There will be only one Big Ten team on the field for the biggest game in Big Ten history.
The Michigan Wolverines aren't just playing to prove they deserve their preseason No. 8 ranking. They're playing to show the world that football is alive and well in their conference. And, know it or not, they are playing to save that conference.
The Big Ten has had a rough few years. Ohio State is ineligible for the postseason. Penn State has been exiled. Both schools deserved the penalties. That said, those penalties have effectively turned a 12-team conference into a 10-team conference. A 10-team conference with a serious image problem.
It's that bad. The humiliations of those programs, coupled with the rise of the superconferences and the correlated increase in the probability that the NCAA is on the way out as an institution, has left the once-mighty Big Ten on the edge of irrelevance as a football conference.
Perception Is Reality
Ask a college football fan, especially one under 30, what they think of first when they think of the Big Ten. The first few words aren't likely to make you happy. The Sandusky atrocity at Penn State, and the Tressel fiasco at Ohio State are apt to be the first two. The next few tentative guesses will be about basketball. Bobby Knight will come up eventually. "Football powerhouse" falls right below "Michael Wilbon's fawning loyalty to Northwestern."
You can tell me about the history of the conference, of the teams, of the storied rivalries all you want. You can scream "HAYES!" and "SCHEMBECHLER!" and "GRANDDADDY OF THEM ALL!!!!!!" until you have no voice left. The perception in college football nation is that the Big Ten is in fact the Granddaddy of them all. And Granddaddy is kinda sad, a little senile, and he doesn't really do a lot anymore besides sleep in a chair and watch daytime TV.
There is no way around it: If Alabama—a 14-point favorite in Vegas—wipes Cowboys Stadium with Michigan on Saturday, that would dump a truckload of cement that could fill the Big House atop college football nation's growing suspicion that the Big Ten's time has passed.
But if Brady Hoke and Denard Robinson's team can pull off the biggest upset since Big Blue was on the wrong end of the Appalachian State opener?
That's more than a statement for Hoke, Robinson and the Wolverines. That's an announcement to all of college football from the Big Ten:
We're still here.