CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: Ranking toughest non-con game for UW Huskies and Big Ten rivals

May 18, 2024, 10:05 AM | Updated: 10:07 am

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WSU Cougars WR Kyle Williams catches a touchdown against the UW Huskies in the 2023 college football Apple Cup. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

In an 18-team conference — particularly one that features Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and other potential heavyweights — non-league scheduling seemingly is of less consequence than ever before. Who really cares which three teams you face in September when some combination of the Wolverines or Buckeyes or Ducks or Huskies or Trojans or Badgers or Hawkeyes might be looming in the months to come?

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I’m interested to see how the UW Huskies approach nonconference scheduling as a Big Ten member. Remember when Washington expected to host Ohio State in a non-league matchup this season? Of course, the Buckeyes canceled that home-and-home series more than a year ago, and it might have become moot, anyway, with the Huskies ultimately joining Ohio State in the Big Ten.

With UW moving on and rival Washington State left behind in the two-team Pac-12, the Huskies instead scheduled the Cougars as a nonconference opponent, effectively filling the hole created by Ohio State’s cancellation. The Apple Cup is scheduled to continue through at least 2028. Washington isn’t scheduled to face another current Power 4 opponent until a home-and-home against Tennessee in 2029-30, but it remains to be seen whether the schools decide to keep those games.

Former UW athletic director Troy Dannen seemed to imply that he didn’t feel moved to schedule marquee nonconference games, due to how difficult a nine-game Big Ten slate would be. But he did acknowledge the possibility that even in a 12-team College Football Playoff field, final at-large decisions could weigh non-league scheduling when comparing two similar teams.

I’m curious to hear the philosophy of new AD Pat Chun. Continuing to play the Apple Cup would make it more difficult for UW to schedule nonconference home-and-home agreements, but neutral-site games could be one potential workaround. Then again, the sport’s changing landscape might render it a little silly to plan anything further than a couple seasons out.

Anyway: Washington State should be Washington’s toughest nonconference opponent this season. What about the rest of the Big Ten? I’ve ranked the league in order of what I see as each school’s most challenging nonconference game.

1. Michigan

vs. Texas, Sept. 7

After breaking through with a College Football Playoff appearance in 2023, Steve Sarkisian’s Longhorns seem primed to contend for a national title with a talented roster and starting quarterback Quinn Ewers returning.

2. Purdue

vs. Notre Dame, Sept. 14

The Irish are a preseason top-five team by some estimates, with Duke transfer Riley Leonard stepping in at quarterback. Purdue is coming off a 4-8 season in which it defeated Virginia Tech, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana.

3. USC

vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 30

What makes Purdue’s game against the Irish tougher than USC’s? Well, because the Trojans should be better than the Boilermakers. But this is a rough regular-season finale for Lincoln Riley’s team, which also faces LSU in Las Vegas on Sept. 1.

4. Wisconsin

vs. Alabama, Sept. 14

Maybe the Crimson Tide aren’t so daunting without Nick Saban on the sideline, but it isn’t as if Kalen DeBoer has no talent to work with — and the Badgers are coming off a disappointing 7-6 finish in Luke Fickell’s first season. This is a big opportunity for Fickell to score a milestone victory.

5. UCLA

at LSU, Sept. 21

It’s a brutal schedule, generally, for the Bruins in 2024, and this trip to Death Valley only makes it harder for first-year coach DeShaun Foster.

6. Illinois

vs. Kansas, Sept. 7

There was a moment, however brief, when it seemed the Jayhawks might be in peril of losing coach Lance Leipold to another job. But Leipold quashed that in short order, and Kansas returns a top-25 roster after breaking through with a 9-4 finish in 2023.

7. Penn State

at West Virginia, Aug. 31

A blueblood opening its season with a trip to Morgantown? You don’t think Mountaineers fans might do some tailgating before that one, do you? The Nittany Lions did win last year’s matchup by three scores.

8. Oregon

vs. Boise State, Sept. 7

If the Ducks are going to be as good as many believe they will be, this game shouldn’t be a tremendous challenge. But the Broncos are coming off a Mountain West championship and will be favored to win the league again, and Oregon has a weird history with Boise. Plus, Oregon’s rivalry game against Oregon State might not be as competitive as in some recent seasons, with Trent Bray taking over as coach and the Beavers reloading their roster.

9. Rutgers

at Virginia Tech, Sept. 21

The Hokies have a ton of production returning from a team that went 7-6 last season, and will have revenge on their minds after Rutgers smacked them, 35-16, in Piscataway.

10. Minnesota

vs. North Carolina, Aug. 29 (Thursday)

The Tar Heels must replace star quarterback Drake Maye, but they did handle the Gophers fairly easily in Chapel Hill last season. This is a tough opener for Minnesota.

11. Iowa

vs. Iowa State, Sept. 7

The annual Cy-Hawk rivalry game finds Matt Campbell’s squad coming off a 7-win season, and the Hawkeyes breaking in an offensive coordinator who isn’t the head coach’s son.

12. UW Huskies

vs. WSU Cougars, Sept. 14 (Lumen Field)

The Cougars took the Huskies to the wire last season, and while both programs have changed a fair bit, the emotions of the first post-realignment Apple Cup will make this one interesting. Plus, it’s at a neutral site, which is different. And the Huskies otherwise face Weber State and Eastern Michigan.

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13. Michigan State

at Boston College, Sept. 21

Jonathan Smith’s first nonconference schedule is a pretty light one, with this mild road trip accompanied by games against FAU and Prairie View A&M. BC does return a fairly experienced core despite Jeff Hafley leaving to take an NFL defensive coordinator job; Bill O’Brien was hired to replace him.

14. Nebraska

vs. Colorado, Sept. 7

The Buffaloes dominated Matt Rhule’s Cornhuskers in Boulder last season, but lost eight of their next 10 games. Nebraska finished 5-7 with a bunch of close losses, as it does. Will five-star freshman Dylan Raiola get the nod at quarterback for the Huskers? Regardless, this is probably a bigger challenge than UTEP or Northern Iowa.

15. Northwestern

vs. Duke, Sept. 7

Manny Diaz takes over the Blue Devils for Mike Elko, who was hired by Texas A&M to replace Jimbo Fisher. Expectations might not be that high in Durham, relative to recent performance, but this should still be a tougher test for the Wildcats than Miami (OH) (though the Redhawks did go 11-3 last year) or Eastern Illinois.

16. Maryland

at Virginia, Sept. 14

It’s a Power 4 matchup, but not a difficult one. The Terrapins blasted the Cavaliers, 42-14, at home last season.

17. Ohio State

vs. Marshall, Sept. 21

It was either Marshall, Akron or Western Michigan. None should be a challenge for the loaded Buckeyes.

18. Indiana

vs. Charlotte, Sept. 14

No, Charlotte wasn’t any good last season … but neither were FIU or Western Illinois, Indiana’s two other nonconference opponents. Of course, the Hoosiers usually aren’t any good, either, so they’re wise to go easy on themselves in nonconference play.

More on the UW Huskies

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