There's big news for the future of the Big Ten's big-time bowl chances.
Nebraska announced Monday it'd be playing a pair of games against perennial powerhouse Oregon in 2016 and 2017.
Now, while those games seem far off — if so, it's because they are — college football's non-conference matchups are scheduled ridiculously far in advance. For example, the Huskers also announced Monday their scheduled non-conference games against Tennessee will be pushed back ... to 2026 and 2027. That's so long from now.
But this Oregon news is good news for the Big Ten, and it's part of a growing trend, too. While this season featured a generally laughable slate of non-conference games for Big Ten teams, future schedules are stocked with the nation's top programs.
This year, non-conference highlights included Nebraska getting drubbed by UCLA, Michigan scoring a big win over a then-considered-great Notre Dame team and Indiana's loss to Missouri, before the Tigers moved into the top 25, making the game a big non-conference one only in hindsight. Wisconsin and Illinois also suffered losses to quality Pac-12 opponents in Arizona State and Washington, respectively. The game circled on everyone's calendar was that Michigan-ND tilt, and now both teams are unranked.
But look down the road, and you'll see chances to really test the strength of the conference's top teams.
It starts next season, with Wisconsin opening its campaign against LSU in Houston and Michigan State starting a two-year series with the aforementioned Oregon Ducks. Additionally, Ohio State plays ACC contender Virginia Tech, Nebraska goes up against Miami and new member Maryland gets the Big 12's West Virginia. Plus, Illinois and Indiana play Washington and Missouri again, and Northwestern is scheduled to play Notre Dame.
So in its first year as a 14-team football conference, the Big Ten is seriously upping its non-conference game. And things just continue from there. In 2015, Oregon, Miami, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Stanford and even Alabama will all play Big Ten teams.
The importance of these kinds of games can't be understated. They provide opportunities for signature wins early in the season that instantly give the winner one of the best strengths of schedule when competing for one of the four spots in the upcoming playoff system, which also begins next year.
For example, by not scheduling one of these games this season, Ohio State — a team seemingly as good as any in the country — can't break No. 4 in the AP poll. With Big Ten conference strength not being one of the nation's best, the Buckeyes are suffering, and it could cost an undefeated Ohio State team a slot in the national title game.
But Big Ten teams are obviously realizing that and scheduling much tougher non-conference competition over the next several seasons. Even when the 14-team Big Ten switches to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, teams are still rolling the dice against strong opponents, hoping for a huge payoff in a high-quality win, something only a few teams in the country — most residing in the SEC — can claim each season.
In 2016, Wisconsin again plays LSU, the Nebraska-Oregon series begins, Northwestern goes up against Stanford and Ohio State begins a two-year set with Oklahoma. In 2017, Maryland starts a two-year series with Texas, Purdue gets the SEC's Missouri, Rutgers goes up against UCLA and even Minnesota goes for a big win against the Pac-12's Oregon State. And teams like Arkansas, Miami, Washington, TCU and Virginia Tech dot the schedules of Big Ten teams in 2018 and 2019.
So while the news of a non-conference game three years from now might seem innocuous, it creates a huge opportunity for whichever team is going against the top-notch competition and a huge opportunity for the conference as a whole to really establish itself in a given season.