Big Ten Football: Top 5 Must-See Non-Conference Games
In just more than a month, tailgate parties will kick off and fans will pack the stands, as teams will get the first chance to prove their worth in 2012.
It is also an opportunity for conferences to flex their guns early on in the season. The SEC will certainly relish the occasion, waiting to show, yet again, where the heavyweights of football reside.
For the Big Ten, it is a chance to shake its bad offseason publicity and recent bowl game nightmares. Conference commissioner Jim Delany is surely tired of seeing the Big Ten being paired with Jerry Sandusky in the news headlines.
A reminder of his teams' 34-52 record in bowl games since 2000 is also a thorn in Delany's side.
Nevertheless, a new season brings a fresh breeze of hope for the "Monsters of the Midwest."
Head coach Brady Hoke has Michigan back in the national spotlight, as this appears to be the best team Ann Arbor has seen since Lloyd Carr left town.
Many have picked the Wolverines to win the Big Ten this season, but perennial powerhouses Alabama and Notre Dame will be the first to test the strength of the "Maize and Blue."
The non-conference schedule will also serve as a launching point for the Heisman campaigns of Michigan's Denard Robinson and Wisconsin's Montee Ball. In addition, new coaches Tim Beckman, Urban Meyer and Bill O'Brien will get an opportunity to get their feet wet and to win over their fanbases before the conference slate.
There is plenty to look forward to in the beginning weeks of the season.
Here are the top five must-see games of the Big Ten non-conference schedule.
5. Ohio at Penn State (09/01/12)
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The legendary statue is gone, along with 112 of Joe Paterno's victories, four years of bowl eligibility and the overall cheerfulness of Happy Valley.
To make matters worse, Doak Walker Award candidate Silas Redd will be wearing a USC Trojans uniform in the upcoming season.
A week-one matchup with the Ohio Bobcats will be the first chance for the Nittany Lions to lay a new foundation.
Linebacker Michael Mauti is up for the challenge, which was evident in Bob Ford's article on philly.com.
"We take this as an opportunity to create our own legacy," Mauti said. "This program was not built by one man, and it's sure as hell not going to be torn down by one man."
Mauti has been the player spokesman for Penn State, saying all of the right things, but he and his teammates will have to do the same on the field to take down Ohio.
The Bobcats are coming off a 10-win season in 2011, and return 15 starters this season, according to Phil Steele.
Among them is quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who threw for 28 touchdowns and for more than 3,300 yards last season. Tettleton also led the Bobcats with 10 rushing touchdowns in 2011.
Penn State returns five starters (according to Steele) on a defense that ranked 10th in yards allowed per game last season.
This game may not draw national headlines, but it is surely momentous for a dismantled program and troubled fanbase. The Lions should have enough talent to win the game, but Ohio will be no pushover.
Prediction: Penn State 21, Ohio 17
4. Notre Dame at Michigan State (09/15/12)
Michigan State doesn't want to remember the 31-13 thrashing that Notre Dame gave them in South Bend last season.
Instead, they would much rather think about their 11-3 record in 2011, first bowl victory since 2001 and the chance to take off to new heights this season.
The Spartans will be without Kirk Cousins, the winningest quarterback in school history, though redshirt junior Andrew Maxwell should fill in just fine. Maxwell was a four-star quarterback coming out of high school, according to rivals.com.
Four of the starters, Johnny Adams, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and William Gholston, occupy the Bednarik Award watch list for defensive player of the year.
Head coach Mark Dantonio expressed his excitement about building from last season in Chris Solari's article on lansingstatejournal.com, saying:
“We haven't reached our pinnacle. We were very, very close. When you're close like that, you understand that there's still business to take care of, so it motivates you.”
The Irish are also giddy about this season. According to Steele, Notre Dame returns 15 starters, including eight on offense.
Running back Cierre Wood, who scored two touchdowns against MSU last season, returns for his junior year, in addition to quarterback Tommy Rees. Wood rushed for more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011.
The Irish lead the all-time series with a record of 46-32-1 against the Spartans.
With both teams anticipating a big season on the horizon, this game will be crucial.
Prediction: MSU 27, Notre Dame 21
3. Michigan at Notre Dame (09/22/12)
In one of the most exciting games of the 2011 season, Michigan took down the Irish 35-31 in front of a NCAA-record crowd of more than 114,000 fans.
Trailing 24-7 heading into the fourth quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson exploded for four touchdowns, three passing and one rushing.
His final score came on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with just two seconds remaining.
Robinson has been known to give the "golden domers" headaches in the past, racking up 502 total yards in South Bend in 2010, with 258 yards on the ground.
Now, the Heisman hopeful looks to shred the Irish defense one last time.
Notre Dame's 2011 All-American linebacker Manti Te'o is coming back for his senior season. Te'o, along with the entire Irish defense, has seen too much of Robinson's back in recent matchups.
Te'o is one of the hardest hitters in the NCAA and has to be salivating at the opportunity for revenge, as he dreams of doing his best Ray Lewis impersonation on the injury-prone quarterback.
With all the buildup surrounding these two teams this season, a raucous crowd is sure to be in store for the visiting Wolverines.
The Irish haven't beaten Michigan since 2009, trailing the all-time series with a 15-23-1 record against their rivals.
College football fans can only hope for a repeat of last season's matchup, in addition to the stellar uniforms the teams sported.
This one is sure to live up to the hype.
Prediction: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 28
2. Boise State at Michigan State (08/31/12)
In what should be called "The battle of the departed quarterbacks", Boise State and Michigan State highlight one of the premier matchups of the first weekend.
With Kirk Cousins, MSU's winningest quarterback, and Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history, moving on to the NFL, both teams have big voids to fill.
Boise State redshirt junior quarterback Joe Southwick will try to continue the Broncos' recent success. Southwick fared well in two seasons of mop-up duty, completing 73 percent of his passes, while throwing two touchdowns.
Moore isn't the only player on the Broncos who won't be returning after a 12-1 record last season. According to Steele, Boise State returns only six starters from last year's team. The Spartans defense alone returns nine starters.
Still, it would be naive to underestimate Broncos head coach Chris Petersen, who sports a 73-6 record at Boise State.
The Broncos are also no strangers to big-time games to kick off the season, defeating Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia in their last three season-openers.
This will be only the second time Boise State has played a Big Ten team, losing to Wisconsin in 1997.
According to Adam Biggers' article on sports.yahoo.com, fans of both teams have already started the trash talk for this slugfest.
It should be a great game, but the Spartans' home-field advantage and returning experience tilts the scale in their favor.
Prediction: Michigan State 24, Boise State 17
1. Alabama vs Michigan (09/01/12)
This battle of historic heavyweights will be the best college football has to offer in its kickoff weekend, as defending champions Alabama take on Michigan in Cowboys Stadium.
Both programs rank top 10 in all-time wins: 1. Michigan (888), 6. Alabama (825).
The Crimson Tide boasted the NCCA's best defense last season, ranking first in yards allowed per game (191.25) and touchdowns allowed (12).
However, only four starters (according to Steele) return, as safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Courtney Upshaw headlined a list of eight (six defensive) Alabama players picked in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Returning linebackers Niko Johnson and C.J. Mosley highlight what will be another stingy defensive unit. All the more reason Denard Robinson should be unhappy about running back Fitz Toussaint's indefinite suspension after a recent DUI arrest.
Toussaint rushed for more 1,000 yards last season, which is second most on the team to Robinson, including nine touchdowns.
While an article by Mark Snyder on usatoday.com states that Toussaint's status for the Alabama game is uncertain, it is very likely he will be suspended for the game.
Robinson hopes to kick off his Heisman campaign in the same stadium Robert Griffin III did on opening weekend last season. Unfortunately, the absence of his starting running back would make that much tougher.
Michigan's offense will be electric this season, but this SEC defense is strong enough to cause a power outage.
The Big Ten needs signature wins against other conference powerhouses in order to earn back national respect. This one, however, won't likely be one of them.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Michigan 20