall.
Big Ten West Non-conference Schedule Grades
Illinois Fighting Illini
Sept. 2, Ball State
Lovie Smith needs wins in his second year as head coach at Illinois, when the Illini will be lucky to be favored in three games all season. This is the only guaranteed win on the schedule; Illinois better not waste it.
Sept. 9, Western Kentucky
Illinois does not play a single P5 team out of conference, but that’s okay. Western Kentucky is a perfectly strong opponent from a Group of 5 conference, and the Hilltoppers have been bouncing around the edge of the Top 25 consistently for a few years now. This is a quality nonconference opponent for a good P5 team, let alone a bad one.
Sept. 15, @South Florida
This is another quality nonconference opponent, even though Illinois probably was expecting an easy win during a recruiting trip to Florida. This is by far USF’s best nonconference game, which doesn’t say much about the Bulls’ schedule at all.
There are no P5 teams on this schedule, and I’m okay with that. This would be a good nonconference schedule for any P5 team (maybe not legitimate Playoff contenders), and this is certainly good for Illinois.
Sept. 2, Wyoming
This was without question meant to be an easy win for Iowa. Well, Iowa suffered a shocking nonconference loss last year to Craig Bohl’s old team. Don’t be shocked if it happens again this year with his new one. This wasn’t meant to give the schedule a boost, but it will end up doing so.
Sept. 9, @Iowa State
The Hawkeyes almost never play P5 teams out of conference other than this rivalry game. I don’t expect Iowa to be a Playoff contender anytime soon, but if the Hawkeyes become one don’t expect the committee to have any sympathy for their nonconference schedule.
September 16th, North Texas
The Mean Green is no longer the cupcake that they once were, but this still isn’t a good nonconference game.
This schedule is bad. The best team on it is Wyoming, and that game certainly was not intended to be a tough one. The Hawkeyes get both Penn State and Ohio State in cross-divisional play, so they won’t get punished too hard by the committee if they are in the running for an NY6 bowl, but they should be.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Aug. 31, Buffalo
Lance Leipold is expected to turn Buffalo around, but he hasn’t yet. This should be an easy cupcake win for PJ Fleck’s opening game.
Sept. 9, @Oregon State
This home-and-home was theoretically supposed to be between two Power 5 teams of equal strength — somewhere in the bottom third of their respective conferences. That’s not going to happen, though. Minnesota is probably in the top half of the Big Ten. Oregon State will be lucky to not be the worst in the Pac 12.
Sept. 16, Middle Tennessee
These are one of the types of games that I love. We have a pretty good P5 team willing to schedule a potentially good Group of 5 team. These games don’t quite happen enough (I know, Middle Tennessee is no Boise State), and I love it when they do.
This is a poor overall schedule, especially for a solid P5 team. It has a decent game against a Group of 5 team on it, but the P5 opponent is just not up to what Minnesota should be playing. I admit that I might have higher expectations of Minnesota than most, but these are my grades and that’s my right.
Sept. 2, Arkansas State
The Red Wolves have not had much nonconference success, but are still one of the better programs in the Sun Belt. If Nebraska was going to schedule a Sun Belt team, at least it scheduled a good one.
Sept. 9, @Oregon
This is the return trip of one of the best home-and-homes currently scheduled. Sure, the Cornhuskers will be breaking in a new quarterback and might not quite be the blue-blood they once were. And sure, Oregon had a massive drop-off last year. Still, this is a home-and-home between what are supposed to be two top programs. I have to respect that.
Sept. 16, Northern Illinois
My view of Northern Illinois is similar to that of Arkansas State, except that the Huskies have had even more success against P5 teams in recent years. Northern Illinois is no Boise State, but the Huskies are one of the best Group of 5 programs of this decade, and it takes some guts to schedule them.
It’s entirely possible that all three of Nebraska’s opponents will be terrible this year. Oregon won only four games last year, Northern Illinois struggled in Rod Carey’s third year, and Arkansas State lost all four nonconference games last year. On the other hand, all three of these teams are potential Top 40 teams, which makes this a pretty risky schedule in both directions. Still, being risky means it took guts to schedule. At the end of the day, it’s a road game against a top P5 program of the last decade, and two of the best Group of 5 programs since 2010.
Sept. 2, Nevada
The Wolf Pack is a good Group of 5 program, but Nevada has struggled in the past few years. Still, this isn’t an awful season opener, even if not a particularly great one.
Sept. 9, @Duke
As I said in my ACC grades, I love this series. It’s a budding rivalry between two “smart” schools that were pretty bad when the games were scheduled, really good the past few years, and are now trending towards being middle-of-the-pack again. Still, I love home-and-homes between evenly-matched P5 teams.
Sept. 16, Bowling Green
Once again, Northwestern is playing a should-win game against a team that isn’t a total cupcake. I respect Northwestern scheduling these games, but sometimes it feels like the Wildcats lose too many of them.
This has a road game against an evenly-matched P5 team, along with two games against not-awful Group of 5 teams. I have nothing to complain about here.
Sept. 2, vs Louisville (in Indianapolis, IN)
When this game was scheduled, Purdue was quite possibly the better program. That is certainly not the case now. Full props to Purdue for opening the season against a potential Playoff contender, but unless a miracle occurs this game isn’t one that will do any good for the Purdue program.
Sept. 8, Ohio
This is another game that I have to give Purdue props for, but I have to question the intelligence of it. Ohio is a solid MAC program, and Purdue is a Big Ten program that definitely needs to find wins wherever it can get them. Ohio is far from a sure win.
Sept. 16, @Missouri
When this game was scheduled, Missouri was certainly a much better program than Purdue. The Tigers have fallen on hard times in recent years, and this is a game between two P5 teams of equal stature, which is my favorite type of nonconference game.
Purdue does not have a single bad game on this schedule. While that’s in theory a good thing, when Purdue’s best chance of not going winless is its road trip against Rutgers, you know that Purdue scheduled way too hard in the nonconference. This program needs wins right now, not games that are close against equally-bad teams.
September 1st, Utah State
The Aggies have often been a solid Group of 5 program, even if they were not good last year. Still, as tune-up games go, this isn’t a complete cupcake.
Sept. 9, Florida Atlantic
Lane Kiffin has the Owls relevant again (at least as far as CFB media is concerned), but the only reason to schedule them is still to get a complete cupcake.
Sept. 16, @BYU
No, this isn’t technically a Power 5 game, but BYU is a solid program that competes at close to a P5 level just about every year, and a road trip to Utah is no picnic.
It feels weird to critique Wisconsin when the Badgers consistently play one of the better nonconference schedules, but this year Wisconsin’s schedule isn’t up to snuff. The Badgers have a not-illegitimate chance to start 12-0 (no cross-divisional game against Penn State or Ohio State, and they get Michigan at home), and this schedule won’t do them any favors with the selection committee.