Ranking the top 7 B1G nonconference games in 2023
Whenever an opportunity presents itself to criticize Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel for the travesty that is the Wolverines’ nonconference football schedule in the 2020s, I will gladly take it.
And wouldn’t you know it, this is such an opportunity.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact the Big Ten’s 2-time defending champion is nowhere to be found when compiling a list of the league’s top non-conference games in 2023. Especially not when this is now a 3-year running trend.
East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. All at home. Trash.
Scheduling 1 or 2 of those teams would be acceptable if an actually challenging matchup was mixed in. But as construed, it’s unacceptable. The Wolverines are fortunate that Ohio State and Penn State will likely be top 10 teams that can compensate for this scheduling weak sauce. (And yes, Michigan plays Texas in 2024, to which my response is, “It’s about damn time.”)
But enough focusing on the negative. There’s actually a number of great nonconference matchups on the Big Ten schedule this fall.
And these are the 7 best. A Magnificent 7, if you will, so I can excuse using that exact number.
7. Minnesota at North Carolina
When: Sept. 16
This would have been a far more fascinating matchup last season with Mohamed Ibrahim and Minnesota’s bully-ball offense going head-to-head with North Carolina’s paper-soft defense. And on the flip side, there was Phil Longo’s up-tempo attack going against Minnesota’s 4th-ranked scoring defense.
The Gophers will get their taste of Longo this year now that he’s offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. And Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye taking on Minnesota’s defense is still a fun matchup.
But it’s hard to know exactly what Minnesota’s offense will look like with a new coordinator and quarterback, and no Ibrahim.
6. Illinois at Kansas
When: Sept. 9
There have been multiple seasons where a matchup between the Illini and Jayhawks would represent each team’s best chance at a win. Serendipity instead chose for these teams to meet in the rare year in which both programs are on the upswing.
The Illini had the nation’s top scoring defense in 2022, and Kansas was 6th in yards per play. Illinois is replacing a lot of talent and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, so the advantage figures to go to the home team. But like Minnesota and North Carolina, this presents a fun contrast in styles.
5. West Virginia at Penn State
When: Sept. 2
This is simply 1 of those games that feels like it should be played, as it was 59 times from 1904-1992. The Nittany Lions and Mountaineers haven’t met since then, with each team giving up independence and joining a conference around the same time.
But a fun regional matchup does not guarantee a good game. It could get pretty ugly, as many have in a series in which Penn State holds a 48-9-2 overall record. The Nittany Lions are a likely preseason top 5, and West Virginia is limping into what feels like a lame duck year for coach Neal Brown.
4. Washington at Michigan State
When: Sept. 16
An opportunity for Michael Penix Jr. to extend his career mastery of the Spartans.
In 3 games against Michigan State at Indiana and Washington, Penix has completed 82-of-120 passes (68.1%) for 1,003 yards with 9 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
For Michigan State, it’s a chance to show that 1 of the nation’s worst pass defenses for 2 straight seasons is getting better. Though I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.
3. Nebraska at Colorado
When: Sept. 9
An old rivalry gets a complete revamp with Matt Rhule and Deion Sanders making their first appearances at their new jobs. Even if neither the Cornhuskers nor Buffaloes is particularly good next season, the week leading up to the game promises to be entertaining. And the game itself likely will be, too.
Both programs are generating more offseason buzz than most in their respective positions, and an early-season matchup will feed on that wave.
2. Wisconsin at Washington State
When: Sept. 9
Last year, it was an interesting matchup due to the contrast in styles. This year, Wisconsin’s offense will look more like a Pac-12 attack. And for that offense to get its first Power 5 test against an actual Pac-12 team makes for a fascinating watch.
The future of the Pac-12 adds another layer of intrigue. By the end of this summer, there could be a scenario in which Washington State and Oregon State are ejected from the Power 5 carousel because the Pac-12 has been swallowed by further conference realignment.
If that happens — call it possible rather than likely — I’d expect the home crowd to be pretty vicious to a Big Ten opponent.
1. Ohio State at Notre Dame
When: Sept. 23
If the option of “Ohio State-Notre Dame” is available, it’ll always get No. 1 billing on a list like this. These are Midwestern blue-bloods who have only played 7 times ever.
The placement on the schedule also has the potential to make things more interesting than last year’s season opener. It will be Week 5 for Notre Dame and Week 4 for Ohio State. If the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish both come in unbeaten, expect a College GameDay-level buzz to come with that.
This is what the sport’s traditional powers should be doing with their non-conference schedules.