McKewon: With nine-game league schedule, Big Ten teams go light on marquee nonconference matchups

Nebraska and Colorado face off in a rematch of a terrific game between two very mediocre 2018 teams.

LINCOLN — When the Big Ten moved to nine conference games in 2016, it was done with the understanding that it might produce the strength of schedule that impressed the College Football Playoff committee. It automatically added a Power Five conference game to each Big Ten team’s schedule. It also made the league’s menu of games more palatable for a TV contract.

The TV contract has paid off: According to the Detroit News, Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel told regents that his school — and thus Nebraska, too — would be receiving $56 million from the league. Nebraska on Friday confirmed the number is correct.

But the Big Ten’s absence from the past two playoffs suggests the nine conference games haven’t bowled over the committee. And, in leaving each team with just three nonconference games, it has diminished the league’s national profile.

The league will play just 10 — just 10! — Power Five nonconference games in 2019.

That’s as many games as the Big Ten will play against the Mid-American Conference.

Five teams — Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois — don’t play any major conference opponents. Purdue plays two. The best game of the entire 42 — Notre Dame at Michigan — is buried on Oct. 26. The second-best game may very well be Iowa-Iowa State. Three of the 10 are East Coast ACC games — Syracuse at Maryland, Pittsburgh at Penn State and Boston College at Rutgers — that don’t move the needle much.

Four overmatched foes — Miami (Ohio), Connecticut, Massachusetts and Middle Tennessee — play two Big Ten teams. Four more FCS teams appear on the schedule.

Illinois plays home games against Akron and Eastern Michigan, plus a game at Connecticut. Any guesses as to how many fans pack the seats for those contests?

Indiana has home games against Ball State, Eastern Illinois and Connecticut.

Ohio State — the league’s marquee franchise — usually schedules firm, legitimate tests and, to be fair, Cincinnati won 11 games last season. But the Bearcats aren’t winning in the Horseshoe. Neither is Florida Atlantic or Miami (Ohio).

Thanks to a road game at Colorado, Nebraska skirts any criticism this season. In 2020, though, NU has Central Michigan, South Dakota State and Cincinnati on the docket. (The Bearcats host the Huskers in 2025, part of a bizarre era of scheduling in Husker football in which NU signed up for four games with Colorado and agreed to 2-for-1 events with Wyoming and Fresno State.)

The Big Ten could consider returning to an eight-game league schedule — which has not hurt the ACC or the SEC — or new Commissioner Kevin Warren can chat with programs about getting more aggressive with their nonconference scheduling.

Trouble is, the schedules are set years in advance. Have fun, league fans. Here is the ranking for this season:

1. Notre Dame at Michigan

Oct. 26: It’s a great game smack dab in the middle of the Big Ten schedule. Michigan plays at Penn State, then this game in the Big House, then a road game at Maryland. The Wolverines are losing at least one of them.

2. Iowa at Iowa State

Sept. 14: Perhaps the best Cy-Hawk Trophy matchup since 2002, when Iowa State upset a team that became Big Ten co-champion. Both teams could be in the Top 25, both return starting quarterbacks, both play stingy defense. Good one.

3. Northwestern at Stanford

Aug. 31: Battle of the best non-Ivys! Neither program is historically great in September. The Wildcats have more eyeballs on them than ever; how do they handle the attention and expectations?

4. Nebraska at Colorado

Sept. 7: Rematch of a terrific game between two very mediocre 2018 teams. CU has the Pac-12’s best receivers, and one of its best quarterbacks, Steven Montez.

5. Wisconsin at South Florida

Aug. 30: The Badgers in the heat and humidity could go one of two ways. Either UW wears down a smaller, faster team or it gets tired and run out of the stadium. USF returns 15 starters.

6. Arizona St. at Michigan St.

Sept. 14: The first sign something was off about MSU’s 2018 team came in the desert, when Herm Edwards’ crew pulled an upset. It’s not a stretch to suggest coach Mark Dantonio’s job is on the line in 2019. Another mediocre season is not the expectation around East Lansing any longer.

7. TCU at Purdue

Sept. 14: The Boilermakers sure like to stack the odds against themselves. The toughest game on the Big Ten’s toughest nonconference schedule features the Horned Frogs, who always have speed to burn.

8. Pittsburgh at Penn State

Sept. 14: How bad was the ACC last year? Pitt — which lost at home to Penn State by 45 — played for the league title. Both coaches are hotheads, so the teams don’t like each other one bit.

9. Vanderbilt at Purdue

Sept. 7: The Commodores host Georgia, then travel to Purdue, then host LSU. Hardest start in the nation. Vandy plays hard and fast, though, and may be favored in West Lafayette.

10. Army at Michigan

Sept. 7: Ask Oklahoma how dangerous a triple-option, ball control team can be. Jim Harbaugh may be so enthralled at the prospect of playing Army that he forgets to score 28 points against the cadets.

11. Cincinnati at Ohio State

Sept. 7: Former Buckeyes defensive coordinator Luke Fickell takes his Bearcats to the Horseshoe. Cincy finished 11-2 last season and returns most of its offense.

12. Syracuse at Maryland

Sept. 7: The Orange are a trendy preseason Top 25 pick, but the Terrapins could pull an upset here. The ACC is pretty weak and Syracuse is starting over at quarterback.

13. Minnesota at Fresno St.

Sept. 7: The Gophers’ best win last season — by far — was a 21-14 upset of the Mountain West champs who won 12 games. When Nebraska played at Fresno in 2014, it was 937 degrees at kickoff. There was no wind in an open press box. 

14. Purdue at Nevada

Aug. 30: Why the Boilermakers wanted to go to Reno in August, only they know. Long trip, altitude game, big opening-night crowd. Odd choice.

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15. Western Michigan at Michigan State

Sept. 7: Watch this one. The Broncos can score — 32 points per game last season — and will be among the MAC favorites in 2019.

16. Boston College at Rutgers

Sept. 21: If RU were worth a dang, this would be a nice throwback East Coast football game. Still might be, with 28 combined points or something.

17. Buffalo at Penn State

Sept. 7: An excellent 10-win Bulls team is rebuilding, but coach Lance Leipold usually has his guys ready. Buffalo hammered Rutgers 42-13 last season. MAC meal plan.

18. Maryland at Temple

Sept. 14: The Owls were the kind of team last year that lost to Villanova, then hammered Maryland in College Park. A new coach (Rod Carey from Northern Illinois) shouldn’t change much. Upset watch for the Terps.

19. Tulsa at Michigan State

Aug. 30: The Spartans are notoriously sluggish in home season openers and, on the right night, the Golden Hurricane could come right in and blow Dantonio’s season away. Dantonio can afford few slip-ups this season.

20. Northern Illinois at Nebraska

Sept. 14: Do you think Nebraska has forgotten the 2017 game? Nope. The Huskers have a personal score to settle with the Huskies.

21. Georgia Southern at Minnesota

Sept. 14: Another tricky game for the Gophers, who take a risk scheduling a run-heavy, ball-control team with lots of good athletes and speed. The Eagles are a lot like Troy last season.

22. South Dakota State at Minnesota

Aug. 29: I know Husker fans pretty well, and I suspect there’ll be plenty rooting for the Jacks and Bellevue West graduate Cade Johnson — who caught 17 touchdowns last season — to tip P.J. Fleck’s boat to start the season.

23. Florida Atlantic at Ohio State

Aug. 31: FAU wasn’t ready for prime time last season after blowout losses to Oklahoma and Central Florida. Lane Kiffin’s still there. He always makes for good pregame fodder.

24. Middle Tennessee at Michigan

Aug. 31: The Wolverines’ aggressive D will put a hurt on the Blue Raiders.

25. Middle Tennessee at Iowa

Sept. 28: The guys from Murfreesboro must like feeling sore after games.

26. UNLV at Northwestern

Sept. 14: The Wildcats have lost to, let’s see, Akron, Illinois State, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois at home since 2014. So, yeah, the Rebels have a chance.

27. Miami (Ohio) at Iowa

Aug. 31: The Hawkeyes have purchased the MAC meal plan in five of the last seven years. Good to see some things don’t change.

28. Miami (Ohio) at Ohio State

Sept. 21: It’s the Red Hawks’ second appearance on the list as part of a well-balanced MAC meal plan.

29. South Alabama at Nebraska

Aug. 31: The Jaguars had a bad defense last season — 38.8 points allowed — so the Adrian Martinez Heisman hype after the season opener should be sky-high.

30. Liberty at Rutgers

Oct. 26: New LU coach Hugh Freeze is on a personal mission, you’d best believe, to work his way back to big-time college football. Every Liberty game will be a statement. Upset alert here.

31. Eastern Michigan at Illinois

Sept. 14: EMU beat Rutgers in 2017 and Purdue last season. Lovie Smith had better have the 14,000 fans at Memorial Stadium fired up.

32. Ball State vs. Indiana

Aug. 31 at Indianapolis: A rematch of last year’s 38-10 Hoosier win. Don’t be stunned if this game is closer; that doesn’t mean it’ll be any good.

33. Akron at Illinois

Aug. 31: The Zips’ run game was zapped last year — fewer than 100 yards per game. MAC meal plan, which is always tricky for the Illini.

34. Massachusetts at Rutgers

Aug. 30: It sounds better as a quiz bowl.

35. Massachusetts at Northwestern

Nov. 16: Quiz bowl, semifinal round.

36. Kent State at Wisconsin

Oct. 5: The Golden Flashes play seven road games, including tilts at Arizona State, Auburn and the Badgers. Somebody needs some payout money.

37. Central Michigan at Wisconsin

Sept. 7: The directional Michigans are never all good at once, and Central is drawing the short stick right now. Jim McElwain is the new coach.

38. Idaho at Penn State

Aug. 31: Mashed potatoes. The Vandals dropped to the FCS a few years back and finished 4-7 last season.

39. Connecticut at Indiana

Sept. 21: Sandwiched between a home game against Ohio State and a road game at Michigan State comes a tilt with a team that finished 1-11 last season in the AAC. UConn’s lone win was over Rhode Island.

40. Illinois at Connecticut

Sept. 7: Sweet Jesus, have mercy.

41. Eastern Illinois at Indiana

Sept. 7: Imagine a barrel. Now imagine the bottom of the barrel. Go down 100 feet. That’s this game between an FCS team that finished 3-8 last season and the Hoosiers.

42. Howard at Maryland

Aug. 31: Imagine a matchup even worse than Eastern Illinois at Indiana.

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