When the Big Ten on Thursday released its revamped 2014 conference schedule, the message almost seemed to be: Delay your gratification until 2016.
That's when the league's new, lucrative TV deal will kick into place. The Big Ten is still, presumably, fielding suitors for that contract. And it seems to be holding off on its best games between the East and West Divisions until some network is willing to pay dearly to broadcast them.
For 2014, meanwhile, new league members Rutgers and Maryland, which come from the old Big East and ACC, get the same kind of packed schedule Nebraska did upon its arrival into the league in 2011. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa get to play rude hosts. While the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins may not appreciate it, BTN has a nice slate to pitch to cable companies in two populated states that may be tougher to crack than the Cornhusker State was.
Here's our breakdown of the 2014 Big Ten schedule. There are several clear winners — most of them reside in the West — while Minnesota got dealt some of the toughest cards in recent memory.
>> Best overall conference game: Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 29. You already knew that. It's the one week when the rest of college football fans circle a Big Ten game on the calendar. Whether they watch to mock the league or enjoy one of the sport's best rivalries is hard to say. But they're in front of the TV.
The second best game arrives in mid-November, when Nebraska travels to Wisconsin. Fans nationwide have an affinity for both programs, both wear trademark red, both are carved out of an identity forged by one Bob Devaney.
>> Worst overall conference game: Purdue and Illinois appear to have the most work to do getting back to a place of winning consistently, so the annual tilt between the Boilermakers and Illini may not be too pretty. Illinois plays at Ohio State; you may not want to look.
>> Best overall nonconference games: Michigan at Notre Dame, Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Miami at Nebraska, Michigan State at Oregon.
>> Worst overall nonconference games: McNeese State at Nebraska, Jacksonville State at Michigan State, and Eastern Illinois at Minnesota.
>> Easy street: Iowa and Wisconsin have the Big Ten's easiest schedules by far. All the right home games, no Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan State, decent byes. If schedules were a sole determining factor in which teams are favored to win a division — they're not, at all, as Iowa proved against tissue-soft slates the last two years — then you'd pick the Badgers, who get to host Nebraska in mid-November.
>> Hairpin Highway: Rutgers, Maryland and Minnesota. The Big Ten's two new teams got the same rude welcome Nebraska did in 2011 and 2012, while the Gophers drew both Michigan and Ohio State out of the East. The Big Ten's apparent desire to keep the best of the West from the best of the East put these three teams in the bad spot of getting piled on with tough foes.
>> Playoff Parkway: Any team that emerges from the Big Ten undefeated or with just one loss stands a terrific chance of making the inaugural four-team playoff. But the lack of rigor for the top West teams could create a scenario where, say, a previously undefeated Nebraska or Wisconsin loses to a two-loss Michigan or Ohio State team in the Big Ten title game, and both the winner and loser get passed over for a two-loss SEC team that rides a wave of a meaner league schedule. ESPN, which essentially runs the perception machine in college football and just signed a fat TV deal with the SEC, will make sure any potential committee members out there know the Big Ten avoided some marquee games.
Ranking the 2014 Big Ten schedules, from 1 to 14, hardest to easiest
Overview: A brutal welcoming. The East is the tougher of the two divisions, and to draw Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West is salt in a scarlet wound.
Marquee game: Penn State Sept. 13. Rutgers' inaugural Big Ten game is fittingly against the Beast of the Old East. Should be a winner to watch.
Upset special: Indiana, Nov. 15. After playing Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin in a row, Rutgers may not even come out of the corner for the Hoosiers.
Quirk: Four of Rutgers' final six Big Ten games are on the road.
Schedule grade 1-10: 10. It's a New Jersey-style beat-in.
Overview: Goodness, Goldy. Games at Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Ohio State for good measure. Back-to-back road games to end the year. Hellacious.
Marquee game: Ohio State, Nov. 15. It'll be the Gophers' first game against the Buckeyes since 2010.
Upset special: None. Minnesota is not trending upward. It projects as the weakest team in the West.
Quirk: The Gophers will host Iowa two years in a row in 2013 and 2014.
Schedule grade 1-10: 9.5. Coach Jerry Kill has his work cut out for him.
Overview: Similar to Rutgers, but a measure easier thanks to playing Iowa instead of Nebraska. The Terrapins have bye dates placed before home games, which is always worth an extra day of rest from travel.
Marquee game: Ohio State, Oct. 4. It's Maryland's first Big Ten home game.
Upset special: at Indiana, Sept. 27. The Terps play their first overall Big Ten game in Bloomington. It'll be a better basketball game.
Quirk: The Terrapins play the Michigan teams in back-to-back weeks.
Schedule grade 1-10: 8.5. The East Division is tougher, and Wisconsin/Iowa is a tough draw from the West.
Overview: Illinois got the short end of the stick, too. Not quite as badly as Minnesota, but drawing Ohio State and Penn State from the East is a chore, as are early games at Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Marquee game: at Northwestern, Nov. 29. These schools seem to like each other less and less with every passing year.
Upset special: Minnesota, Oct. 25. Illinois won't be favored in many games, we suspect, in 2014, but a game against the Gophers might be one.
Quirk: The Illini visit Nebraska two years in a row, and have their bye weeks just three weeks apart.
Schedule grade 1-10: 8. Road games at NU, UW and Ohio State make for a stiff test.
Overview: A rigorous road schedule — at Rutgers, Michigan State, Ohio State and Northwestern — balances out drawing Minnesota from the West along with the Wildcats.
Marquee game: at Ohio State, Nov. 29. Before the Buckeyes' game with Nebraska, the Ohio Stadium video board showed two hours of OSU-UM highlights. That's how big it is.
Upset special: at Michigan State, Oct. 25. The Spartans and Wolverines have a growing rivalry of great distaste.
Quirk: Michigan must travel to MSU in 2013 and 2014.
Schedule grade 1-10: 7.5 Tough road slate with games at both rivals.
Overview: No schedule has been easy for the Hoosiers, but drawing Iowa and rival Purdue from the West isn't bad. Games at Michigan and Ohio State are penciled-in losses, though.
Marquee game: Purdue, Nov. 29. The Old Oaken Bucket.
Upset special: It's hard to perceive IU as a favorite against anyone except Purdue.
Quirk: The Hoosiers will host the Boilermakers two years in a row.
Schedule grade 1-10: 7.5. Indiana has only six home games in 2014 as it is, and none of them look very enticing for fans. It's just a tough road for the team.
Overview: It's a dream schedule for the ticket office, with home games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Illinois. An early trip to Penn State won't be easy.
Marquee game: Nebraska, Oct. 18. The Huskers snatched the 2012 game from under the Wildcats' noses with fourth-quarter heroics, and Northwestern fans aren't likely to forget that — or how Husker fans took over half of Ryan Field.
Upset special: at Purdue, Nov. 22. Northwestern could be in for a letdown after playing NU, Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame in the previous four games.
Quirk: That's right — the Wildcats visit Notre Dame Nov. 15.
Schedule grade 1-10: 7. Good home games, tough East draw.
8. Penn State
Overview: Because of an early game against Rutgers on Sept. 13, Penn State is in position to decide if it wants a late-season bye Nov. 15 or one in October. The Nittany Lions draw Northwestern and Illinois from the West.
Marquee game: Michigan State, Nov. 29. A mini-rivalry game that could have bowl implications for the Spartans.
Upset special: Illinois, Nov. 22.
Quirk: The aforementioned early game at Rutgers. The Big Ten's welcome sign to the new team.
Schedule grade 1-10: 6.5. East Division is harder; road game at Rutgers won't be easy.
Overview: No Michigan and Ohio State means the Huskers have it easier than they could, but Rutgers and Michigan State certainly give the Huskers a tougher draw than a few of their West division mates face.
Marquee game: at Wisconsin, Nov. 15. That game could likely be for the West Division crown. Nebraska will have an open date to prepare.
Upset special: Rutgers, Oct. 25. Since 2003, Nebraska is 76-40. Rutgers is 69-44. More even than you think.
Quirk: The Oct. 4 game at Michigan State will be the fourth straight year NU has played a game in the state of Michigan.
Schedule grade: 6. The road games — MSU, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa — are no easy days. And Rutgers will put up a physical fight.
10. Michigan State
Overview: What a home slate for the ticket office: Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska. The Spartans get Purdue from the West along with the Huskers.
Marquee game: Michigan, Oct. 25. The Spartans have made this an annual game to watch.
Upset special: at Penn State, Nov. 29. MSU hasn't had a long track record of success in Happy Valley.
Quirk: Just one bye, and back-to-back games against the league's two new teams, Rutgers and Maryland.
Schedule grade 1-10: 5.5. The right home games make this a slate MSU can take to the Big Ten title game with the right quarterback and right breaks.
11. Ohio State
Overview: Plum draw from the West (Illinois and Minnesota). Only one bye during the Big Ten season for now. Season ends with two games at home.
Marquee game: Michigan, Nov. 29. The de facto Big Ten title game? Surely some talking heads will suggest it.
Upset special: at Penn State, Oct. 25. The Nittany Lions will be happy to avenge a disappointing 2012 loss.
Quirk: Two road games to the East Coast (PSU, Maryland) among the first three.
Schedule grade: 5. Getting Michigan at home is a big boost, as is Illinois/Minnesota for two years.
Overview: A balanced, manageable schedule with midseason byes (Oct. 25 and Nov. 15) and a decent mix of home and road tests. The Boilermakers will be in year two of a rebuilding process.
Marquee game: Iowa, Sept. 27. It's Purdue's Big Ten opener, and the Hawkeyes will be coming off a road game at Pittsburgh.
Upset special: at Indiana. The Hoosiers have more talented players on their team in the coming years than they have in decades.
Quirk: Purdue has the only protected crossover game with Indiana.
Schedule grade 1-10: 5. The Big Ten could punish only so many West Division basement teams, and Purdue escaped the wrath for now.
Overview: The Badgers got a plum draw — arguably the best of any West Division team — by avoiding Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, and getting a key West Division challenger, Nebraska, at home in mid-November. UW has a relatively soft nonconference slate — home games vs. South Florida, Bowling Green and Western Illinois.
Marquee game: Nebraska, Nov. 15. The Huskers have a similarly comfortable schedule, but Wisconsin is notoriously tough at home.
Upset special: at Purdue, Nov. 8. The Boilermakers are the second of two straight road games after Rutgers.
Quirk: The Badgers end the year against the teams likely to be their three biggest division rivals — Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
Schedule grade 1-10: 2. Wisconsin couldn't have asked for a better setup. Well, almost.
Overview: The Hawkeyes found the secretly frozen envelope in the lotto tumbler. No Ohio State or Michigan. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern at home. Indiana and Maryland from the East. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has run out of excuses for mediocrity anyhow, but he really doesn't have them with this plum draw.
Marquee game: Wisconsin, Nov. 22. When the Badgers visit Iowa City, the after-hours jostling in downtown bars is roughly equal to the scrum on the field. Both schools badly wanted this game back on an annual rotation.
Upset special: at Minnesota, Nov. 8. The Gophers generally bring their A game for Iowa.
Quirk: Because of two byes, Iowa plays just two games in October.
Schedule grade 1-10: 1. All that's missing from this pillow is a chocolate on top.