It's hard to imagine a non-conference slate going worse for the Big Ten than this season has. Yes, obviously, everybody could be 0-3 at this point, so it could always be worse—thank you, pedants of the world. But in terms of games that matter, it's been brutal for the Big Ten. Only Northwestern and Ohio State have wins against BCS-conference opponents, and only Michigan State has defeated a ranked opponent.
All told, nine of the 12 Big Ten teams have caught a loss already, the conference is polling at its worst level in over a decade (and the second-worst since 1988), Ohio State is ineligible for the postseason and Notre Dame has already knocked off two leading contenders for division titles in Michigan State and Purdue.
Oh, and road wins? Northwestern at Syracuse, Minnesota at UNLV, Michigan State at Central Michigan and Indiana at Massachusetts. That's it.
But there is the possibility that the Big Ten can salvage its season—or at least start to do so—on Saturday night. That's Michigan at Notre Dame, under the lights and watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus. If Michigan can go into South Bend and come away with a victory, all of a sudden the Big Ten picture changes.
Big-time win? Check.
It'd be the biggest win of the entire non-conference season for the Big Ten—bigger than Michigan State beating Boise State at home (the same Boise team that just beat BYU 7-6 at home in possibly the ugliest game of the year).
Road win? Check.
No disrespect to the Carrier Dome, but this would be the Big Ten's first and best high-stakes road win of the year.
And most importantly, a win at Notre Dame would give No. 18 Michigan's ranking a much-needed boost, which is critical in a conference that doesn't have a single bowl-eligible team ranked higher than that.
Conferences are judged by the power of their top teams. That's why the SEC sits on its throne. Michigan can restore that shine, that sheen to the Big Ten's reputation with a win this weekend.
Now is a Michigan win going to make people forget about the litany of disappointing performances the conference has put forth so far this year? No, of course not. No one game could ever accomplish that. The Big Ten's non-conference mold is essentially cast, and it's an ugly shape. To claim otherwise is to engage in denialism.
But yet, if Michigan takes out Notre Dame in South Bend—and don't go telling Denard Robinson he can't do it—we could at least have one instance of the Big Ten's most exciting player shredding a vaunted defense, one demonstration a team in the Big Ten is at least capable of pulling off a huge win.
And don't say that perception doesn't matter. Perception is what drives fans to stadiums every Saturday—or keeps them sitting at home. Perception is why the Big Ten can pull off TV deals for over $20 million per school annually. Perception is what drives readers like you to a site like this. You perceive that Big Ten football matters, and if Michigan pulls off that win at Notre Dame, you will feel pretty smart about your perception.
And if Notre Dame gets the win? One more punch to the gut for the Big Ten's reputation. And the Big Ten has had more than enough of those for this year already, thanks.