Big Ten strength of schedule rankings 2021: Nebraska faces uphill battle, Ohio State gets off easy

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This was an easy decision. Nebraska isn’t only playing what looks to be the toughest schedule in the Big Ten, but it’s likely one of the most difficult in the country. The Huskers open the season with Illinois. After a home game against Fordham, they get one of the MAC’s best programs in Buffalo. Then the real work begins. He caught plenty of flak for it, but it’s hard to blame retiring Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos for trying to get out of a road trip to Oklahoma when he also has games against Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin on the schedule this season. Honestly, if you’re a Big Ten West team, the last thing you want is to draw two of the Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State triumvirate in your cross-divisional games. That’s what happened to Nebraska this season.2

I have to give Michigan credit. I’ve been doing our SOS rankings for years, and the Wolverines consistently play one of the more difficult schedules in the Big Ten. Of course, considering some of the results, you could argue they should reconsider this approach. The 2021 nonconference schedule features three home games, highlighted by a visit from Washington in the second week of the season. Where things get tricky is in Big Ten play. The Wolverines draw Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern from the West with both the Wisconsin and Nebraska games on the road. The Wolverines will also hit the road for games against Penn State and rival Michigan State before the annual finisher against Ohio State. At least that one is at home.3

One thing I would hate as a coach in this modern age of college football when television networks demand attractive games early in the season is opening my schedule with a conference game. Well, not only is Wisconsin opening the year with a Big Ten game, but it’s a major one against Penn State. The nonconference schedule doesn’t get much easier with games against Notre Dame (in Chicago) as well as Army and Eastern Michigan. Along with drawing Penn State from the East, the Badgers also get Michigan, but both will be at home, while the road trip is to Rutgers. In the division, the Badgers also benefit a bit by getting Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska all in Madison.4

Purdue’s SOS is buoyed a bit by a tricky nonconference schedule. The Boilermakers open the season with Oregon State at home and then hit the road to face an extremely well-rested UConn team. Then it’s a quick trip up north to South Bend, Indiana, to take on Notre Dame. The Boilermakers also draw a road game against Ohio State from the East with home dates against Michigan State and rival Indiana. Purdue gets Wisconsin at home in the division but will hit the road for games against Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern.5

While the top four teams stood out in their SOS, we’re now in the portion of our program when it’s time to split hairs. Indiana’s nonconference slate isn’t horrible, but it does include Cincinnati. It also features a road game against Western Kentucky, which is strange for a Big Ten team, but I’m not here to judge. Well, no, wait, that’s precisely why I’m here, isn’t it? The Hoosiers also open the season with a road game against Iowa and draw Minnesota and Purdue from the West, too. Indiana gets Ohio State at home in the division but will have to face both Penn State and Michigan on the road.6

I bring this up every year, and I don’t mean it as an insult, but it’s true. Rutgers’ schedule is aided by the fact that, unlike everybody else in the East, it doesn’t play Rutgers. Still, it does have to play the Big Ten East! So while a nonconference slate that includes Temple, Syracuse and Delaware doesn’t do a ton, opening the Big Ten schedule with a road trip to Michigan followed by Ohio State, Michigan State and a road game against Northwestern isn’t fun. The Scarlet Knights then head back to the Land of Lincoln following a bye to take on Illinois before finishing up with Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State and Maryland.7

Michigan State’s nonconference schedule includes a road game against Miami (the one in Florida) as well as home dates with Youngstown State and Western Kentucky (did you read that, Indiana? A home game!). Sparty gets a somewhat forgiving draw from the West, as it’ll open the season with Northwestern on the road, but I’d rather play Nebraska and Purdue than Wisconsin and Iowa. In the division, there’s a tough home stretch as the Spartans will face Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State all in the final five weeks.8

I have to give credit to Maryland here. It’s one of the newer kids on the block, but it might have the most average Big Ten schedule of anybody in the conference this season. The Terrapins open with West Virginia and then face an FCS opponent (Howard) and a MAC opponent (Kent State) with Illinois in between. The Terps draw Iowa and Minnesota along with the Illini from the West, and while they’ll have to play at Ohio State, they get both Michigan and Penn State at home.9

If Penn State fancies itself a CFP contender in 2021, it’s going to need some help from its opponents. A nonconference game against Auburn in Happy Valley is awesome — seriously, shout out to SEC teams brave enough to head north — but we don’t know what Auburn will look like in 2021 with a new coaching staff. The Nittany Lions also get the defending MAC champions in Ball State. Conference play begins immediately with a road trip to Wisconsin. It’s the first of several difficult road games on the schedule as Penn State will make trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State this season.10

Welcome to the 2021 season, Minnesota. Here’s a home game against Ohio State to start the year. I suppose the good news is it’ll only get easier from there as the Gophers draw Maryland and Indiana in their other two cross-division games. The nonconference slate features two home games against MAC teams (Miami, Bowling Green) and an interesting road trip to face Colorado. In the division, the Gophers get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home but have to play Northwestern and Iowa on the road.11

Bret Bielema’s first season in Champaign doesn’t feature an easy schedule, but things could be a lot worse. The Illini open the year at home against Nebraska before beginning a nonconference set against UTSA and Charlotte with a road trip to Virginia. The Illini also get a mostly favorable draw from the East. Sure, the road trip to Penn State isn’t likely to be fun, but there are also winnable home games against Maryland and Rutgers. In the West, the Illini get Wisconsin and Northwestern at home but hit the road for Purdue, Minnesota and Iowa.12

Iowa’s SOS is “hurt” by a general lack of a clear headliner. The nonconference slate includes the annual tilt against Iowa State, but Kent State and Colorado State don’t move the needle much. The Hawkeyes get Penn State from the East, but that game is in Iowa City, as is Indiana (there’s a road trip to Maryland, too). The divisional schedule is where things become tricky. Not only does Iowa have to play both Wisconsin and Northwestern on the road, but it has to do so in consecutive weeks. The Nebraska game is also on the road the Friday after Thanksgiving.13

Remember earlier when I said that Rutgers’ SOS is helped out by not having to play Rutgers? Well, it works the opposite way for Ohio State, which does not get to include Ohio State on its schedule. Still, the Buckeyes might have the most attractive nonconference game in the conference (I lean toward Wisconsin-Notre Dame) with Oregon, but Tulsa and Akron won’t pose much of a threat. In the conference, the Buckeyes get a pretty favorable draw from the West with Minnesota, Nebraska and Purdue. Also, the road schedule isn’t easy, but it’s not nearly as tricky as what a lot of other Big Ten teams are facing. Honestly, if not for the Oregon game, this schedule probably would’ve finished 14th.14

Northwestern wins the Big Ten’s award for the least difficult nonconference schedule in 2021. The Wildcats have home dates with Indiana State and Ohio plus a road trip to Duke. The difficulty notch goes up a level or three in Big Ten play, as the ‘Cats get a road trip to Michigan from the East with home dates against Michigan State (in Week 1) and Rutgers. In the division, they’ll have to hit the road for both Nebraska and Wisconsin, as well as their regular-season finale against rival Illinois.

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