This autumn, the Big Ten has many opportunities to prove that it's a top-tier conference in college football.
The SEC is indisputably the most dominant conference with six consecutive national titles, but the Big Ten has some of the largest fan bases, traditions and lucrative television contracts in the country.
Now is the time for the Big Ten to prove it can handle playing against the best competition in the country.
This is about respect—nothing more.
Some teams in the conference have a challenging non-conference schedule which will give them national attention while others have selected cupcake teams to pad their win total for 2012.
Win, and these programs will gain prestige and shoot up in the AP and USA Today top-25 rankings. Lose, and the naysayers will claim the schools and the Big Ten are once again overrated.
The following non-conference games are the most critical for the Big Ten to win to gain respect nationally.
Nathan Scheelhaase has new opportunities in Tim Beckman's spread offense
When Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini collapsed after a promising 6-0 start to lose their final six games of the regular season, he was replaced by Urban Meyer's protégé, former Toledo Rockets coach Tim Beckman.
Beckman ran a very effective spread-offense at Toledo, but before then, he was a defensive coordinator for Urban Meyer's Bowling Green Falcons.
This isn't the first time these teams have played. Last season, Arizona St. visited Memorial Stadium and Illinois came away with the victory, 17-14.
This year, however, Illinois must travel to Tempe, AZ and play Arizona St. on their own turf.
The Sun Devils also have a new coach in Todd Graham, whose most recent job was head coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Both teams will take their time in getting to know the new offensive and defensive schemes but if Nathan Scheelhaase can regain his confidence and replace key losses defensively, Tim Beckman's squad has a legitimate shot at upsetting Arizona St.
A road victory will go a long way in gaining national respect for the Big Ten.
Denard Robinson is hungry for a victory over Alabama
There is no bigger non-conference match-up for the Big Ten than this game.
A victory for Michigan against the defending national champions would not only move the Wolverines up the rankings, but would give respect to the entire conference as well.
Winning will be very difficult for the Wolverines.
Alabama lost a ton of defensive talent to the NFL and graduation, but recruits very well every year and will be able to reload with little difficulty.
Michigan, on the other hand, retains most of its players on the offensive and defensive sides of the football.
A.J. McCarron is a model of consistency at quarterback, but Alabama lives and dies by their rushing attack.
If Michigan can stop the run and force McCarron to throw, they have a shot at winning.
Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint will also need the game of their lives to strike a blow to the confidence of the young Alabama defense.
If the Wolverines win this contest, many will say Michigan is truly back—something that can only benefit the Big Ten.
William Gholston is an incredible defensive lineman
Mark Dantonio has done a great job with the Michigan St. Spartans. Dantonio's record with the team is 44-22.
Boise St. has a 73-6 record under head coach Chris Peterson. Granted, they play in the Mountain West Conference, but that's an impressive record nonetheless.
What both teams have in common is that they each beat Georgia last season. Both programs are also heavily reloading offensively, including their starting quarterbacks.
If quarterback Andrew Maxwell can elevate his performance with a balanced rushing attack from Le'Veon Bell, the defense should be able to take care of the rest.
A win here by Michigan St. will quiet down the people from Idaho who constantly complain Boise St. doesn't get enough respect and are always ranked too low in the polls.
The Spartans, meanwhile, will shoot up the national radar with a win.
Expect Taylor Martinez to be much improved for 2012
Here's another Big Ten versus Pac-12 match-up that will go a long way in proving which conference is superior.
While many Nebraska fans are overly critical of Bo Pelini, he has done nothing but win for the Cornhuskers. His 39-16 record is incredible and many Big Ten fans are happy to have the tradition-rich Nebraska football program in their conference.
UCLA, on the other hand, just brought in former Atlanta Falcons head coach Jim Mora to coach their football program after Rick Neuheisel was dismissed for a 21-30 record. This is his first college head coaching job.
It will be difficult for Nebraska's coaching staff to know what to expect from Jim Mora. Will he run a spread or a pro-style offense? Will he operate a 4-3, 3-4, or a 3-3-5 defense?
The much maligned Taylor Martinez will be operating in the second year of Tim Beck's option offense and should be a much improved passer from 2011.
In the end, the Cornhuskers are too talented on both sides of the football and should come away with a victory despite being on the road.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald celebrates with his team over a Nebraska victory
While not as huge as the Michigan-Alabama game, this is still a battle between the Big Ten and SEC so any victory against them is still important.
While Vanderbilt has been a long time basement dweller in the SEC, first-year head coach James Franklin got the Commodores to its first bowl game since 2008.
Meanwhile, Northwestern has been to every bowl game since 2008, but they haven't won one since the 1948 Rose Bowl.
The two schools have quite a bit in common. They're tough recruiting-wise as their academic standards are higher than most schools. Both have young head coaches who are fiery and energetic.
Kain Colter has some big shoes to fill with Dan Persa graduating. They also need another wide receiver to emerge as Jeremy Ebert also graduated.
But Northwestern never has problems moving the football. They do seem to have a problem every season with stopping opposing offenses from scoring.
The Wildcats must rebuild defensively if they want to truly take the next step in their maturation.
This will be an entertaining football game to watch on September 8th. If Michigan can beat Alabama and Northwestern can top Vanderbilt, you can expect some chatter from Big Ten fans claiming the era of dominance from the SEC is over.
Braxton Miller stretches before his game against Colorado
Ohio St. plays a respectable California Golden Bears football team at home in their third game of the season.
The last time Cal played Ohio St. was in 1950 when the Buckeyes won 17-14.
Urban Meyer will have plenty of time to get Braxton Miller and the rest of the offense ready for his version of the spread offense while the defense will be rock solid under defensive coordinators Luke Fickle and Everett Withers.
The fact of the matter is that Cal is a middle-of-the-road football team in the Pac-12. They're not Oregon St.-bad, but they're not USC-or-Oregon-good either.
It's important to the Big Ten that an upper echelon football program like Ohio St. wins any major non-conference game as it reflects very well if they win, but in contrast if they lose it reflects poorly.
A win is expected but a loss to Cal would haunt Buckeye fans as Pac-12 admirers would call the Big Ten overrated.
Needless to say, Ohio St. must win this game.
Matt McGloin could face a tricky Virginia Cavaliers team this September
The following games were on the cusp, but a few key factors prevented the match-ups from making the list.
Wisconsin @ Oregon St. ― Oregon St. is one of the worst football programs at the moment in the Pac-12 and got destroyed last season by Wisconsin 35-0. This game shouldn't be close.
Michigan @ Notre Dame ― Michigan has a three game winning streak against the Fighting Irish and these teams are entertaining to watch, but Notre Dame is considered an independent and not part of a conference. Still, a win against them catches the eyes of the pollsters.
Notre Dame @ Michigan St. ― Same rules apply as Michigan-Notre Dame, but the Spartans suffered a crushing defeat last season at the hands of the Fighting Irish, 31-13. Michigan St. will be out to avenge their loss from 2011 and this should be a great game to watch.
Penn St. @ Virginia ― Mike London has done a terrific job at Virginia. After going 4-8 in 2010, the Cavaliers rebounded to an 8-5 record last season. Whether or not he can truly turn Virginia around into an ACC or national powerhouse remains to be seen, but this early road game should test new head coach Bill O'Brien and his team.
Bret Bielema and Wisconsin could benefit from a more difficult non-conference schedule
It's imperative that the Big Ten wins key regular season games to not only increase in the top-25 rankings, but to also gain national exposure as a whole.
Some programs get a pass for not scheduling difficult non-conference games like Indiana and Minnesota. They're schools that are currently rebuilding under second-year head coaches.
So it's perplexing as to why highly regarded football teams like Iowa and Wisconsin negate any challenge when it comes to playing teams outside the Big Ten during the regular season.
Yes, Iowa plays Iowa St. every year. But the Cyclones are a low-tiered Big 12 football team that rarely makes waves in college football.
As for Wisconsin, it has already been mentioned how bad Oregon St. is and therefore the Beavers will get crushed.
The Badgers must schedule at least one opponent every year outside of the Big Ten that presents a challenge. This will give Wisconsin more respect nationally.
Please comment below whether you agree, disagree or have your own thoughts on the matter.