A big component to restoring the prestige of Big Ten football is winning the marquee nonconference matchups each season.
So far, that giant piece of the puzzle has been conspicuously absent.
From consistently losing bowl games against power conferences to falling flat in nationally televised season openers, the prophecy of a weak Big Ten has become self-fulfilling. Try as the conference might to put on a brave face and talk itself up, the facts don't lie: compared to the four other "power five" conferences, the Big Ten hasn't been able to run with the big dogs for quite some time now.
The 2013 season will provide yet another opportunity to make up for lost time. Several big nonconference games loom for the Big Ten, and winning these games could help the conference regain a modicum of esteem amongst Pac-12 and ACC fans—we're just assuming the Big Ten and SEC will never get along.
If the Big Ten wants to earn back its long lost swagger, here's a list of 10 nonconference games Big Ten teams must win in 2013.
Aug. 29, 2013; 7 p.m. (ET); Big Ten Network
The Big Ten's football season gets underway with an opening Thursday game for Indiana when the Hoosiers take on FCS opponent Indiana State.
At first glance, most would assume Indiana would have no trouble handling the Sycamores, but there's a reason Big Ten football fans might want to catch this game—beyond the obvious "it's the first football game of the season, and we've been waiting nearly eight months."
Last season, Indiana State posted a 7-4 record, its best finish since the 1995 season (also 7-4). The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are coming off of another woeful performance (4-8) that did include a narrow 24-17 win over the Sycamores in the 2012 season opener.
There's a point to argue about the bottom of conferences being pretty bad across the board. Indiana and Illinois are to the Big Ten what Kentucky and Arkansas were last season to the SEC.
But dropping a game to an in-state FCS opponent like Indiana State—a program that hasn't seen a playoff berth since the early 1980s—would give fodder to those who believe the worst of the Big Ten is still looking up at the worst of the rest of FBS.
Aug. 31, 2013; 3:30 p.m. (ET); Big Ten Network
The final destination for these two teams could have been further apart.
The Iowa Hawkeyes watched the bowl season from the comfort of their living rooms, while the Northern Illinois Huskies became the first non-undefeated, non-Automatic Qualifying program and the first MAC team ever to earn a BCS berth.
The result for the Huskies was pretty much what we all expected: The Florida State Seminoles walked out of Sun Life Stadium with a bowl full of oranges, while NIU walked away with the nation now convinced beyond all doubt that the Huskies had no business in that game.
Remember the bit about being the first non-undefeated, non-AQ program to earn a BCS berth? Well NIU's lone regular-season loss came at the hands of Iowa, 18-17, way back in Week 1.
The big news for NIU is that all-universe quarterback Jordan Lynch is back for his senior season. Lynch is the type of Manziel-like, Tebow-esque quarterback who simply confounds defenses. Iowa will need to bring its top effort on defense to contain him again this season.
Lucky for the Hawkeyes, they'll have eight returning defensive starters to get the job done.
Even so, don't expect NIU to stay off the scoreboard for long. Iowa will need to match NIU early on to keep this game close enough to outlast the Huskies.
And with half of Iowa's offense sporting first-year starters in 2013, it could be a much closer game than Hawkeye fans want to admit.
Aug. 31, 2013; 10:30 p.m. (ET); ESPN2
Long the doormat of the Big Ten, Northwestern has actually emerged as one of the true bright spots in an otherwise dark age for the conference.
Northwestern began 2012 with a perfect 4-0 record in nonconference play, leading the Big Ten. Additionally, the Wildcats have not only earned a trip to five straight bowl games—a program first—but also posted their first bowl victory in over sixty years last season.
And just in case that wasn't enough, Northwestern won the Gator Bowl by defeating Mississippi State, a team from the despised SEC.
What's next for Pat Fitzgerald and his Purple Cats?
It's hard to see how Northwestern can improve much more on it's impressive 10-3 record from last season, but with eight offensive and seven defensive starters returning for 2013, don't be surprised to see Northwestern appear on several Big Ten "dark horse" lists come the fall.
Of course that will all come crashing down if the Wildcats can't get past a Week 1 test against California.
Cal also appears to be on the cusp of ascendency in its own conference. While the Pac-12 is certainly a different beast than the Big Ten, each program will have something to prove.
And a win for Cal will resonate throughout the Pac-12 while simultaneously bruising an already-battered Big Ten ego.
Sept. 7, 2013; 8 p.m. (ET); ABC
With the benefit of hindsight, all of those losses the Big Ten suffered at the hands of Notre Dame in 2012 don't seem so bad.
The Fighting Irish did, after all, finish the regular season a perfect 12-0 and found their way to the BCS National Championship Game.
Because of that success, and because of the fact that Notre Dame is, well, Notre Dame, you can rest assured that the Irish will come complete with a preseason top-ten ranking for 2013. The Golden Domers' Week 1 contest against Temple probably won't do much more than provide a nice warmup for the real early season showdown on Notre Dame's scehdule: Week 2 under the lights at the Big House.
Folks down South or out West don't quite understand the unique quality of a night game at Michigan Stadium. It's been done only once before—two years ago against Notre Dame. That installment was an instant classic, coming down to a last drive touchdown and nearly 100 combined points scored. With both teams likely sporting national rankings and with Notre Dame soon ending its annual series against Michigan in favor of an expanded ACC schedule, you can bet the sequel will be just as entertaining.
A win for Michigan would not only be another signal that the Wolverines are on their way back to playing like college football's all-time winningest team (which they are), it could also broadcast to the nation that the top teams in the Big Ten are, in fact, capable of taking on—and beating—some of the best teams in the nation today.
A loss, on the other hand, would be taken as a sign that neither Michigan nor the Big Ten are back where they need to be.
Sept. 7, 2013; 6 p.m. (ET); Big Ten Network
Yes, we're back to a must-win for Northwestern.
We might be putting a lot of the Big Ten's eggs in the Wildcats basket, but if they want to be taken seriously as a standard bearer for the conference, the Wildcats will need to expect some added pressure.
We should take the opportunity to note that if Northwestern drops its Week 1 game at California, the Week 2 visit from Syracuse loses much of its importance. If, however, the Wildcats can start 2-0 for the second straight season by knocking off two programs from two difference BCS Automatic Qualifying conferences, we will definitely have something to talk about.
Syracuse makes the move to the ACC for 2013, ditching the old Big East (now the American Athletic Conference) just in time to avoid being lost in the laughable mess of teams that the conference will be fielding in 2013. We could spend ages talking about the Orange's chances in the ACC this season, but suffice it to say that we're pretty confident a trip to Miami in January is in the cards.
With several skill positions needing new starters, Syracuse will have a new feel to it this season, and that's before we even get into the fact that the program is now under new leadership after head coach Doug Marrone made the move to the NFL after the 2012 season.
Northwestern should be favored in this game, and a loss could seriously temper the enthusiasm the national pundits have for the Wildcats this year.
Sept. 14, 2013; 6 p.m. (ET); Fox Sports 1
Through much of the 1980s and '90s, Iowa dominated this rare cross-conference in-state rivalry game, winning 15 straight from 1983 to 1997. Iowa State won the next five before the Hawkeyes took six of the next eight meetings.
But recently, it's been the Cyclones getting the better of Iowa, having won each of the last two meetings.
The remarkable thing about Iowa State's recent win streak in the series is that the Cyclones have been a perfectly mediocre team in the defensively inept Big 12. Iowa, on the other hand, continues its perpetual rebuilding process.
Another loss for Iowa in the series really isn't an option for the Hawkeyes—or for head coach Kirk Ferentz. Fans are eager for an Iowa reemergence, and a mid-September loss to an Iowa State team that is sure to produce more yawns this season will be a major setback for Ferentz, the Hawkeyes and the Big Ten as a whole.
Sept. 14, 2013; 6 p.m. (ET); Big Ten Network
Of all the games on this list, Washington's visit to Illinois might be the toughest win for the Big Ten program.
The Fighting Illini are coming off of an abysmal first season (2-10) under Tim Beckman. The Illini were the only team that failed to win a single conference game in 2012, and the collapse was something that no one saw coming—or at least everyone failed to predict the magnitude of the failure to come.
Illinois fielded the conference's worst offense last season, averaging just 296.7 yards per game. Perhaps the nine returning starters on that side of the ball will be able to turn things around in 2013.
Then again, it's entirely possible those nine players were a big part of the problem for Beckman last season.
Either way, Illinois is likely going to be a pretty heavy underdog in this one. Washington was a solid team last season, posting a 7-6 record that looked far worse than it really was. Those six losses came at the hands of four ranked teams (LSU, USC, Oregon and Boise State) plus Arizona and Washington State. The Huskies also return 10 offensive starters for 2013, plus seven more on defense.
No Pac-12 team returns more starters.
A loss for the Big Ten in this game (being played at Soldier Field in Chicago) probably wouldn't surprise anyone. But that's the point; if the conference wants to change the minds of those naysayer pundits, a few surprises will be necessary.
Nov. 9, 2013; Time and Television Coverage TBA
There's something a little odd about a November nonconference game in the Big Ten, but when BYU strolls into Madison on Nov. 9, no one will be concerned with conference standings for the three hours the teams are on the field.
Wisconsin, fresh off of yet another loss in the Rose Bowl Game, will be sporting a new look both on the field and on the sidelines in 2013. Gary Andersen takes over for Bret Bielema (now at Arkansas) and brings a wealth of knowledge about BYU to Wisconsin. Andersen, formerly the head coach at Utah State, faced Bronco Mendenhall's Cougars each of Andersen's four seasons at Utah State.
Teams in the midst of a coaching transition are always difficult to nail down, and predictions often run the gamut from euphoric championship runs to shocking collapses that send fans into apoplectic episodes (Illinois, we're looking in your direction).
But regardless of how the Badgers fare under Andersen in his first season at the helm, Wisconsin will be desperate to win a big nonconference game and represent the conference well—something it has failed miserably at doing over the past several seasons.
Conversely, a loss to BYU in late November—especially if Wisconsin is in a Leaders Division race, will send the rest of the nation into giggle fits.
Jan. 1, 2014; 1 p.m. (ET); ABC
Other than the five BCS bowls, the Capital One Bowl has long been viewed as the "best of the rest," and its massive payout—second only to BCS games in most years—helps prove the point.
Whenever the Big Ten and SEC get together in a bowl game, it's a big deal. Unfortunately for the Big Ten, many of those games haven't gone in favor of the boys up north.
The SEC has won the last three Capital One Bowls, and all were by fairly significant margins. While Big Ten teams have had some success against the SEC in other bowls (then-Legends Division champions Michigan State knocked off SEC-East champions Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl; Northwestern beat Mississippi State in the 2013 Gator Bowl, and so forth), the top Big Ten-SEC meetings in each the last three seasons (and four of the last five) has consistently gone in favor of the SEC.
What better way to signal a return to form for the conference than with a win over a team from a conference that's convinced its infallible?
The Big Ten can win all of the games it wants against the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC, but until the conference starts handing out losses to the SEC, there won't be any reason for the south to respect Big Ten football.
Jan. 1, 2014; 5 p.m. (ET); ABC
Since 2001, a team from the Big Ten has won the Rose Bowl Game just once. Before you go thinking that the BCS has bumped the conference out of the game more often than not, consider that one win is juxtaposed to nine losses over the same span (10 if you want to throw in Nebraska's 2002 loss as a member of the Big 12).
Wisconsin has earned the last three trips to Pasadena, and has posted an 0-3 mark, thank you very much. Michigan is similarly 0-3 since 2001, and no other conference program has more than one appearance.
Clearly, the Rose Bowl Game hasn't been kind to the Big Ten lately. But if the Big Ten truly wants to be taken seriously as a nationally prominent conference heading into the new playoff format for the 2014 season, a big win against a Top Ten team in the "Granddaddy of Them All" is a definite must.
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