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Nebraska vs. Iowa, 11/25

Nebraska running back Tre Bryant is swarmed by the Iowa defense during a game in Iowa City, Iowa, last fall.

Guessing schedule strength before a season can be a fool's errand, the writer wrote just before running that errand.

For instance, at this time a year ago, a person could have looked at a team in the Big Ten West Division that had Michigan State as one of its crossover opponents and considered that some kind of chore.

They played ball and the Spartans finished 1-8 in Big Ten play. Remember when Wisconsin's schedule was supposed to bury the Badgers in 2016? They still finished 7-2 and won the division. (That's something to remember before it's decided Nebraska's 2018 season should be canceled since it includes road games at Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern)

But ... we all shouldn't pretend all paths to Indianapolis are equal each year. If you have an Ohio State or Michigan or Penn State as a crossover game and someone else doesn't, that's a tougher assignment for you, right?

Nebraska has two of those assignments. So it's going to rank pretty high on this list, which rates the schedules of Big Ten West teams from toughest to easiest.

On paper, the schedules of the teams seem more evenly distributed than in past years. No need for anyone to do any complaining. But this exercise might also further highlight to Husker faithful exactly how critical it is for Nebraska to win a particular game on Oct. 7 if it wants to meet its season goals.

1. Iowa

Home games: Penn State, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue (teams were 24-21 in Big Ten play in 2016).

Road games: Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin (19-17).

2016 combined league record of opponents: 43-38.

Synopsis: The Hawkeyes received some breaks from the Big Ten on scheduling in past years, but not this one. Crossover games include Ohio State, Penn State and a Michigan State program that wants to show last year's derailment was a fluke. And Nebraska and Wisconsin are both on the road. You'll know a decent amount about the Hawkeyes before October even shows up. They start league play with Penn State, then travel to East Lansing the next week.

2. Nebraska

Home games: Rutgers, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern, Iowa (26-19).

Road games: Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Penn State (16-20).

2016 combined league record of opponents: 42-39.

Synopsis: Nebraska's league schedule comes in four parts. There's Rutgers and Illinois to begin. NU can't slip there. Next comes those back-to-back proving-ground weeks hosting Wisconsin and Ohio State. After that comes a bye and a must-get at Purdue. Last comes a challenging November. Playing at Penn State at the end of back-to-back road trips just six days before a short-week game against Iowa is tough.

3. Minnesota

Home games: Maryland, Michigan State, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin (19-26).

Road games: Purdue, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern (19-17).

2016 combined league record of opponents: 38-43.

Synopsis: The Gophers will need to start strong, and could, since their first two games out of the gate are against Maryland and Purdue. But this schedule might be harder than last year's records suggest. P.J. Fleck's team has a back-loaded schedule. Starting Oct. 28, there are back-to-back trips to Iowa and Michigan. Then the Gophers play Nebraska and Wisconsin in two of the final three weeks.

4. Northwestern

Home games: Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota (21-24).

Road games: Wisconsin, Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois (18-18).

2016 combined league record of opponents: 39-42.

Synopsis: Northwestern does its heavy lifting early. It opens at Wisconsin, then plays Penn State a week later. By Nov. 4, the Wildcats will also already have played Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska. The Huskers get them at the end of that gauntlet. If the Wildcats are still in the hunt then, watch out. They could be favored in their last three games against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois.

5. Illinois

Home games: Nebraska, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Indiana, Northwestern (22-23).

Road games: Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Ohio State (20-16).

2016 combined league record of opponents: 42-39.

Synopsis: Nebraska fans might not relish that the Illini get a bye a week before Illinois opens league play on a Friday night against the Huskers. But that also means Lovie Smith's team has to play nine straight league games without a week off after that. However, getting winnable crossover games against Rutgers and Indiana is a benefit for a program trying to build.

6. Purdue

Home games: Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana (24-21).

Road games: Wisconsin, Rutgers, Northwestern, Iowa (18-18).

2016 combined league record of opponents: 42-39.

Synopsis: I actually think first-year coach Jeff Brohm walked into about as good a schedule setup as he could have hoped. Here's why: The Boilermakers have Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota at home, with a winnable road opportunity at Rutgers. Those are some legit chances right there for a program that has won a total of three league games the past four years. Heck, if Brohm won three B1G games in Year 1, he might have a street named after him in West Lafayette.

7. Wisconsin

Home games: Northwestern, Purdue, Maryland, Iowa, Michigan (22-23).

Road games: Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota (17-19).

2016 combined league record of opponents: 39-42.

Synopsis: If Nebraska wants to win the West Division, it had best topple Wisconsin and earn the tiebreaker. After that first Saturday in October, the Badgers spend the next four weeks playing Purdue, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana. Wisconsin follows that with a noteworthy two-week stretch against Iowa and Michigan on Nov. 11 and Nov. 18, but both those games are at Camp Randall Stadium. College football is a crazy game, though. Something that looks easier isn't always that way.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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