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Football: Notes on the Big Ten’s new schedule structure and how it impacts Northwestern

2025 should certainly be... interesting.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Just yesterday, the Big Ten released a football schedule for the next five seasons. With Washington and Oregon joining the conference, which now tallies 18 teams, the Big Ten debuted its “Flex Protect XVII” model, which combines protected opponents and rotating matches to fill each season’s nine-game conference slate. Any protected rivalry game will be played each season and every other team in the conference will be played at least twice (one home, one road) in a five-year period, and no team shall be played more than three times in that window.

Northwestern vs. Illinois is among the 12 protected matchups, but the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy is one of the few things that will stay the same. The division format is no more, as the new system will be an 18-team melee, with only the top two teams earning a chance to play for the Big Ten Championship. After years of the East Division clobbering the West, this key change could open up room for a potential Ohio State vs. Michigan championship, largely recognized as one of the fiercest rivalries in any sport.

Although possible, that matchup will be difficult to achieve with four new teams joining the conference, each of which has been ranked in the top 25 at some point this season. Currently, the new-look Big Ten would have a whopping six teams in the AP top nine: Michigan (No. 2), Ohio State (No. 4), Penn State (No. 6), Washington (No. 7), Oregon (No. 8) and USC (No. 9). Starting in 2024, the Big Ten could very well be the best conference in college football.

In 2024, Northwestern’s schedule has been noticeably altered from the previous model that was released prior to the conference’s expansion into the pacific northwest. The ‘Cats still get Indiana and Illinois at home, but now play Wisconsin and Ohio State for the other two matchups in Evanston rather than Nebraska and USC. Overall, mark that down as a downgrade, especially under the assumption that Caleb Williams will be NFL-bound after this season.

On the road, Purdue is the only matchup that stuck from the previous edition. Now, instead of traveling to Los Angeles for a UCLA matchup, the team’s West Coast trip will be to Seattle, to face a tougher opponent in Washington. Instead of Minnesota, Penn State and Ohio State (who the team still plays, now at home), the Wildcats face off against Maryland, Michigan and Iowa. All in all, I think Northwestern’s schedule definitely increased in difficulty, but that is to be expected when two more powerhouses join the conference.

In 2025, Northwestern faces a juggernaut of a schedule. Purdue at home remains the same, but instead of Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers and Wisconsin, it will be Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon and UCLA coming to town. I’ll rule that as a wash to be generous. On the road, the Illinois matchup is a constant, but the other three matchups swap out Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan (who the team still plays) for Nebraska, Penn State and USC. Much like 2024, this schedule also increased in rigor, and wins might be especially hard to come by if the team is playing in an off-site location as Ryan Field gets renovated.

The schedules for 2026, 2027 and 2028 have nothing to be compared to, as the previous schedules were only released through 2025, but I do think all three are more manageable than the schedules in 2024 and 2025. The 2027 lineup stands out to me as the tamest of the bunch, but still features tough matchups at home against Ohio State and Washington. If approved, the new Ryan Field is projected to debut in 2026, when the team hosts four conference matchups. The team has also already scheduled Colorado and South Dakota State in the non-conference slate for 2026, leaving plenty of potential matchups for the venue’s debut.

Here are a few other notes about Northwestern’s schedule and the new structure at large:

  • Northwestern’s game against Washington next season will be the first time the teams have played in 40 years. The Huskies hold a 3-0 record against the Wildcats.
  • In 2025, the matchup between NU and Oregon marks only the second occasion the two squads have faced off, with the sole game coming all the way back in 1974. Northwestern won that game 14-10.
  • A brief shoutout to the schedule-makers. Northwestern won’t make more than one trip to the West Coast in any given season.
  • Northwestern will only play one new conference opponent in 2024 (Washington) but will face all three of the remaining teams in 2025 (USC, Oregon, UCLA).
  • However, the travel gods weren’t quite as favorable to everyone else. Next season, Washington has five away games, four of which are cross-country trips, and three of which see the Huskies travel a full three time zones.
  • Excluding the shortened 2020 season, next year will be the first season without a Northwestern-Minnesota matchup since 2006 and first without a Northwestern-Nebraska contest since 2010. In 2025, there will be no matchup with Iowa or Wisconsin, programs Northwestern has played every season since 2012.
  • Even with the new additions, Iowa keeps all three of its protected rivalries (Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin). It is the only school to have three.
  • Penn State remains the only school to not have any protected rivalries.
  • Schedules that stand out to me as especially difficult:

2024: Michigan, UCLA, Washington

2025: Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers, UCLA, Wisconsin

2026: Indiana, Oregon, USC

2027: Maryland, Michigan State, Oregon,

2028: Michigan State, UCLA, Wisconsin

  • How the conference plans to schedule other sports, including non-revenues, is still undecided, and was a major source of controversy in the conference expansion. In sports that play far more frequently than football’s nine conference matchups per season, West Coast trips will be much harder to schedule and can have adverse effects on student-athletes.