With the start of the season just 52 days away, it seemed like a good time to dig into the Big Ten's nonconference schedule. What I found wasn't exactly exciting.
Once again, September is shaping up to be rather MAC-tastic, with the Mid-American Conference representing 29.5% (13 of 44) of the league's non-conference opponents. If these cupcakes are your thing, you're in for a special treat on September 25th when the Big Ten goes head-to-head with seven MAC opponents on the same weekend, highlighted by your Buckeyes taking on Eastern Michigan in the Shoe.
This continues a trend playing out across the major conferences in the past decade where teams seem to be reluctant to venture outside of their region to play in games fans actually look forward to seeing. You have exceptions here and there, but power programs are scheduling less against BCS opponents and bringing in more cupcakes to pad the gate and generate revenue from home games, especially when given the ability to add a fourth non-league opponent a few years ago.
Another part of this disturbing trend is the rush to schedule FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) teams. What once would have been a rare occurrence is now commonplace across much of the country and the Big Ten is no different. 10 different Big Ten teams will square off against an FCS opponent this fall, with your Buckeyes being the lone exception. This is the second year in a row that Ohio State is not playing an FCS team, but we can't go beating our chests too loudly: Tressel's crew took the field against Youngstown State for two games in 2007 and 2008. Michigan State, the last of the Big Ten holdouts in terms of scheduling an FCS opponent finally gave in last year and booked a visit from Montana State. They'll do it again this season when they take on Northern Colorado at home in week four.
If you're looking for a silver lining in this, take heart: Phil Steele holds two FCS schools traveling to Big Ten stadiums this fall in high regard. Eastern Illinois, Iowa's opener is his 19th-ranked team, while Illinois State, Northwestern's week two opponent, checks in at 13 on his pre-season list. And who can forget the excitement Appalachian State brought to the Big House in 2007? (The Mountaineers will get a shot at the Gators in Gainesville in late November.)
Indeed, the whole lot is pretty rank, with the exception of a couple of marquee games. Aside from the 13 MAC opponents and 10 FCS schools, four others hail from the Sun Belt, two from Conference USA, two from the WAC and one team, UNLV (Wisconsin's opener) comes to us from the Mountain West. Non-league opponents posted a 0.475 winning percentage in 2009, with just 15 winning programs and 12 bowl teams represented.
But back to the few marquee games on the slate. Penn State at Alabama in week two looms pretty large and is likely the top non-league game this season in college football. Rooting for Penn State doesn't exactly come easy for me (despite my admiration of Paterno and the school's tradition) but I'll be doing so that weekend. Kicking off at the same time that weekend is Miami at Ohio State, a game that's taken on a little bit more meaning in the last couple of days with Seantrel Henderson's matriculation to Coral Gables (and if you're a Cavs fan, there's that one thing, as well).
The usual suspects have heir tilts against Notre Dame, with Purdue visiting South Bend in week one, Michigan visiting in week two and Michigan State welcoming the Irish to East Lansing in week three. Notre Dame being down the last few years has certainly hurt the conference's non-league schedule, but with Brian Kelly now running things, I can't imagine it will be long before he has that situation turned around. Steele believes it will happen sooner than later, as he has Notre Dame 16th heading into the season. Likewise, Danny Hope has Purdue doing solid work with Purdue and the opener between the two will set the tone for each of their seasons. If Rodriguez is beaten soundly by the Irish, which I think will happen, expect the Rodriguez hatred to reach a fever pitch in Ann Arbor. Michigan State, on the other hand, catches the Irish in the middle of five-straight at home to open the season and if things go well, they have a favorable enough Big Ten schedule to potentially contend for the conference crown.
Other interesting non-conference matchups include USC visiting Minnesota, Iowa heading west to Arizona, Arizona State at Wisconsin, Northwestern at Vanderbilt and the annual grand opening-grand closing tilt with Missouri for Zook's Illini. The Trojans visit to TCF Bank Stadium on 9/18 is being hyped as the biggest Gopher home game in at least a decade and though I have absolutely no faith whatsoever in Brewster's ability to pull this one off, if there's any year to catch USC, this is the one. Arizona will be a nice early season test for the Hawkeyes. Ferentz beat Stoops 27-17 at Kinnick last season and the Wildcats rebounded to beat Stanford and USC (and were three points away from upsetting Oregon) on the way to an 8-5 season and a bowl birth. The Sun Devils in Madison is the 3rd Pac-10/Big Ten matchup of week three and is only interesting in the sense that it's not San Jose State, Fresno State, UNLV, Austin Peay, or similar cupcake the Badgers are known to be fond of scheduling.
So that's the long and short of the Big Ten's 2010 non-league schedule. Mostly
doozies mismatches with a couple of reasons to turn the television on. And if you're wondering if Nebraska will bring something different to the table, don't. They schedule in-step with their soon-to-be brethren, with one BCS game and three sides of meh. On deck this season are: Western Kentucky, Idaho, @ Washington and FCS South Dakota State.