Before the College Football Playoff arrived, the Big Ten prepared by asking its teams to add some muscle to their nonconference schedules.
Commissioner Jim Delany believed that impressive strength-of-schedule ratings would help conference teams in the eyes of the selection committee members, and many teams scheduled brand-name opponents for future years.
Did nonconference scheduling really help Ohio State get in -- and ultimately win -- the playoff last season? The Buckeyes suffered their only loss outside of league action, against a mediocre Virginia Tech team at home. But they certainly played a tougher nonconference slate than Baylor, which finished No. 5 in the committee's final poll last season.
How well do the nonconference schedules of league members stack up against other Power 5 teams moving forward? ESPN Stats & Information has ranked the nonconference schedules of all 64 Power 5 teams for the next five years (2015-19), calculating the difficulty of every game using the Football Power Index.
Though not every game in the next five years has been set, Stats & Info filled the holes with either an average Power 5 opponent, an average Group of 5 opponent or an FCS opponent, based on each team's scheduling trends. The number of nonconference teams each team plays did not matter; only the strength of the competition mattered. Remember, Big Ten teams will go down to three nonconference games per season in 2016 with the advent of the nine-game league schedule.
With all that in mind, here's how Big Ten teams rank nationally in terms of future nonconference schedule strength:
50. Indiana Hoosiers
55. Iowa Hawkeyes
Big Ten Nonconference Schedule Ranking
The number associated with each team is the percentage of games an average FBS team would be expected to lose if it faced that schedule; the higher the number, the harder the schedule.
The Big Ten did not place a team in the top five, but the league has six teams in the top 20. That ties the ACC for the most teams in the top 20 and shows that the Big Ten has done a good job of scheduling up but not handcuffing itself. (There's no real benefit, for example, in having the No. 1 hardest schedule, especially if you lose). By contrast, the SEC has only one team in the top 20 -- and South Carolina checks in at No. 18. Way to keep challenging yourselves out of conference, Southern friends.
Ohio State leads the Big Ten in future nonconference schedule strength even though this year's slate (at Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan) is respectable but not overly taxing. In 2016 and 2017, however, the Buckeyes will play Oklahoma, and they have a series with TCU in 2018-19.
Michigan's No. 9 ranking appears to be about quantity as much as quality. The Wolverines' 2015 nonconference schedule features some solid programs (Utah, Oregon State and BYU) but not any world-beaters. In 2016, they play Colorado, Hawaii and UCF. A 2017 matchup with Florida could be really interesting if the Gators bounce back, and Michigan plays Arkansas in '18 and '19. Seems like a smart strategy: play teams that are very good but not ones against which you'd be a substantial underdog.
I'm not sure I understand Purdue's high ranking here. The Boilermakers host Virginia Tech this year, but the 2016 slate includes Cincinnati, Nevada and Eastern Kentucky. Purdue starts a two-year series with Missouri in 2017, but the only game currently scheduled for 2019 is Nevada. That's the 16th-toughest schedule in the Power 5 over the next five years?
Wisconsin is only 32nd, but the Badgers are playing Alabama this season and LSU in 2016. You could play Little Sisters of the Poor for your other nonleague games if you won (or competed well in) those and took care of business elsewhere. The 2017 schedule (USF, FAU, Utah State) is soft, though, and BYU is the toughest game in both 2018 and '19.
These rankings reflect my belief that Penn State needs to step up its scheduling soon. I totally understand why the Nittany Lions wanted to dumb down the schedule a bit while the NCAA sanctions and scholarship limits took their toll. However, the program is coming out on the other side of that now and can be more ambitious than what is on the docket for 2017 and '18 (Pitt plus some Group of 5 filler). The 2020 slate includes Virginia Tech, at least, and schedules are made so far in advance that they're hard to change. Yet, as great as the return of the Pitt series promises to be, Penn State fans still deserve to see more high-profile games in the nonconference.