There is no such thing as easing into the Big Ten conference schedule this year.
Four teams with hopes to contend for a division title face off in Week 1. The other eight weeks leading up to the championship game on December 1 don't provide much relief for any of the Big Ten teams, either.
September 29 - Contender versus contender
Ohio State at Michigan State
Some experts think this is Ohio State's year to win the Leaders Division. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes are banned from playing in the Big Ten championship game, so this contest may have to serve as a substitute title match.
Urban Meyer inherited some talented underclassmen for his first year as the Buckeye head coach and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio has guided his team to back-to-back 11-win seasons. Ohio State should be strong on offense and defense, and the Spartans sport one of the best defenses in the nation.
Wisconsin at Nebraska
The Badgers must match the Buckeyes win for win in order to go to the championship game. The Cornhuskers need Michigan State to falter to enhance their chances of winning the Legends Division. Both teams lost some key contributors to graduation and the NFL draft. Nebraska must replace defensive stars Lavonte David and Jared Crick. Wisconsin must find replacements for quarterback Russell Wilson, wide receiver Nick Toon and linemen Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz during the offseason. They are two fine teams with rich football traditions.
October 6 - Division versus division contests
Michigan at Purdue
It will be the first of several critical Big Ten home games for the Boilermakers and the first critical conference road game for the Wolverines. Purdue has its finest team assembled under head coach Danny Hope. Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has one of the most explosive offenses in college football. If Purdue wins, it will be because their defense found a way to contain the Wolverine offense led by quarterback Denard Robinson.
Nebraska at Ohio State
The Cornhuskers offense may provide the toughest test for the Buckeyes defense in Week 2 of conference play. Nebraska has quarterback Tyler Martinez and their top rusher Rex Burkhead to lead their highly efficient "red zone" offense. In the same way, the Cornhusker defense must contain Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and some talented personnel at running back and wide receiver.
October 13 - The "lull before the storm" weekend
Purdue at Wisconsin
If Purdue is a contender in the Leaders Division, they must go to Camp Randall and beat the Badgers. Wisconsin will lean heavily on the running game and All-Big Ten rusher Montee Ball. Quarterback Caleb TerBush and running back Ralph Bolden lead the Purdue offensive attack.
Northwestern at Minnesota
It is Homecoming weekend for Minnesota and the perfect opportunity to beat a Legends Division opponent. Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray almost rushed for 1,000 yards for the Golden Gophers in 2011 and, with the Wildcats defense depleted by graduation, Gray may excel against Northwestern.
Circle October 20 on your calendar for the "Showdown at The Big House".
Michigan State at Michigan
I expect this game to decide who wins the Legends Division. Can the Wolverines win after four consecutive losses to the Spartans? Can the Michigan State defense contain Michigan's offense? Did Michigan fill the holes in their offensive and defensive lines? Are the Spartans' young wide receivers a liability or an asset? We will find out in the biggest conference game of 2012.
Nebraska at Northwestern
How do you make a Cornhusker angry? Beat him in front of his home crowd a week after you've pummeled Michigan State. That's what Northwestern did when they beat Nebraska, 22-20, last year. The Wildcats will need to employ some offensive wizardry and some defensive prowess to hold down the 'Huskers in this rematch.
October 27 - Another contenders weekend
Michigan State at Wisconsin
October is a cruel month for Michigan State as they play the second of two consecutive road games against a Big Ten title contender. Some MSU fans believe if you avoid the "roughing the kicker" penalty at the end of the game, the Spartans would go to beat Wisconsin and would be the 2011 Big Ten champions. I am not into "woulda, coulda, shoulda" games, but these two teams know how to play football and it should be another classic.
Michigan at Nebraska
The is second of a back-to-back set of games where the Wolverines have to play a Legends Division contender. Regardless of whether Michigan beats or loses to the Spartans on October 20, they must travel to Cornhusker territory in Week 5 of the Big Ten schedule. Ask the Spartans what it is like to play a road game in Lincoln.
November 3 - A "shake-out" weekend
Illinois at Ohio State
Ohio State needs to beat the Fighting Illini to prove they are in the hunt for the Leaders Division title. Illinois needs to beat the Buckeyes to move from pretender to contender.
Nebraska at Michigan State
The Spartans' most embarrassing conference loss came at the hands of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2011. It is a home game for the Spartans this year and they know they have to beat Nebraska if Michigan State wants to win the Legends Division crown.
November 10 - The "battle of third (maybe fourth) bananas"
Penn State at Nebraska
There was a time in the previous century when this game was considered a marque contest between two football powerhouses. This game will feature new Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien against veteran head coach Bo Pelini of Nebraska. For the Nittany Lions to win on the road, they must shut down the Cornhusker running game.
Purdue at Iowa
Two of the best passing quarterbacks in the Big Ten battle each other in Iowa City. Quarterback Caleb TerBush did a good job of directing the Boilermaker offense in 2011 and Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg is the most effective passing QB to return to the Big Ten in 2012.
Circle November 17 on your calendar for the Leaders Division championship game.
Ohio State at Wisconsin
If both teams enter the game atop the Leaders Division with 4-0 records, Wisconsin will play in the Big Ten title game since Ohio State cannot play for the conference title or go to a bowl game. A win over the Badgers would be very impressive and the Buckeyes will have an extra week to prepare because November 9-11 is their "bye" weekend. Wisconsin won the Leaders Division title last year and would like to do it again in 2012.
Indiana at Penn State
Indiana has the perfect opportunity to surprise the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley in what may be deemed a "trap" game. Penn State is playing Nebraska on November 10 and finishes the season against Wisconsin. They may overlook a Hoosier team that has talented underclassmen like junior running back Stephen Houston, sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson and potential sophomore safety Mark Murphy.
November 24 - Some traditions live on
Michigan at Ohio State
It could be the most meaningful game these two teams have played against each other in years. Michigan and Ohio State could enter this game with 8-0 conference records, though only the Wolverines would be able to play in the title game on December 1. Due to the NCAA sanctions imposed on Ohio State, the game will be the season finale for first-year head coach Urban Meyer. I am sure he and his team want to end 2012 as a winner.
Illinois at Northwestern
Both teams will enter the final weekend of the Big Ten schedule needing a win to clinch a bowl bid. The game will feature two entertaining quarterbacks in the Wildcats' Kain Colter and the Fighting Ilini's Nathan Scheelhaase.