Ranking the Big Ten’s most intriguing non-conference matchups

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With recent news of Michigan State finalizing their 2021 football schedule, a quick glance at the future looks solid in terms of high-profile home matchups, despite a move to a nine-game conference schedule. Usual rival Notre Dame’s next matchup with the Spartans won’t come until 2026, and with the Big Ten shaping up as a top conference for the next couple years, Mark Dantonio’s team may not need to take risks in their non-conference schedule just to put themselves in better College Football Playoff standing.

The second game of a home-and-home series with Arizona State will take place in Spartan Stadium in 2019, and Miami (Fla.) will come to East Lansing in 2020 for the first game of another home-and-home series.

Meanwhile, the whole conference has a handful of meaningful games scheduled for this fall, with a fair few challenging matchups for the East division. A pair of games are already scheduled in prime-time slots, putting the conference’s best teams in the national spotlight early in the year. Here’s an arbitrary ranking of the conference’s interesting non-conference matchups:

Neutral-site games and start times/TV listed when available. All times Eastern.

8. Purdue vs. Missouri (Sept. 15)

Tiger quarterback Drew Lock is back for his senior season after leading the nation in touchdown passes last year, and Mizzou will seek revenge after Purdue beat them 35-3 in Columbia last year. Under second-year Boilermaker coach Jeff Brohm, Purdue returns their entire offense, but just four defensive starters from last year’s 7-6 team.

7. Maryland vs. Texas [Sept. 1, Fedex Field (Andover, Md.)]

Last year’s meeting in Austin ended with a surprising upset for the Terrapins, who put up 30 first-half points to win 51-41. Injury troubles got in the way for Maryland, who struggled to a 4-8 finish. Meanwhile, Tom Herman’s Texas scratched out a 7-6 record and are still on the road back to the national prominence they enjoyed for most of the last decade.

6. Iowa vs. Iowa State (Sept. 8)

Even if it isn’t always pretty, the battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy is perfect for the college football hipsters of the world. Last year’s battle ended with a Iowa overtime win, but Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell is one of the nation’s best young coaches, and the Cyclones rebounded from their early loss to match Iowa’s 8-5 record in 2017.

5. Northwestern vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 3)

The first of the Fighting Irish’s two appearances on this list comes rather late in the season. Both teams won 10 games last year, but ND had real aspirations of the Playoff before losing two games late in the year. The battle between in-state rivals should make for an interesting crowd composition at Ryan Field, as South Bend is only a couple hours’ drive from Evanston. Both teams return last year’s starting quarterbacks, but Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson may not be healthy enough to start the season.

4. Arizona State vs. Michigan State (Sept. 8, 10:45 p.m., ESPN)

Michigan State’s most interesting non-conference matchup is a trip to Tempe, Ariz. to face the Sun Devils. After going 7-5 last year. ASU hired former NFL coach Herm Edwards to lead the program. Edwards has not coached a competitive football game since 2008, but the Sun Devils return QB Manny Wilkins and most of their receiving corps.

Michigan State returns nearly all of their starters from last year’s 10-3 team. This will be a home game for MSU QB Brian Lewerke, who grew up in nearby Phoenix. A win here for the Spartans should prove their road mettle early in the year.

3. Pittsburgh vs. Penn State (Sept. 8, 8 p.m., ABC)

Penn State was arguably two drives away from a Playoff appearance in 2017, but loses offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and running back Saquon Barkley, as well as most of their defense. That said, they still match up well with nearby Pitt and former MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. The Panthers went 5-7 last year, but this rivalry is usually hotly contested when played in Heinz Field.

2. Notre Dame vs. Michigan (Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m., NBC)

These two teams have not played since 2014, when Notre Dame was accused by then-Michigan coach Brady Hoke of “chickening out” of the longtime rivalry. The Irish won that 2014 game 31-0, but it’s two completely teams taking the field to kick off 2018. If Jim Harbaugh wanted an early litmus test for his Wolverines, he’ll get it.

Both teams return impact players on defense, so this game may come down to how Notre Dame replaces their offensive line. After losing two top-ten NFL draft picks, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich will be staring them in the face.

1. TCU vs. Ohio State (Sept. 15, AT&T Stadium, 8 p.m., ABC)

Both teams should be ranked in the top 15 for this neutral-site game, the first at AT&T Stadium for the Buckeyes since their 2015 national championship. Both teams have to replace multi-year starting quarterbacks in J.T. Barrett and Kenny Hill, but are projected to again have stellar defenses despite losing players to the NFL.

This is one of only a handful of games that the Buckeyes are not overwhelming favorites for. OSU has run into trouble in their non-conference slate before, as last year’s loss to Oklahoma was a large reason they missed out on the Playoff. Last year’s 11-3 record for TCU was Gary Patterson’s third finish in the AP top 10 in four years.

Continue to follow @WDBM_Sports for more offseason college football content. Big Ten media days in Chicago take place on July 23 and 24.

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