Out-of-league games comprise only 25 percent of a team's regular-season schedule, however. What's even more important for many teams is how their Big Ten schedules stack up.
So today we're taking a look at which teams have the most and least favorable Big Ten schedules in 2017. We're not using "tough" and "easy" because it's never easy to get through a conference slate. And things are all kind of relative here. Playing in the East Division is going to present a major challenge with all the heavyweights located on that side. But we're more looking toward who has the more advantageous crossover games and how the home/road splits sort out. (As a reminder, West Division clubs gets five conference home games each this year, while East teams have only four apiece.)
After going through all these, I have to say I'm pretty impressed with how the league has managed to balance things out in Year 2 of the nine-game schedule. There are few glaringly obvious discrepancies in who plays whom.
Still, schedules will never be truly equal when there's no round-robin. So here are the three most favorable conference schedules -- at least on paper -- in late January:
1. Wisconsin: One year after facing one of the most brutal schedules imaginable, the Badgers get a bit of a letup in 2017. Their East crossovers are Maryland, Michigan and Indiana, with only the game against the Hoosiers coming on the road. Wisconsin does have to go to Nebraska on Oct. 7, but that's the only road game against a league team that had a winning record last year until the finale at Minnesota. And Wisconsin has absolutely dominated the series with the Gophers in the last decade-plus.
2. Illinois: The Fighting Illini do have to go to Ohio State. But their other crossovers are at home against Indiana and Rutgers, and they get Wisconsin, Nebraska and rival Northwestern all in Champaign. It's just a question of whether Lovie Smith's team will be good enough to take advantage of those matchups.
3. Rutgers: After going winless in the Big Ten last year, the Scarlet Knights can't count any game as easy. But their crossover schedule includes winnable games against Purdue and Illinois, along with a trip to Nebraska. That won't make the division games any more manageable, especially with road trips to Penn State and Michigan, but it sure beats the early days of facing both Wisconsin and Nebraska as West crossovers. A close fourth is the Golden Gophers, who get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home and whose crossover schedule (Maryland, Michigan State and at Michigan) depends heavily on how good Michigan State will be in 2017.
And here are the teams that appear to have the three least favorable conference schedules, same caveats applying:
1. Iowa: Rival fans have complained that the Hawkeyes' league schedules were too generous the past few years. Not so in 2017. Kirk Ferentz's team drew Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State as crossovers. While the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes do have to come to Kinnick Stadium, they are both likely preseason top-10 teams. And the Spartans could be poised to bounce back. Iowa also has to play both Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, so they'll have to earn everything next season.
2. Nebraska: The good: Wisconsin and Iowa both come to Lincoln, and one of the three crossovers is Rutgers. The bad: Like Iowa, the Cornhuskers must play both Ohio State (at home) and Penn State (on the road). That's about as tough as it gets. And both Wisconsin and Iowa have had recent success winning in Memorial Stadium.
3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions' three crossovers could all be against West contenders: at Iowa, at Northwestern and versus Nebraska. The defending Big Ten champs also have to go to Ohio State. That game in Columbus convinced me to put Penn State here over the Buckeyes, who have road games against Iowa and Nebraska, plus the end-of-season trip to Michigan.