For the first time since 1984, the Big Ten will move to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. That means the road to a Big Ten title will be even more difficult, as one more league gauntlet is thrown in each team's way.
It's never too early to look ahead to next season. And since every Big Ten team is done with bowl season, now seems as good a time as any to start thinking about what comes next. Which teams have the toughest league schedule, and which ones have the easiest in 2016? Here's a rundown of each teams' Big Ten slate, including the 2015 combined conference records of their opponents in parentheses:
Ohio State (36-36)
Michigan State (35-37)
Penn State (35-37)
Six thoughts on the six teams that finished with winning league records in 2015:
* Wisconsin was fortunate to avoid the four Big Ten East powers in each of the past two seasons, which is a significant reason the Badgers went 13-3 in regular-season league games. But Wisconsin's schedule in 2016 is an absolute murderer's row. Its three crossover games with East teams are against Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan -- teams that went a combined 20-4 in Big Ten games in 2015. Wisconsin opens Big Ten play at Michigan State, at Michigan, home against Ohio State, at Iowa, home against Nebraska and at Northwestern. It isn't a stretch to suggest the Badgers could be .500 in league play by then (or worse). Wisconsin, which finished 10-3 with a National Funding Holiday Bowl victory last week, could be a better team next season yet wind up with a worse record. Those are the breaks.
* Iowa just closed out one of the most memorable seasons in program history -- one that came within a 22-play drive from Michigan State in the Big Ten title game of reaching the College Football Playoff. The Hawkeyes obviously can't play themselves in 2016, so that's part of the reason the opponent records are slightly skewed. Looking at the schedule, Iowa should be considered a favorite to win the Big Ten West again. Iowa gets Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska at home. With the unbalanced nine-game league schedule, Iowa must play five road games. But they come against Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State and Illinois. Of that group, only the Nittany Lions finished with a winning record in 2015, though they went 4-4 in league play. Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois combined to go 6-26 in conference games.
* Ohio State's 12-1 season featured a BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl victory against Notre Dame but will be remembered more by a loss to Michigan State that kept the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff. Plenty of talent is leaving, too. Five underclassmen had announced their intentions to declare for the NFL draft as of Monday: Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Cardale Jones, Darron Lee and Tyvis Powell, though that number could rise. Still, Ohio State will be in position to make another run at a title. Ohio State's toughest crossover game will come Oct. 15 at Wisconsin, and the Badgers could be desperate by then after playing Michigan State and Michigan on the road to open league play. But if OSU can get by that game, the season will likely come down to the two games that matter most: at Michigan State on Nov. 19 and at home against Michigan on Nov. 26.
* The Michigan resurgence under coach Jim Harbaugh culminated with a 41-7 victory against Florida in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Can the Wolverines take the next step and win the Big Ten East in 2016? Michigan does have the benefit of playing five league games at home, which includes Wisconsin and Penn State. But it's the final three road games that will presumably determine the team's fate: at Michigan State (Oct. 29), at Iowa (Nov. 12) and at Ohio State (Nov. 26). If Michigan can get through that gauntlet, the Wolverines certainly will have earned a spot in the league title game.
* Michigan State, the Big Ten's representative in the Final Four, would appear to have a fairly manageable schedule and could find itself back in the league title hunt. The Spartans get to play five Big Ten home games, four of which come against teams that finished with a winning league record: Wisconsin (Sept. 24), Northwestern (Oct. 15), Michigan (Oct. 29) and Ohio State (Nov. 19). Home fans certainly should get their money's worth from the season-ticket package. Road games against Indiana, Maryland, Illinois and Penn State are all winnable, so the Spartans' ability to hold serve at home will be vital to their league championship hopes.
* Northwestern tied the school record with 10 wins in 2015, but it could be difficult to reach that mark for a second consecutive season. The Wildcats play four league home games and five road games, three of which are at Iowa (Oct. 1), at Michigan State (Oct. 15) and at Ohio State (Oct. 29). Those teams finished a combined 22-2 in the Big Ten during the regular season. Northwestern returns quarterback Clayton Thorson and tailback Justin Jackson, but the Wildcats have to figure out how to score more after averaging a league-worst 19.5 points per game in 2015.