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Does Northwestern have the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten?

Non-conference schedules will be under the microscope this fall as college football transitions to a four-team playoff with a selection committee that reportedly will consider strength of schedule among its criteria. Northwestern is a long shot to earn a top-four spot, but if it’s even in the discussion, schedule strength could be one of the biggest reasons why.

A couple of weeks ago, Fox Sports college football writer Bruce Feldman ranked the nation’s 10 “most brutal” non-conference schedules based on a point system. Northwestern came in with three points at No. 7, tied with Clemson and Ohio State. The Wildcats and Buckeyes were the only Big Ten teams to make the cut. I have to admit, I was sort of surprised to see NU on this list at all. Here’s what Feldman had to say about NU:

7. Northwestern Wildcats (tie -- 3.00)

Cal, the opening opponent, was putrid last season but figures to be much improved. NIU, which has won 35 games the in the past three seasons, is up next. The Huskies will miss QB Jordan Lynch but still should be one of the best teams in the MAC. Western Illinois is a mediocre MFVC team. The biggest test comes in mid-November at Notre Dame. 

I knew they had a couple of tough non-con games, but the No. 7-ranked slate in the country? Whether or not you think Feldman’s system is fair, NU’s placement on the list raises the question of whether the Wildcats do, indeed, have the toughest out-of-league schedule in the Big Ten. NU’s first two games are against Cal (August 30) and Northern Illinois (September 6). It also faces Western Illinois at home on September 20 and Notre Dame in South Bend on November 11.

Looking at those four games – and without applying the formula – it seems strange that NU’s lineup of non-conference games registered such a lofty position on the rankings. The Notre Dame game will be tough, sure, and maybe Cal will be a improved over last season, but Western Illinois should be a cakewalk and Northern Illinois loses star quarterback Jordan Lynch and safety Jimmie Ward, a first-round pick. And again, three of those games are in Evanston.

By contrast, Ohio State plays at Navy to open the season and hosts Virginia Tech, Kent State and Cincinnati. Not exactly Kansas Basketball in 2013. Still, that group of games is arguably tougher than NU’s, if only because there’s no obvious creampuff (Kent State could be classified as such, I suppose). Meanwhile, Michigan State plays at Oregon, but its three other noncon contests (Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming) are filler. Then there’s Wisconsin, who takes on LSU at a neutral site, along with South Florida, solid MAC foe Bowling Green and WIU at Camp Randall.

If I were to rank these slates subjectively, I’m not sure I’d put NU at No. 1. Look, the Wildcats almost certainly won’t be favored at Notre Dame, but they should be expected to win all of their other matchups and the WIU game will effectively serve as another bye week. Wisconsin doesn’t play a true road game, but on balance, its four games appear more rigorous than NU’s. Whether you agree will depend on how good you think each of their opponents will be and how big of a factor home field advantage is.

Just looking at the marquee fixtures – Northwestern at Notre Dame; Wisconsin against LSU – the Irish are ranked 17th and the Tigers 5th in Bill Connelly’s initial S&P projections. You can argue that playing at Notre Dame Stadium will be tougher than facing the Tigers in Houston, but you can also argue that the disparity in team quality offsets whatever home field advantage the Irish will have.

And if you look at the rest of both teams’ nonconference schedules, South Florida (77) and Bowling Green (60) are nearly as tough as Northern Illinois (51) and Cal (78), with the WIU games canceling each other out. Here’s how Ohio State’s opponents rate out based on Connelly’s projections: Navy (67), Virginia Tech (22), Kent State (102) and Cincinnati (54)

It’s fun to draw conclusions about schedule strength now, months off from the start of the season, but here’s to guessing we’ll have different opinions in November and December. Perhaps NU’s non-conference slate will prove the toughest in the Big Ten, and we can all look back and commend Feldman for his foresight. Or maybe NU’s noncon schedule will turn out to be as overrated as it appears to me.