It’s possible to divine the divide between the Big Ten’s East and West divisions through the lens of their nonconference schedules.

Teams in the East know they are in for a dogfight once they dive into conference play. Thus, it should be no surprise that every team in the division has at least 1 patsy on its nonconference schedule.

Michigan is the only program in the East that won’t face an FCS opponent this year, but a lineup of East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green isn’t exactly Murderer’s Row. The Wolverines are also the only Big Ten team that doesn’t play a Power 5 nonconference opponent.

In the West, where conference wins are easier to come by, the teams are willing to get a bit more daring with their nonconference schedules. Northwestern is the only team to face an FCS opponent this season.

Not surprisingly, West Division teams account for all 5 of the toughest nonconference schedules in the 2023 Big Ten football season.

5. Nebraska

Week 2: at Colorado (1-11)

Week 3: Northern Illinois (3-9)

Week 4: Louisiana Tech (3-9)

The Cornhuskers open the season at Minnesota before traveling to Colorado the following week.

There will be plenty of buzz around Boulder with Deion Sanders at the helm for the renewal of an old rivalry. But the Buffaloes were awful last year and to this point don’t have a full roster. It’s difficult to say how tough a game that will be.

Northern Illinois took a surprising step back last season after winning the MAC in 2021. The Huskies should be explosive enough on offense and porous enough on defense to make any game a shootout.

Like NIU, Louisiana Tech is a historically solid Group of 5 program coming off a down year. If either team plays at its historical level, they could be a tough out.

4. Iowa

Week 1: Utah State (6-7 in 2022)

Week 2: at Iowa State (4-8)

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Week 3: Western Michigan (5-7)

None of Iowa’s nonconference opponents had a winning record in 2022, so the Hawkeyes should still make their way to 3-0.

But the Cy-Hawk game is always a battle even though Iowa usually comes out on the right side. The Hawkeyes haven’t beaten the Cyclones by more than 10 points since 2016.

That includes last year’s 10-7 loss to the ‘Clones despite Iowa State fielding Matt Campbell’s worst team since his debut season. This year, Iowa State will try to top the Hawkeyes in Ames for the first time since 2011.

3. Illinois

Week 1: Toledo (9-5)

Week 2: at Kansas (6-7)

Week 3: Florida Atlantic (5-7)

Toledo is the defending MAC champion and brings back one of the most experienced rosters in the entire FBS. If the Rockets can beat the Illini and run the table, they’ll give themselves a shot at a New Year’s 6 bowl.

Kansas was the darling of college football last September until losing quarterback Jalon Daniels to injury. He’ll be back this year, making Illinois-Kansas a surprisingly compelling early-season matchup. When the schedule was made, both programs probably figured it was a rare chance at a win. Now it’s possible the winner will end up ranked at some point in 2023.

FAU, which gave Purdue a run for its money last year, will likely be better with Tom Herman making his return to coaching at a level where he’s experienced great success.

The Illini will certainly be tested in September.

2. Minnesota

Week 2: Eastern Michigan (9-4)

Week 3: at North Carolina (9-5)

Week 5: Louisiana (6-7)

Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton is the best college football coach the average fan probably hasn’t heard of.

Just 8 miles from Ann Arbor, EMU is among the toughest gigs in the FBS. It’s impossible to build a local buzz the way more isolated Group of 5 programs can. Yet Creighton has led the Eagles to bowl appearances in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Eastern Michigan had 3 bowl appearances in its entire history prior to this stretch, and 2 of them were before 1988.

North Carolina’s Drake Maye is the best quarterback the Gophers will see this season, and they have to face him in his home stadium. Maye is a Heisman candidate and potential No. 1 pick on the 2024 NFL Draft. Other than Ohio State’s trip to Notre Dame, this is the toughest nonconference road assignment for a B1G team this season.

And though Louisiana took a small step back in its first season post-Billy Napier, the Ragin’ Cajuns are always loaded with speedy talent. Louisiana cannot be overlooked.

1. Purdue

Week 1: Fresno State (10-4)

Week 2: at Virginia Tech (3-8)

Week 3: Syracuse (7-6)

Ryan Walters’ first head coaching assignment does not come with a set of training wheels.

The Boilermakers are the only Big Ten team that plays multiple Power 5 nonconference opponents, and the timing couldn’t be much worse in terms of a program finding footing under a new coach.

Perhaps the only lucky break here is that Fresno State is no longer led by quarterback Jake Haener, who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. Otherwise, the Bulldogs would have proven an extremely difficult test — and they still may.

Virginia Tech was terrible in its first year under former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry, but you expect a program to take a jump in Year 2 of a coaching change. The Hokies still have a great homefield atmosphere even if the recent product has not been up to par.

And no Purdue fan needs a reminder of what went down at the former Carrier Dome last year.

While the Boilers were the more talented team in game they handed away, much of that talent — Aidan O’Connell, Charlie Jones and Payne Durham — is in NFL training camp. The Orange will make for a stern test.