College football season is nearly upon. It is time to look forward into the new year and feast on what will most likely be another dramatic and intense season as always. This should apply to the Big Ten as well, as there will be several major storylines throughout the season. The Big Ten looks to have some strength at the top of the conference this season, with five teams ranked in the preseason Coaches’ Poll and a sixth team sitting right outside the top 25. With a top-heavy conference, there are going to be plenty of chances for the superior teams to beat up on each other. With a single loss potentially being the difference between two teams in their chase to represent their division in the Big Ten Championship Game, every week is crucial. There will be plenty of big games to go around on the Big Ten’s schedule, and here are the biggest matchups by week which could have serious implications in the conference race:
Week 1 – Penn State vs. Syracuse (played in East Rutherford, NJ)
While neither of these teams are going to enter into the season ranked in the top 25, and Penn State isn’t eligible to play in the Big Ten championship game this year, this is still the biggest game of the week for the conference. These are two east coast schools which used to have a long standing rivalry before Syracuse joined the Big East and Penn State joined the Big Ten. In fact, between 1922 and 1990, the only year these two didn’t meet on the gridiron was 1943. The schools last met in 2009, which say the Nittany Lions take the game 28-7.
Other than the history between the two teams, this will be the season opener for last year’s Big Ten Coach of the Year Bill O’Brien, who led his sanctioned Nittany Lions to a surprising 8-4 season last year after starting out the year 0-2. Can O’Brien continue his success in Happy Valley this year, and can he do it by starting out the season in a strong fashion? Due to this being the first week, there aren’t too many big games on the slate for the Big Ten, so this should be the game to grab the conference’s attention.
Week 2 – Notre Dame at Michigan
How could it be any other game? This game has been huge for both teams the last few seasons, sometimes setting the tone, propelling the winner with momentum from the rivalry win and sending the loser down to an early low in the season. Both teams are ranked in the preseason top 20 and should both still be by the time they meet.
This will be the first meeting between the schools since Notre Dame chose to move up the hiatus in the series to 2015 late last September. You might recall Michigan head coach Brady Hoke having a few choice words for the Fighting Irish, saying Notre Dame “chickened out.” This, coupled with this only being the second night game in the history of the Big House, should make for quite a tension-filled atmosphere in Ann Arbor.
Week 3 – UCLA at Nebraska
Last season, the Cornhuskers took the trip out to California and played the Bruins on their turf and lost. That was Nebraska’s first loss in a relatively disappointing season considering aspirations for a Big Ten championship, or at the very least a BCS berth. Without a doubt, Nebraska will want to exact revenge on UCLA when the Bruins come to Lincoln on September 14.
This game will be very important for Nebraska in build momentum going into their conference schedule. Both of these teams should be undefeated by the time they meet, so getting a win over a top 25 squad would do wonders for the confidence of a Cornhusker team that is coming off of an embarrassing 39 point loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship last season and another loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Looking at Nebraska’s schedule, UCLA seems to be the only thing stopping the Cornhuskers from heading into their game against Northwestern 7-0, making it a very important hump to get over for them.
Week 4 – Michigan State at Notre Dame
Another game against Notre Dame makes the list here, with Michigan State set to square off against the Fighting Irish in an afternoon clash of longtime rivals. The history between these two schools is well known, with the winner of the game always awarded with the Megaphone Trophy as token of their triumph. Michigan State is not expected to win their division, but will be fully expected to do some damage and ruin a season or two and is not a team to be slept on.
Notre Dame will again be a possible National Championship contender this season, making games Big Ten teams play against them all the more important. The Big Ten wants a better perception national wide, and what better way than for its teams to beat up on a preseason top 15 team? With few marquee nonconference games, the Big Ten needs wins in the few major matchups they have scheduled. If Michigan State, a middle of the pack Big Ten team, can manage to beat a team that made it all the way to the BCS National Championship Game a season ago, that could do some good for the reputation of the Big Ten. At the very least it would bring smiles to the faces of the fans in East Lansing.
Week 5 – Wisconsin at Ohio State
The first all-Big Ten game on the list, this early season game between the Buckeyes and Badgers could have huge implications in the Big Ten title race. Ohio State has regained its eligibility this season and want to win regain their throne atop the Big Ten and possibly even take a shot at the final BCS National Championship. However, to make it to Pasadena, the Buckeyes are probably going to need to again go undefeated, which would include a win against Wisconsin.
These two schools have had a history of spoiling the other’s season as of late. In 2010, Ohio State entered into Camp Randall 6-0 and ranked as the number one team, and by the end of the night had their national championship hopes dashed and their perfect record spoiled. The following year in 2011, Wisconsin traveled to the Shoe having just lost their first game of the season in painful fashion a week earlier, only to lose again in another heartbreaker which destroyed any hopes of winning a national championship. Last season Wisconsin almost returned the favor, but Ohio State was able to retain their perfect record in an overtime win in Madison. It seems the stage could again be set for the Badgers to ruin what could be a magical run for the Buckeyes.
Week 6 – Ohio State at Northwestern
After playing the Badgers, it won’t get any easier for the Buckeyes as they will have to make the trek to Evanston the following week to take on Northwestern. It has been since 2008 when these two teams last met, with Ohio State taking that game 45-10. However, this is a very different Wildcats squad, and one that can now matchup to one of the Big Ten’s traditional powerhouses. This is a potential trap game for Ohio State coming off of a massive game against Wisconsin, and with a relatively weak schedule compared to other teams who should be contending for the national title, every game is a must win for the Buckeyes.
This game would be great for the Wildcats to pick up as well. Northwestern is hoping that this will be their year to win their division and play in the Big Ten title game, and knocking off the team considered to be the best in the conference would certainly help them achieve that goal. While the Buckeyes are not in Northwestern’s division and therefore won’t provide direct competition for winning the division, picking up a win against a very strong team that Michigan, who will provide direct competition in the division, will have to play later in the season can only be looked at as a plus. Not to mention a win in this game would be huge for a Northwestern program which is on the rise and wants to work on their sustainability in the upper-echelon in the Big Ten.
Week 7 – Northwestern at Wisconsin
For the second week in a row Northwestern will play in the biggest game in the Big Ten and for the second time in three weeks Wisconsin will, too. While this game won’t be on the forefront nationally as much as the games with Ohio State will, it isn’t any less important for both schools, especially Northwestern. For Wisconsin, a win over Ohio State would help immensely as both teams are in the same division, but that doesn’t apply to Northwestern. This means a loss to the Buckeyes wouldn’t likely ruin their chance at a Big Ten championship, but rather it would just be a setback. However, if Northwestern loses this game as well, dropping two games early in the Big Ten, they cannot afford to slip up again, which would have to include going 3-0 against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State, and would probably still be in need of some help from other teams.
On Wisconsin’s end, a loss to Ohio State and Northwestern would really mean they were done. They would need Ohio State to lose three times, assuming the Badgers could go undefeated the rest of the way. The likelihood of both those things happening seems very slim, especially with Ohio State probably having three real chances at losing excluding the game against Wisconsin. Assuming Ohio State beats Wisconsin and Northwestern the two weeks previous, this will basically act as a virtual elimination game for both teams.
Week 8 – Iowa at Ohio State
This is a week which isn’t filled with too many marquee games in the conference, with none of the expected contenders playing against each other. That leaves the biggest game of the week to be between the favorites to win the conference, Ohio State, and a team that has the ability to make this one of the biggest upsets of the year, Iowa. The Hawkeyes aren’t expected to do any spectacular this season but despite should be in contention for a bowl bid. Iowa will be breaking in a new quarterback this season, but will return their running back from a season ago, Mark Weisman, who at one point that year rushed for more than 100 yards four weeks in a row. This win would be massive for an Iowa program that is currently in rebuilding mode.
The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes have played some thrillers the last couple of meetings. In 2010, Ohio State had to rally to score late in the fourth quarter to earn a 20-17 comeback win. In 2009, in a game which decided who would represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State was able to make a field goal in overtime to secure what was a very back and forth game. The game in 2010 was nearly a major upset, so maybe this time the Hawkeyes are able to finish the job and surprise the nation in spoiling the Buckeyes’ season.
Week 9 – Penn State at Ohio State
This will be yet another week where none of the expected contenders will face each other, so we are left with a game between the consensus favorites against the scrappy underdogs. However, Penn State should provide Ohio State will a better contest than Iowa. Coming off of an 8-4 season in which they should have easily gone 10-2, Penn State will again have nothing to play for except their fans, coaches and the name on the front of the jersey. But being ineligible didn’t stop them from playing inspired football last season, and I doubt it will in 2013 either.
This is always a big game on the schedule for both schools as the hate felt between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions is quite mutual. Behind Michigan, Penn State is very clearly Ohio State’s most hated rival, and with Ohio State being their natural geographic foe, the Buckeyes are the number one enemy in Happy Valley. These two programs have produced some classics throughout the years and are evenly matched as can possibly be with the series split between the two, 14-14. In the last six games between the schools the away team has won. Will Ohio State buck the trend this year or will Penn State continue the road team’s success and knock off the mighty Buckeyes?
Week 10 – Northwestern at Nebraska
It was very difficult to decide which game will be the biggest for this week with the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy will take place in week ten as well. The reason why I’ve chosen Northwestern at Nebraska over Michigan at Michigan State is because while the Wolverines and Spartans have one of the biggest rivalries in the conference, Michigan State is not considered to be as good as Nebraska or Northwestern this season. Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern are thought of as the major contenders for the Legends division, with Michigan State playing more of the spoiler role for those schools.
While the Michigan-Michigan State matchup will surely be a good one, Nebraska could very well be undefeated by the time this game rolls around. As I said earlier, if the Cornhuskers can get past UCLA early in the season, they should be able to win their own games and make this meeting with Northwestern a crucial one. If Nebraska could keep on the winning track and beat Northwestern, the game the next week against Michigan would probably the championship game for the Legends division. However, if Nebraska were to lose this game, a win against Michigan would be an absolute must of their hopes for going back to the Big Ten championship game would be all but gone. For Northwestern, even if they lose to Ohio State but beat Wisconsin, this game would do the same for them, as they would hold the tiebreaker against Nebraska. Then their next game against Michigan in two weeks would act as the championship for the Legends division. Therefore, this will be the biggest game in the Big Ten come November 2.
Week 11 – Nebraska at Michigan
Other than games against Michigan State and Penn State, which Michigan should be expected to win despite both games being on the road, this will be Michigan’s first massive test on their conference schedule. It is entirely possible that Michigan could only have only one loss at this point and be undefeated in the Big Ten, so this game would mean everything for both schools. If Nebraska could pick up a big win against Northwestern the week before, this game could act as the decider for the Legends division as I said earlier. The losing team would then have ground to make up and have to hope for some help, would be especially difficult for Michigan because Nebraska schedule to close out the year is immensely easier than Michigan’s, who will still have to travel to Evanston and welcome the Buckeyes to Ann Arbor.
Not only is this game big for this season, but it could have implications beyond just this season. Both of these programs are amongst the elite of all college football and have some of the greatest histories in the sport. However, both schools have fallen on hard times in the last decade or so. Michigan has not claimed victory in the Big Ten since 2004, and has not been outright champions in the conference since 1997. Since the firing of Frank Solich in entering in to the 2003 bowl season, Nebraska has not reached the level they were at under Tom Osbourne in the 1990s when they dominated college football. Lately, both schools have been good, winning eight to ten games a year and playing in respectable bowl games, but they haven’t been able to regain that stature they once had. This seems to be on the best years for each team to attempt to win the conference, with the Big Ten in general down and the only major competition coming in the form of Northwestern and Ohio State. If the winner of this game could go on to win the conference that would be a massive step forward for either program in their climb back to the top.
Week 12 – Michigan at Northwestern
This will be the third and final installment of the three-way series between the Wolverines, Wildcats and Cornhuskers in the battle for the Legends division. Fortunately for fans, these three games happen to be three consecutive weeks in the second half of the season. Just like the games between these three schools before this one, this game could become an elimination game depending upon the outcomes before it. This will be Michigan’s second season-changing game in a row, which could play to Northwestern’s favor as they will be coming off of a bye week.
This could also be a huge step in the right direction for the Northwestern program. Imagine if Northwestern, the traditional laughing stock of Big Ten football and basically athletics in general, was able to make it to the Big Ten championship, and even crazier, to do so they would beat out not only Nebraska, but Michigan, too. Only a few short years ago, if someone had said Northwestern would be contending and have a legitimate shot at going to the Big Ten championship game over Nebraska and Michigan, I know I wouldn’t have believed it. But that’s how much of an impact head coach Pat Fitzgerald has had on the program. He is slowly turning the Wildcats into serious players in the Big Ten. Beating Michigan, especially after how the game against the Wolverines went last year, would be indescribably huge for Northwestern.
Week 13 – Michigan State at Northwestern
Even if Northwestern outlasts Michigan, their job still won’t be done. On November 23 the Wildcats will welcome the Spartans of Michigan State to Ryan Field for what will be the biggest Big Ten game in week 13. Michigan State is probably not quite there to contend with Nebraska, Michigan and Northwestern for the Legends division title, however, a win in this game is exactly the sort of feat they’re capable of. The Spartans will not be pushovers this year, and this will most certainly be game in which Northwestern will be very vulnerable.
Northwestern’s biggest problem the last few seasons has been staying consistent and throwing away games they should win. Last season, Northwestern lost its first game of the year to Penn State 39-28 despite leading 28-17 going into the fourth quarter. Against Nebraska, Northwestern lost 29-28 after being up 28-16 with less than nine minutes to go in the game. In their third loss, the Wildcats were beating Michigan 24-14 late in the third quarter, only to give the lead up midway through the fourth. However, after a scoring drive and an interception, it looked like Northwestern was going to be able to escape with the W. But with 18 seconds left, they gave the ball back to Michigan, gave up a 53 yard pass which led to the game tying field goal and then lost in overtime. It would be classic Northwestern to come all this way to this point in the season in contention for a spot in the Big Ten championship game, only to choke it away against Michigan State. If the Wildcats want to join the ranks of the Big Ten elite, they’re going to need to learn to wrap up their business and finish what they started.
Week 14 – Ohio State at Michigan
This should come as a surprise to no one that one of the greatest rivalries in American sports between two of college football’s best would be the biggest game of in the final week of the season. This year’s game should be especially huge because it’s the first time in a long time that both teams are expected to be at the very top of the conference. It would be no surprise if Ohio State headed into this game undefeated, and it would be equally predicted that Michigan would be atop the standings in the Legends division.
This game could be Ohio State’s final regular season game between them and a trip to the BCS National Championship game. For Michigan it could be the difference between playing for a Big Ten title or going home and waiting for their bowl game to play again. Throw in the fact that this is the biggest game on the schedule for both teams regardless of records and standings and that a loss in this game could quite possibly make the entire season a failure for either team, and this game is monumental. Not to mention it could potentially be a foreshadow for what will be soon coming in the Big Ten Championship Game if the cards were to fall the right way.
Aspiring Sports Journalist