Big Ten Football: 10 Most Underrated Conference Matchups of 2013
The four-week appetizer that is non-conference play (plus an early Big Ten play preview with Purdue at Wisconsin last weekend) is finally over, and autumn has arrived with conference games. That means no more weeks filled with non-substantive cupcakes and glazed donuts.
Every week, there will be one or two games that everyone will be focused on, but the beauty of conference play is the high-quality undercard to those top matchups most weekends. In fact, every week of the next 10 features an underrated game that should be getting more anticipation than it's currently receiving.
There's plenty of good B1G football coming up, so it is time to get excited!
Let's take a look at these underrated games coming up in each of the final 10 weeks of the regular-season schedule.
September 28: Iowa at Minnesota
Next week, there are only two conference games, so it will be easy to focus on the massive Leaders Division game between Wisconsin and Ohio State. However, the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale between Iowa and Minnesota has suddenly become appointment television thanks to non-conference successes.
Plus, the Hawkeyes and Gophers look just as good as the other four teams in the Legends Division, which were widely believed to be superior heading into the season. Instead of playing for bowl eligibility (could still be the case), these teams will be playing for a serious contender role in the conference championship chase.
Both these teams have built their early season success on dominant line play, and it will be fun to watch the likes of Ra'shede Hageman play against the Iowa offensive front and Mark Weisman. Both teams also feature young quarterbacks of the future that need a big conference win to gain confidence going forward.
Plus, they are playing for the pig. What more do you want from a quality undercard?
October 5: Illinois at Nebraska
On the first full weekend of conference play, the attention will likely stay on Ohio State thanks to a tough night-game road trip to Northwestern. But too much focus on that game will cause you to miss a great slate of interesting games for most of the other teams in the conference.
Although it would be fun to put Michigan State at Iowa in this spot, nobody should have to live through the torture of that likely defensive slugfest. Therefore, the game for this week to keep an eye on is Illinois at Nebraska, which looked like a total mismatch coming into the 2013 season.
The Illini look like a whole new team with Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator, and Nathan Scheelhaase has passed for over 300 yards per game in the first three weeks. That does not bode well for Nebraska, which now has some serious issues once again on defense to contend with.
If the senior running the Illini offense sees the holes throughout the Cornhusker defense, then the fans in Lincoln will be on the edge of their seats in this one. Nebraska also has not played Illinois yet, so the novelty of this matchup also makes it a great underrated game in early conference play.
October 12: Indiana at Michigan State
The third week of conference play features four cross-division battles, and the co-highlights will probably be the "brand-name battle" in Michigan at Penn State, and "teams who've already played OSU" in Northwestern at Wisconsin.
Leaving both of those aside, there remains another pretty good game that became a protected crossover with Legends and Leaders—Indiana at Michigan State. This is the classic unstoppable force (Indiana offense) against immovable object (MSU defense) that fans love to see play out on the field.
Even though the Hoosiers could come into this game with two or three losses, Kevin Wilson has the offense clicking more than ever in his third season at the helm. That offense is currently putting up well over 300 yards per game passing and 200 yards per game rushing, which is enough to keep opposing defensive coaches up at night.
Except defensive coaches at East Lansing, where this is just another high-octane offense to grind to a screeching halt. Four games into the season and nobody has come close to exceeding 17 points against the Spartans.
Something will have to give, and that makes this battle highly entertaining.
October 19: Iowa at Ohio State
The fourth week of conference play actually contains no highlights, which may make viewers think twice about tuning in. That would be a mistake, though, as games like Iowa's first trip into Ohio Stadium since 2009 will be better than expected.
It may seem like ages ago, but Iowa and Ohio State met with the conference championship and Rose Bowl on the line in that 2009 game. A gutty effort by a backup quarterback starting his first game (James Vandenberg) pushed OSU to the brink and overtime, but the Buckeyes held off Iowa once again in Columbus.
Ohio Stadium is a house of horrors for Iowa, though, as the Hawkeyes have not won here since 1991. Both teams will be fresh from bye weeks, which could play in Iowa's favor if the Buckeyes come out a bit rusty instead of incredible in the first quarter.
Ohio State will certainly score some points at home against the Hawkeyes, but there is a possible advantage if Iowa can dominate the pace with the running game. That possibility is just enough to keep this one interesting. Don't sleep on the battle of the 'Eyes.
October 26: Nebraska at Minnesota
On the final weekend of October, the midpoint of conference play will be reached with a highlight game of Penn State at Ohio State. However, a more interesting game may be taking place in the Legends Division between Nebraska and Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.
Even if Minnesota wins against Iowa on September 28, the Gophers will likely be sitting at no more than five wins because road games at Ann Arbor and Evanston will be tough. That means Minnesota will need a victory here to get back on track and to ensure a bowl season once again.
Nebraska looks vulnerable on defense, and Minnesota dominated a good San Jose State team on the lines this past weekend. If the same formula works for Jerry Kill here, Nebraska may not just roll over Minnesota like it did in the first two meetings.
Nebraska cannot overlook this game with the critical stretch of Northwestern-Michigan-Michigan State coming up immediately after the trip to Minneapolis. If Bo Pelini wants to extend his tenure in Lincoln, losses like this one have to be avoided at all costs.
More than enough on the line to watch, don't you think?
November 2: Northwestern at Nebraska
The first full slate of six Big Ten games in a weekend comes in the first weekend of November, and two Legends Division games should draw attention. The bigger game on paper will be the rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State, especially considering the hex Sparty has had on Michigan outside of last year in Ann Arbor.
But the more interesting game for bowl positioning and other factors will be Northwestern at Nebraska. The Wildcats upset Nebraska in Lincoln two seasons ago and likely should have won again last year. However, Nebraska benefited from one of Northwestern's trademark fourth-quarter collapses of 2012.
As mentioned on the last slide, Nebraska will be entering a tough November stretch during which any hopes for another division title will be decided. Northwestern may just be the best team in that division, which means getting this game at home is a critical advantage for the Cornhuskers.
Plus, this game features plenty of dynamic playmakers that are fun to watch. Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah will rack up the yards against the Wildcats, while Venric Mark, Trevor Siemian, and Kain Colter will return the favor against Nebraska. Should be very fun to watch.
November 9: Illinois at Indiana
Another week, another top-level Legends Division showdown takes the headlines as Nebraska visits Michigan. A better game may be shaping up in the opposite division between last year's bottom-feeders Illinois and Indiana.
It seemed inconceivable after the 2012 season, but Illinois now has an offense that just might keep up with the mighty Hoosiers passing attack. Nathan Scheelhaase will succeed in this game for the same reason he might against Nebraska: too many holes in the secondary and not enough pass rush to stop good reads.
Of course, Indiana puts quality teams to the test by just throwing a bunch of points up on the board and thereby putting pressure on the opposing offense to keep up. Playing in Bloomington could be the difference, however, as Indiana defends "The Rock" much better than the team usually plays on the road.
This is also a final battle of border states before the teams are split into the East and West divisions. Enjoy this last chance at bragging rights, as well as possible bowl eligibility, Hoosiers and Illini fans.
November 16: Indiana at Wisconsin
In the eighth week of Big Ten play, Wisconsin and Indiana will play each other as division rivals for the final time. That game should be much better than a season ago if Indiana has made as much progress as expected, and that makes this game a good pick after the more notable games of Michigan at Northwestern and Michigan State at Nebraska.
If Indiana is sitting on just four conference wins, then a win in this game will be necessary to have any chance to secure a bowl appearance (Ohio State and Purdue remain after the Wisconsin game). A desperate Hoosiers team could make a tough opponent for the Badgers, even in Madison.
Wisconsin will try to limit how much Indiana can dictate the pace by grinding out long drives with the power running game. Thanks to having a full stable of three star running backs seemingly every season, that plan works against Indiana every year.
But this game comes late in the year and after a tough late non-conference game against BYU for Wisconsin, which means some of those running backs may be dinged up. If so, then Indiana could make this interesting and possibly pull a massive upset. That's good enough to watch!
November 23: Michigan at Iowa
A pair of rivalry games headline the penultimate week of Big Ten conference play: Wisconsin at Minnesota and Nebraska at Penn State. However, the more interesting storylines may be generated from the final tune-up games for Michigan and Ohio State before the Big Game.
Although Indiana and OSU played a 52-49 marathon last year, Michigan at Iowa gets the nod here because the Wolverines have a trickier assignment on the road in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes also get a bye week to heal up and prepare for this game, while Michigan will be coming off a brutal stretch of MSU, Nebraska and Northwestern in the previous three weeks. If Michigan does not have the Legends Division about wrapped up by this week, then the game against Iowa will be critical with a tough OSU squad looming in the closing weekend.
Funny things can happen on senior day, and Iowa would love to send the Wolverines back to a different division with another loss in Kinnick Stadium. Given how mistake-prone Devin Gardner has been in the early season, no road game will be an easy out for Big Blue in 2013.
Lots on the line and a good underdog story make this a no-brainer undercard pick.
November 30: Penn State at Wisconsin
The main attraction of the final weekend in Big Ten play is always Michigan and Ohio State, and 2013 will be no different. However, that may not be the only game that has an impact on the Leaders Division title race.
Penn State at Wisconsin is the underrated game to keep an eye on in the final weekend, especially if Wisconsin has more than just pride on the line. Last season, this game went right down to the wire and Penn State won to improve to 8-4 in the first sanction season. The Nittany Lions will be treating this like a bowl game once again.
Penn State is not at loaded on defense in 2013, but there are enough playmakers left to slow down the Wisconsin rushing attack. By the end of the season, playing in tough road environments should be old hat for freshman QB Christian Hackenberg as well.
Just like last season, expect this game to be highly entertaining as the follow-up to the battle at high noon between Michigan and Ohio State.
Thanks for reading! Please comment on what underrated games you are looking forward to most below, and I can also be found on Twitter for added discussion (@DA_Fitzgerald for sports only and article links, @BuckeyeFitzy for personal and game-day commentary purposes).
See you later this week with more analysis and stories. Until then, live #B1G.