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Just how tough is Northwestern's Big Ten schedule?

Chris Collins recently said it's "by far the most difficult [conference] schedule in the league. It's like double the second-toughest."

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

With the Big Ten expanding to 14 teams over the summer, the conference's schedule makers had a difficult task at hand. They had to maneuver around various intricacies to create an 18-game conference schedule that would inevitably be unbalanced. And unfortunately, this year, Chris Collins and Northwestern were one of the victims of their solution.

Conference schedules are constructed as follows: every team plays every other team at least once. Of those 13 opponents, five are then added to the schedule a second time, creating five home-and-home series, or 'double-plays.' Of the remaining eight teams on the schedule, the 'single-plays,' four are road games and four are home games.

So in theory, it would be advantageous to have the conference's top teams as your 'single-plays,' and the conference's worst teams as your 'double-plays.' But the exact opposite has happened to Northwestern:

Single-plays Double-plays
Average opponent KenPom rank 64.25 37.8
Average opponent conference rank 8.25 5.2
Opponents Home: Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State; Road: Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois

Chris Collins said last week that Northwestern has "by far the most difficult [conference] schedule in the league. It's like double the second-toughest." And he's not totally out of line. NU's 'double-plays' are far better than its 'single-plays.' At least by the above measure though, Northwestern's schedule isn't by far the toughest. It's actually not even the toughest at all.

Nebraska's 'double-play' opponents (Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois) have an average KenPom rank of 27.6, significantly better than Northwestern's opponents, and an average conference rank of 4.6, also better. And Penn State's 'double-play' opponents, while not quite on the level of Northwestern's (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Maryland, Minnesota and Rutgers), have an average KenPom rank of 43.6 and an average conference rank of 5.2, the same mark as NU.

With that being said though, the slate Collins lamented might actually be even more difficult than the numbers suggest. It's reasonable to expect Michigan to snap out of their early season funk and return to being a top-50 team, and although they've fallen off recently, both Iowa and Illinois were top-25 teams early in the year.

However, regardless of whether it's the best collection of 'double-plays' or not, the point is that the schedule makers have done Northwestern no favors. Here's the full conference lineup for the Wildcats:

Northwestern conference schedule

Dec. 30 at Rutgers
Jan. 4 vs. Wisconsin
Jan. 11 at Michigan State
Jan. 14 vs. Illinois
Jan. 17 at Michigan
Jan. 22 vs. Ohio State
Jan. 25 at Maryland
Jan. 31 vs. Purdue
Feb. 3 at Nebraska
Feb. 7 at Wisconsin
Feb. 10 vs. Michigan State
Feb. 15 vs. Iowa
Feb. 18 at Minnesota
Feb. 21 vs. Penn State
Feb. 25 vs. Indiana
Feb. 28 at Illinois
March 3 vs. Michigan
March 7 at Iowa