After a month of protesting parents, petitioning players and hot mic fiascos, Big Ten football is back. Following Saturday’s schedule rollout on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff, coaches and players are gearing up for an eight-week, eight-game regular season followed by a new Championship Weekend. Each team plays its entire division as well as two scheduled interdivisional opponents before playing the corresponding seed in the opposite division (unless the two teams have already played).
While the majority of each team’s schedule was already decided by divisional alignment, the cross-division games create some contrast between the strength of some teams’ schedules and that of others. The new schedule was created by taking the original 2020 slate and dropping one crossover game, which created some aesthetic disparities. Using ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), which was updated this week to include Big Ten teams, we ranked the three most challenging and friendliest interdivisional schedules for the upcoming season with the super mathy way of averaging the opponents’ FPI rankings.
Cross-division opponents: at Ohio State and vs Penn State
Average FPI ranking of cross-division opponents: 3.5
No school’s administrators, coaches, players and fans were more vocal about bringing back Big Ten football in its absence than those of the Cornhuskers.
Ask and ye shall receive.
Instead of slamming the Big Ten for a lack of a football season altogether, Nebraska now can — and will — complain about the difficulty of its cross-division schedule, which pits it against Ohio State, a team many expect to run through the Big Ten on its way to the College Football Playoff, to open the season. Then, just three weeks after the Huskers’ opener in Columbus, Penn State, another team with legitimate College Football Playoff hopes, will head to Lincoln. On the bright side, if the Huskers somehow find a way to win either game, it will provide head coach Scott Frost with the marquee victory he’s been searching for since arriving in Lincoln at the start of the 2018 season.
It’s easy to say the conference screwed UNL — and it probably wasn’t looking to help — but Ohio State is Nebraska’s permanent crossover game through 2021. Is it annoying for Scott Frost that he no longer gets to face Greg Schiano and Rutgers while James Franklin and the Nittany Lions remain on the schedule? Yes.
Cross-division opponents: Minnesota and Wisconsin
Average FPI ranking of cross-division opponents: 13.5
Still searching for its first Big Ten Championship game appearance since its establishment in 2011, the Wolverines’ path won’t get any easier this year. As a result of their toughest-in-the-East crossover schedule, Michigan will have to face neighboring rivals and last year’s Big Ten West co-Champions (?) Wisconsin and Minnesota in addition to Ohio State and Penn State, their familiar foes in the East. All in all, this slate leaves Michigan with the 16th strongest remaining schedule in the nation and only an expected 4.9 wins (including Champions Week). Despite the difficult schedule, coach Jim Harbaugh still wants to foster an optimistic culture amidst an unusual season, saying Saturday that he wants his players to “stay positive, test negative and get ready to play like a Wolverine.” There’s gotta be an apparel line coming out with that.
Cross-division opponents: Michigan and Indiana
Average FPI ranking of cross-division opponents: 16.5
Bucky’s cross-divisional matchups are tough, sure. But perhaps more so than any team in the Big Ten, a challenging schedule may be embraced by the Badgers as a blessing in disguise. Fresh off of a heartbreaking Rose Bowl loss, Wisconsin comes into the 2020 season with sky-high hopes. If the Badgers want a shot at the College Football Playoff, they’ll likely have to go undefeated in Big Ten play, with the signature win coming in the conference title game against Ohio State or Penn State (conceivably).
But should UW lose in the title game or should one of the three other Power Five conferences playing lengthier schedules this year put forward two playoff-worthy teams, they may wind up thankful that they drew Michigan and Indiana instead of easier cross-divisional competition. That is, if they can beat them.
Cross-division opponents: Maryland and Michigan State
Average FPI ranking of cross-division opponents: 64.5
After the first COVID-induced reschedule saw Northwestern open their season in Happy Valley against Penn State and close it hosting Michigan at Ryan Field, some brutal bookends for a team coming off its most disappointing season in years, Saturday’s release leaves ‘Cats fans feeling reasonably better about the 2020 season.
The Wildcats open the year against a Maryland team that ranks seven slots behind Rutgers (!) at 71 in FPI, the worst in the Big Ten. On top of their statistically expected weakness, one should take into account that, until last week, Maryland had paused practices for all athletic programs, football included, due to a several COVID cases in the department. Later on, Northwestern gets Michigan State, who, despite soundly handling the Wildcats in 2019, is a program trending in the wrong direction. New head coach Mel Tucker hasn’t had the typical amount of time to make the Spartans’ program into his own due to the pandemic, and MSU must replace eight starters from a defense that has anchored the team in previous seasons.
The easier schedule isn’t a guarantee the Wildcats will succeed, but it helps open up the possibilities. FPI projects the Northwestern team with only one conference win last season to have the fourth-best record in the conference with around a ten percent chance of winning the West division. It’s a start.
Cross-division opponents: Illinois and Purdue
Average FPI ranking of cross-division opponents: 47.5
While Northwestern drew the easiest crossover matchups in the conference by a distance, Rutgers is actually the only team in the Big Ten that landed its two easiest possible cross-conference matchups. Northwestern’s opponents, Michigan State and Maryland, both rank below Illinois and Purdue in FPI ranking, as does Rutgers itself. But because both of the Wildcats’ interdivisional opponents are in the East, they were never potential crossover matchups for Rutgers regardless, leaving the two lowest ranked teams in the West, the Illini and Boilermakers, as the best-case scenario for the Scarlet Knights.
All of this is to say that, while it’s still going to be an uphill battle for Greg Schiano to rebuild a Rutgers program that has served as the laughingstock of the conference since joining it, he couldn’t have been offered a better opportunity to start his second tenure in New Jersey off on the right note.
Cross-division opponents: Michigan and Maryland
Average FPI ranking of cross-division opponents: 43
Minnesota rowed its boat all the way to the de facto Big Ten West Championship Game before getting smacked by Wisconsin. While the unexpected run marked a breakout season for the Gophers and coach PJ Fleck, they were aided by an easy schedule to start the year, facing no ranked opponents in their first eight games before upsetting Penn State in Minneapolis.
Now, Minnesota’s schedule has once again come to its aid. As mentioned above, Maryland projects to be the worst team in the conference with so much rebuilding and its 2019 starting QB opting out of the season. And who knows what Michigan will look like. Shea Patterson, who never quite met the moment in Ann Arbor, is gone, and junior Joe Milton will take over the duties under center with a plethora of young receivers at his disposal. Hosting the Wolverines week one is probably the best time to do so, when they will be the rustiest.
In a season with such a variety of unpredictable factors, there’s no telling whether or not Minnesota will be able to replicate last year’s success, but the scheduling conditions are ripe for them to do so.