LINCOLN — Around 7 p.m. on Sept. 6, raise a toast to the Big Ten being, for at least a moment, the talk of college football, and doing it through something previously foreign to the league for many years: strong nonconference scheduling.
When Ohio State kicks off against Virginia Tech that evening, it’ll be the third league team simultaneously engaged in a high-profile nonconference tilt. Michigan will be visiting Notre Dame. Michigan State, the 2014 Big Ten champ, will be battling at Pac-12 juggernaut Oregon.
It’s the centerpiece of a robust September for the league. Real foes. Tough road games. Actual risk. Relevance. More than a few token segments on ESPN’s “College GameDay” program. By coincidence, Sept. 6 is a fall-on-your-face embarrassment for SEC schedules — the best game is Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt — so the Big Ten will have a big stage.
Such a change from last year, when the Big Ten stumbled into a nonconference scheduling rut. The best game of a bedraggled lot was a Notre Dame-Michigan tilt that has long lost its luster. Mid-American Conference teams comprised 25 percent of the slate. The two biggest intersectional matchups — Nebraska-UCLA and Wisconsin-Arizona State — were, for different reasons, gut-churning losses.
This year, a total of 11 MAC games and 10 FCS games still isn’t ideal, but it’s more respectable than last year. Of the 56 scheduled games, 17 are against power conference teams or Notre Dame, and that 17 doesn’t include respectable foes like Fresno State, Navy, Cincinnati and Central Florida. Rutgers and Maryland, if nothing else, trot out reasonable slates. Maryland will play West Virginia, Syracuse and South Florida.
The Big Ten can handle the added freight, and needs to, since the College Football Playoff committee will at least consider strength of schedule as it selects four teams at the end of the year. Wiping FCS teams off the schedule is an end goal, but the meatier foes are a start toward a deeper, fuller September for Big Ten fans.
See you in September. You may actually enjoy it.
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