All the debate about future conference schedule models got me thinking about the upcoming season -- it's May, what else is there to think about? -- and the Big Ten's division crossover matchups. The eight-game league schedule remains in place for both 2014 and 2015, and with the league expanding to 14 teams, it means each squad will play only two teams in the other division -- one at home and one on the road.
Hardly ideal, but what can you do.
(This is the point where I reiterate that the SEC's future schedule model will remain like this for the foreseeable future. You're in the same league but you'll barely play one another, yet play Coastal Carolina in mid-November instead? Don't get it.)
OK, back to B1G business. Before ranking the crossover schedules based on degree of difficulty, let's check out what they are for each league squad.
Indiana: Iowa (road, Oct. 11); Purdue (home/protected, Nov. 29)
Maryland: Iowa (home, Oct. 18); Wisconsin (road, Oct. 25)
Michigan: Minnesota (home, Sept. 27); Northwestern (road, Nov. 8)
Michigan State: Nebraska (home, Oct. 4); Purdue (road, Oct. 11)
Ohio State: Illinois (home, Nov. 1); Minnesota (road, Nov. 15)
Penn State: Northwestern (home, Sept. 27); Illinois (road, Nov. 22)
Rutgers: Nebraska (road, Oct. 25); Wisconsin (home, Nov. 2)
Illinois: Ohio State (road, Nov. 1); Penn State (home, Nov. 22)
Iowa: Indiana (home, Oct. 11); Maryland (road, Oct. 18)
Minnesota: Michigan (road, Sept. 27); Ohio State (home (Nov. 15)
Nebraska: Michigan State (road, Oct. 4); Rutgers (home, Oct. 25)
Northwestern: Penn State (road, Sept. 27); Michigan (home, Nov. 8)
Purdue: Michigan State (home, Oct. 11); Indiana (road/protected, Nov. 29)
Wisconsin: Maryland (home, Oct. 25); Rutgers (road, Nov. 2)
It's interesting that five teams -- Maryland, Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa and Wisconsin -- all will play their crossover games in back-to-back weeks. Penn State, meanwhile, will go nearly two months between its first crossover contest and the second.
OK, now for the moment you've waited for: my rankings of the crossover schedules. I factored in quality of opponent (using 2013 performance and future projections), sites and dates.
These go from toughest to easiest. Many of the top crossover games don't appear this year, and there's a fairly sizable drop-off in difficulty after the first three teams.
1. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights get thrown into the deep end right away, first with their East Division schedule but also with crossover games against two of the three likely frontrunners in the West. Nebraska is typically very tough at home, and Rutgers must come right back and play a powerful Wisconsin the following week.
2. Minnesota: I considered Minnesota for the top spot, especially given its historic struggles against Michigan, but the Gophers should be in the game in Ann Arbor and get Ohio State on their home field in mid-November, when the weather should favor the home team.
3. Maryland: Like fellow Big Ten newcomer Rutgers, Maryland faces two of the top West Division contenders this fall. Although the Terps host Iowa and face a Wisconsin team filled with questions, they'll be underdogs in both matchups.
4. Illinois: Road night games at Ohio State are rarely fun for the visitor, and Illinois' Nov. 1 trip could be a painful one. The Illini also host Penn State, which is somewhat of a wild card but a team capable of doing some damage if it stays healthy.
5. Northwestern: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald has yet to beat Penn State in four tries, and opening Big Ten play at Beaver Stadium is never easy. Northwestern easily could have won its last two against Michigan but has struggled to make plays in crunch time against the Wolverines.
6. Purdue: I'm guessing the Boilers would rather flip the sites of these matchups as they'll be major underdogs against MSU no matter where the game is played. A second consecutive visit to Indiana isn't much fun, either, especially since the Hoosiers should have their wide receiver situation worked out.
7. Nebraska: Bo Pelini's team has one extremely challenging crossover game and one that should be relatively benign. Nebraska won in its last trip to Spartan Stadium, but it will be tough to do so again. The Huskers should take care of Rutgers at home.
8. Michigan: Wolverines fans likely will mark both games as wins given the histories of both series. But Minnesota is an improving program under Jerry Kill, and Michigan was extremely fortunate to beat Northwestern in each of the past two seasons.
9. Indiana: The Hoosiers get a tough road game and a rivalry game at home. IU has two potentially tough road games (Bowling Green and Missouri) before heading to Iowa City, which should help it. The Hoosiers should be favored against Purdue in the Bucket game.
10. Michigan State: The Nebraska game marks the first of three premier home showdowns in Big Ten play for the Spartans (Michigan and Ohio State are the others). Mark Dantonio's team gets a favorable road crossover draw in Purdue, despite the Spartans' struggles with the Boilers last year.
11. Penn State: Both Lions crossover opponents failed to make bowls last season, but both could be improved. Penn State had to rally from double-digit, second-half deficits in its last two home meetings against Northwestern. If Illinois is fighting for a bowl spot -- and Tim Beckman's job -- the late November trip could be tough.
12. Ohio State: The matchups really favor the Buckeyes in both contests. Ohio State shouldn't have trouble with Illinois at Ohio Stadium under the lights, and while Minnesota is on the rise, the Buckeyes have too much firepower.
13. Iowa: Desmond King and the Hawkeyes secondary will be tested by both crossover opponents, but Iowa should come out of both games with victories. Iowa shouldn't look past Indiana and the Maryland trip could be tricky, but the Hawkeyes avoid the big boys in the East.
14. Wisconsin: Maybe the Big Ten newbies prove me wrong, but transitioning to a new league can be tough. Wisconsin gets what I believe to be the tougher of the two squads, Maryland, at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers run game should be able to overpower Rutgers on the road.