Badgers’ 2014 schedule is Big Ten’s easiest
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin fans may choose to spend the college football offseason lamenting their team’s lack of quality wide receivers and inconsistent kicking game. They can wax poetic about last year’s senior-laden defense or continue debating the never-ending starting quarterback situation, too.
So many questions abound four months before Wisconsin’s season opener against LSU with so few answers. But if Badgers supporters are looking for something positive to believe in with spring practices now in the rearview mirror, there is this unequivocal bit of truth: No team will have it easier in Big Ten play next season than Wisconsin.
Maybe the Badgers won’t fill every hole necessary to be a dominant college football team, but they may not have to given the way the scheduling gods have set up Wisconsin’s 2014 conference slate.
Consider that Wisconsin will play the easiest schedule among all 14 Big Ten teams based on last season’s conference records. The combined conference record of Wisconsin’s eight Big Ten opponents a year ago was a paltry 22-42 (.343 winning percentage).
Here is a look at the entire Big Ten, with last season’s opponent records:
In the first year of the new East-West divisional format, Wisconsin avoids playing Big Ten East contenders Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. The Buckeyes and Spartans played for the Big Ten championship last season and figure to be good for years to come, while the Wolverines and Nittany Lions represent two of the premier programs of the last several decades.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin opens conference play with two teams — Northwestern and Illinois — that each finished 1-7 in the Big Ten last season. Only Nebraska and Iowa finished above .500 in the Big Ten a year ago among Wisconsin’s eight conference opponents.
What all this means is that Wisconsin has as good a shot as any in the Big Ten West to reach the conference championship game. The most difficult matchups that likely will dictate whether Wisconsin reaches that stage are at Northwestern (Oct. 4), at Rutgers (Nov. 1), home against Nebraska (Nov. 15) and at Iowa (Nov. 22). Most would consider the Cornhuskers and the Hawkeyes to be the Badgers’ biggest initial threat in the West. And it’s worth noting that Iowa and Nebraska have the second- and third-easiest Big Ten schedules, respectively.
Though the advantage for Wisconsin may be minimal, it still provides a measure of belief in late April. If Wisconsin plays up to the level it is capable of, UW could reach 5-0 in conference play heading into that Nov. 15 matchup against Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium, where Wisconsin is 61-6 since 2004. The Badgers, in fact, could very well be favored to win all eight of their Big Ten games.
For those looking even further ahead, Wisconsin again avoids the "Big Four" in the Big Ten East in 2015, which could give the Badgers another crack at a conference title game appearance. In 2016, Wisconsin opens with a murderer’s row: at Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Ohio State, at Iowa and vs. Nebraska.
Wisconsin likely won’t have all the pieces in place during Year 2 of the Gary Andersen era. But the Badgers’ window of opportunity to win a Big Ten title is still plenty big. And amid all the questions about player personnel before the 2014 season, the manageable conference schedule should help provide fans with reason to hope.
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter