Late last week, Athlon Sports put out its ranking of the toughest 2018 nonconference schedules in the Big Ten. That's all fine and good. Nebraska's schedule ranked eighth, which feels just about right. In fact, there's not much room for argument in a ranking such as this, at least at this time of year when Oregon State, Ohio State's opening week opponent, will be Oregon State until it proves it's not (which would take a whole season).
I'm taking a different approach. Rather than schedule strength, let's look at which Big Ten nonconference schedules will tells us the most about the conference teams. Nine of the 14 schools play their three nonconference games over the first three weeks, so for 64 percent of the Big Ten teams everything we know about them on Sept. 16 will be based on the three-act plays the schools had total control over.
Which of those slates look like they'll be the most revealing? I'd rank them this way.
1. Purdue (EMU | Mizzou | BC): The buzzy Boilermakers open with Northwestern, but the three noncon games after that all represents challenges to some degree. Eastern Michigan is an improving program and the Missouri and Boston College games should basically be coin flips. If Purdue has a winning record at the end of September, a drop off from 2017 may not be coming.
2. Minnesota (NMSU | Fresno St | Miami Ohio): New Mexico State was a bowl team last year, but is the easiest of the three in the first month of P.J. Fleck's second season. It's the Fresno State game that'll tell us something about the Gophers. And Miami should be better than you think, too.
3. Indiana (@ FIU | Virginia | Ball St): The trip to Florida International looks tougher now than it probably will be then. Hoosiers should win that one, and then the Virginia game should be about a coin flip. Ball State was bad a year ago and probably will be again. I think a 3-0 start here would tell us the Hoosiers are on track, though few would probably notice.
4. Maryland (Texas* | BGSU | Temple): Given last year's loss, Texas is going to pound the Terps in a neutral-site opener this year. Just know that in advance. Bowling Green should be a win, but that Temple game has the potential to be tricky. If you're noticing a trend with these rankings, it's generally the presence of toss-up games. I put Terps-Owls in that category.
5. Iowa (NIU | Iowa St | UNI): Iowa should be pretty good in 2018, and we'll have a decent idea if that's true after the first three weeks. The Hawkeyes will be favored in all three of these games, but the Iowa State game always seems to be wacky and NIU and UNI are solid programs year in and year out. If Iowa rolls through these three, that's saying something.
6. Nebraska (Akron | Colorado | Troy): The only reason I have the Huskers this high is because the Huskers are the only team with a new coach. That being the case, any and every game adds relatively more to the "known" pile. A 3-0 record with home games against these three opponents may not tell us much, but it will still be drastically more than we "know" now.
7. Northwestern (Duke | Akron | Notre Dame): That Notre Dame game doesn't happen until November, so you can sort of throw that one out. But the Duke game alone, coming on the heels of the opener against Purdue, will be a good test of what the Wildcats have the potential to be in 2018.
8. Michigan (@ Notre Dame | WMU | SMU): We're really just talking about the Notre Dame game here because the Wolverines should be able to cruise in the next two. But, man, will that opener be interesting. Win (which Michigan will not be favored to do) and Harbaugh and his fans can breathe a little easier. Lose and it's buckle your seat belts because it's going to be a bumpy ride. Perception-wise, that is. No one game ever actually defines anything, but narrative-building rarely works that way.
9. Ohio State (Oregon St | TCU* | Tulane): The Beavers are the worst team in this group. Playing TCU at a "neutral site" in Arlington, Texas, has the potential to be interesting, but the Buckeyes probably come out of that one with a win. And then they'll probably smoke what should be a good Tulane team a week later, but this particular nonconference slate has the potential tell us more than most at Ohio State. This 3-0 would include two pretty good wins.
10. Michigan State (Utah St | @ Arizona St | CMU): Not much to see here. Going west early in the season always offers the potential for trouble, but with the Sun Devils starting over the Spartans should be OK. 3-0 is expected here and getting there probably isn't all that revealing.
11. Penn State (App St | @ Pitt | Kent St): I love Appalachian State, but the Mountaineers aren't winning an opener at Penn State. Pittsburgh could be dangerous, but for a "marquee" noncon game it's relatively winnable. Kent State? ESPN's FPI ranks the Flashes as the second-worst team in football right now.
12. Rutgers (Texas St | @ Kansas | Buffalo): Now that I type it out, I might have this one too low. Rutgers hasn't been very good, and neither have Texas State or Kansas. (That attendance figure for Rutgers at Kansas has the potential to be . . . sad.) The Buffalo game, however, could be telling. Sort of a must-win for the Knights, but the Bulls are getting better.
13. Illinois (Kent St | WIU | USF*): This looks like 2-1 out of the gate, but the Illini might have a better shot at beating USF in Chicago than most will give them. If that happens, maybe adjust your evaluation of Illinois after three games. I'm assuming it won't, however.
14. Wisconsin (WKU | New Mexico | BYU): We're not going to know anything of value about Wisconsin after three games. Unless the Badgers should lose, of course, but the odds of that against this slate are very, very slim.
Herm Edwards is Good Now
I've enjoyed SMHing at the early months of Herm Edwards' out-of-nowhere tenure at Arizona State as much as the next person, but I've finally found some common ground with the Sun Devils' new coach.
From George Schroeder's story for USA Today:
Edwards says the only thing that threw him, just a little, was to learn Arizona State’s primary logo is no longer Sparky the Sun Devil, but instead a pitchfork (which he says “looks like a candle”). Sparky, he says, “is the best one! I mean, c’mon!”
Sparky is the best one. Of all the massively hyped rebranding of athletic programs, Arizona State's move to what I have always called the RocketFork is the worst. They took a classic logo that fans will forever love and replaced it with a trident (note: pitchfork was always sort of a misnomer, wasn't it?) that has the dimensions of a garden shovel? And appears to be in motion (or something)?
I'm glad Edwards sees the light on this. Hopefully he'll snuff out that "candle" in the near future.
The Grab Bag
- Dabo Swinney has built his own Alabama at Clemson, and Billy Napier is trying to do the same at Louisiana.
- Nebraska is adding a walk-on punter.
- Scott Frost is even winning over Iowa Hawkeye fans now.
- Why Wisconsin is an overlooked title contender.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.