Big Ten Football Needs November Night Game Spotlight
Imagine a future where the Big Ten stretches across half the country, engaging the rich markets of the East Coast as well as the core Midwestern audience. Starting in 2014, we now have just that in this grand old football conference.
Now imagine a future where the Big Ten competes with other national power conferences to push at least one team into a college football playoff. As the tension builds through November toward conference championship weekend, the new East and West divisions will be in the spotlight starting this fall.
Now finally, imagine a future where the top contenders in the playoff chase hold the national television audience captive on the biggest stage of Saturday Night Football through the month of November. That will also finally come your way...
Wait, what? The Big Ten Conference still has that antiquated, old policy about no night games after the end of October? Well, actually, that policy is not really in place anymore, but television partners like BTN and ESPN/ABC have not gotten out of old habits yet and picked Big Ten night games for November.
With new conference partners creating many more overall conference games and the need to stay in the national spotlight highlighted by the new playoff system, now is the time for Jim Delany and the conference schools to force television's hand and push for a huge November night game presence. Final prime-time schedules will be released in April or May, and perhaps fans can help push for this and finally make this happen in 2014.
If you like the Big Ten and want it to succeed in the college football playoff world, 2014 has to be the year when November night games begin to become a regular thing. Let's take a look at what games and competitors could benefit the most this upcoming season.
November 1: Indiana at Michigan
One of the wildest showings of offensive prowess happened in late October in Ann Arbor last season when these two teams met. Now that Indiana is back in the same division as Michigan, the shootouts can keep on coming, every single season.
Although this is easily the lightest on the schedule of "big games" to choose from in November, there's no denying the entertainment of these two offenses. Add in the bright lights of a night game in Michigan Stadium, and this is a recipe for a great start to the month.
Even if both teams are out of the national championship chase, the conference title race will be far from over at this halfway mark of Big Ten play. This could be the great, memorable Saturday night game to start it all.
November 8: Ohio State at Michigan State
Thanks to the quirk of switching up divisions three years after starting Legends and Leaders, last season's Big Ten Championship will be replayed as a division game in 2014. Given that Michigan State and Ohio State played a classic back-and-forth championship last December, this rematch is easily the marquee game of the 2014 Big Ten conference schedule.
The Spartans will need to reload on defense, but the offense became highly efficient through conference play in 2013 and could carry this team next season. Meanwhile, Ohio State keeps stockpiling talent under Urban Meyer, and this is a hungry team after having a 24-game win streak snapped with two painful losses at the end of last year.
Although East Lansing is not one of the huge palaces holding more than 100,000 fans, it is time for that fanbase to get some credit for making a great game-day environment in Spartan Stadium. Also, after seeing the wave of fans invade Pasadena for a Rose Bowl, these fans are long overdue for a truly huge late-season night game at home.
Although that may help give the Spartans a little more home-field advantage in this important game, there is simply no excuse if the best game of 2014 in the Big Ten is not in the Saturday night slot. The Buckeyes will love the challenge, and the Spartans will rise to make for another classic.
November 15: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Before the Spartans and the Buckeyes battled in Indianapolis, Wisconsin and Nebraska battled for the championship in 2012. Despite taking on five losses that season, the Badgers blew away Nebraska that night to reach a third-straight Rose Bowl.
With these two programs coming into the West Division as two of the biggest powers, there's little doubt the Cornhuskers want to settle the score in 2014 for that beatdown two years ago. If Nebraska wants to be taken seriously as a national football power again, winning in tough places like Camp Randall Stadium will be a must.
Between Bo Pelini's temper and the Jump Around tradition, there will be so many fireworks on display if this is a Saturday night showcase. Indeed, these two teams have played all three recent meetings in prime time, and there is no good reason for that trend to change just because the game is in November this season.
On the contrary, two of the three most likely competitors for the West Division crown need to grab the national television audience and demand attention. If these programs can bust out the big "N" and big "W" uniforms again, so much the better.
November 22: Wisconsin at Iowa
The penultimate weekend of the Big Ten regular season should end with a second-straight Saturday night game for Wisconsin against a top West Division contender. This time, the Badgers would be on the road though, with a tough trip to Iowa City to play the Hawkeyes.
Kinnick Stadium has not held that many night games, and it would certainly be cold for this game. However, a division title and a chance to play for the Rose Bowl could very well be on the line, especially if Wisconsin holds off Nebraska at home the week before. Iowa looks like a legitimate favorite after rebounding to twice as many wins in 2013 than in 2012, but the home field must be protected.
The bonus here would be the big, goofy Heartland Trophy that these teams play each other to win. Iowa and Wisconsin missed two years of playing each other in 2011 and 2012, but these border rivals can grow their hatred for one another once again starting this fall. And nothing breeds a rivalry like playing for all the marbles in a division race.
There's nothing more Big Ten than Wisconsin and Iowa, and the slugfest of running games would be a nice change of pace to some of the more pass-happy spread offenses all over college football. Even with ridiculous levels of Saturday Night Football commercials, these teams could crank out a game in less than three hours to get your local news delivered right on time!
November 29: Michigan State at Penn State
The final weekend of the season is complicated for making a Saturday night choice, which means it likely will not happen. Michigan and Ohio State refuse to play a night game (plus only the epic 2006 game was moved off of the typical noon kickoff for The Game), and Iowa and Nebraska is a Black Friday game instead of a Saturday game. Assuming Jim Delany was really just kidding about Friday night games, that latter game will not fit this bill either.
That leaves only this game as a potential showdown between two high-caliber programs with name recognition. The only problem is Penn State cannot be a part of the college football playoff and division title chase with the postseason ban. Nevertheless, a night game in Beaver Stadium is a magical time, and Michigan State will not be eager to head on this tough trip right before a possible Big Ten Championship.
The Spartans totally missed playing the Nittany Lions in the Bill O'Brien era, but a budding rivalry could be in the works as James Franklin brings more SEC style and recruiting into Mark Dantonio's wheelhouse. Plus these teams can finally play for the worst rivalry trophy in all of conference play, the Land Grant Trophy!
Certainly the big game in Ohio Stadium may be more compelling on this day, but Michigan State would love to also make a nightcap against Penn State into a good final impression to the playoff committee before championship weekend.
There's simply no doubt about it. November night games must become a thing in Big Ten country, and preferably in 2014 rather than later.
So call your congressman, e-mail your alma mater, and spam letters to Jim Delany. It's time to get the Saturday night spotlight back where it belongs in November, on the best conference in college football, the Big Ten.
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