This year, the Big Ten could be a wide-open race among several of the top contenders. You can always look to certain games for the answers as to who that top contender will be.
Games like Michigan-Ohio State, Penn Sate-Iowa, and Wisconsin-Ohio State seem to always be at the top of the list.
But what are the in-conference games that will mean the most when it all comes to an end?
Most experts say that Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State are the odds-on favorites. I will agree with this to an extent, but will say there are others that could do the unexpected.
Besides, how often does an entire Big Ten season go according to script?
So, here are the biggest Big Ten games that will shape the final league standings, starting in order by date:
October 2nd: Michigan at Indiana
So, when you think of Big Ten teams that will make a bowl game in 2010, these are two teams that don't quickly come to mind.
Both squads were 1-7 in the conference last year, with Michigan's lone win coming on a controversial 36-33 win in Ann Arbor.
This year, both teams open up conference play against each other, and one thing is for sure, neither has a very solid defense.
Michigan was dreadful on defense last season. Gone are the playmakers from that team, Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren. Indiana has just as an unproven group that returns just two in their back seven.
Offensively, this game could be a Ben Chappell gem, if he can limit his mistakes. Michigan will rely on Tate Forcier to keep pace with the potent Indiana attack.
The Hoosiers have a manageable out-of-conference with four games against the bottom of the FBS. This will go a long way in whether the Hoosiers can get the magic “six” to be bowl eligible.
This game also will go a long way in Michigan's bowl hopes, because they have three of their first four at home and a road game in South Bend.
The winner of this game, though early in the season, may be heading for that Pizza Bowl, while the loser may be sitting at home watching with holiday leftovers.
October 2nd: Penn State at Iowa
Potentially the ABC night game on this day, this one will have more to say about the top tier of the conference than Michigan-Indiana. Last year, Iowa scored 16 fourth-quarter points, highlighted by an Adrian Clayborn blocked punt return as the Hawks stunned then-No. 5 Penn State in Happy Valley.
This year, it may be the opposite. Iowa should be a favorite at home in Kinnick, while Penn State will likely be at least once-beaten.
This game will be all about the play in the trenches.
Iowa's defense is about as good as you are gonna see in the nation, if not the entire country. Penn State's offense will take a different look this season, as many reports have indicated that they will change to the “spread” offense. I say, I will believe it when I see it.
The key will be who runs the ball better.
Iowa loses several key lineman, including Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, but they grow 'em big in Iowa, and they were deep along the line last year. Penn State has also lost several starters.
Each team returns top-notch backs: the Lions in potential All-American Evan Royster, and the Hawks with both Adam Robinson and a healthy Jewel Hampton, who missed all of last season.
This is Penn State's chance to say that it is a contender, and this is one the Hawkeyes need to say they are back for another run.
This game could be for who heads to Florida on New Year's Day, and who ends up going elsewhere...
October 9th: Michigan State at Michigan
Last year's rivalry game went to State, despite a comeback from Michigan late that sent it to overtime. This year's game will likely be just as close, as both teams look for answers on how to get back to the top of the Big Ten standings.
As many questions as there are on the Michigan defense, there are just as many, if not more, on the Spartans offense.
After a November brawl left many Spartans suspended and many others off of the team for good, Mark Dantonio must decide who can climb back up the depth charts and who is ready to step up.
The Spartans defense will be solid, led by preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year nominee Greg Jones at linebacker. Offensively, the Wolverines will still be a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, so it looks as if the key will be if the Spartans offense can get its act together.
Obviously, this game is not what it once was with the deterioration of Michigan and the questions that come out of East Lansing about character.
If Michigan can come out of Bloomington a winner the previous week, that is a potential 2-0 start. Michigan State will likely be trying to earn a first conference win in this one, and with a loss could be doomed to a less-than-stellar campaign.
October 9th: Minnesota at Wisconsin
It doesn't get any better in college football when two teams battle over Paul Bunyan's Ax.
That is exactly what the Badgers and Gophers do every year, and when it comes to these two, you never know what you are going to get.
Last year, it was the Badgers victorious by three at the new TCF Bank Stadium. John Clay went for over 180 yards, and the Gophers could not finish a late surge as the Badgers moved to 5-0.
Most fans will expect much of the same thing when these two teams meet on October 9.
I say, not so fast my friend...
This game could be a letdown game for the Badgers, who should be coming in at 5-0. The following week is perhaps one of the games of the year in the Big Ten between the Badgers and Buckeyes when they come crawling into Camp Randall.
Do not look past this one going for the road underdog.
Minnesota, on paper, appears to be far down in the standings when it is all said and done, and the Badgers near the top. They have a solid line, John Clay is back, and they have a potential NFL receiver in Nick Toon.
So how do the Gophers keep it close?
Adam Weber must have a huge game, and the Badgers must be looking ahead. It may be easier said than done. But just remember the 1993 season, when the Badgers had a tie and just one loss on their Rose Bowl winning resume, and it was to the Gophers in Minneapolis.
This is just one to keep an eye on...
October 16th: Ohio State at Wisconsin
So, the aforementioned big game between the Buckeyes and Badgers happens on the 16th of October.
By this point both should be—and I say, should be—because you never know what will happen, unbeaten in league play. By all means, Big Ten title aspirations will either be won or lost at the end of this one.
The Buckeyes have seemingly owned the Badgers since the 2003, a game in which the Badgers snapped Ohio State's long winning streak.
This year, it could be much of the same, but only if Terrelle Pryor has a solid performance. This will be Pryor's first major road test of the season.
When you look at the OSU defense against the Badgers offense, you could say it looks pretty even. But the Buckeyes will look to find two new starting safeties this season, and again, this will be the Bucks' first major road test.
The real key to this game is that it is being played in Wisconsin.
If the Badgers are unbeaten, and many think they will be, they will be rabid for a statement victory over the defending conference champs.
Even though this is a big one, it still will not determine the league champs. Iowa still might have something to say.
October 23rd: Wisconsin at Iowa
The week after the Ohio State game, it doesn't get any easier for the Badgers as they head to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes.
The Hawks have the luxury of playing the three top teams—Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State—at home this year. If the Badgers come in unbeaten, and the Hawks come in unbeaten, look out Iowa City, 'cause GameDay is “Comin' to Your City.”
Iowa and Wisconsin means one thing on the field: tough, hard nosed football with an emphasis on the running game.
Where Iowa may have an edge is with a better defense. Their run defense could easily shut down John Clay like they did Josh Nesbitt in the Orange Bowl.
That's where the play of Scott Tolzein will come up big. If he can execute the short pass offense and get points on the board, the Badgers will keep it close in a tough road game.
On the other hand, the Iowa offense should be able to run effectively on a Badger defense that is questionable up front. It could come down to the Hawks' running game versus the Badgers' ability to throw the ball.
Any way you look at it, this one is BIG. I give a slight advantage to the Hawkeyes at home and with their defense, but never look past the Badgers coming in and upsetting a solid Hawkeyes team.
November 20th: Purdue at Michigan State
We will start this day with a bowl positioning battle in East Lansing.
By now, I figure the Spartans will be right at the brink of bowl eligibility, as will the Boilers. The question you may ask about this one is, will this be Gator Bowl positioning or Pizza Bowl positioning?
All hopes of a great season in West Lafayette rest on the right shoulder of Miami transfer Robert Marve.
But from my memory of watching him two seasons ago at the U, you never know what to expect from him, both on and off the field. Also a season-ending injury to tailback Ralph Bolden will not help the offense that will need to put up plenty of points.
At this point, the Spartans should have figured it out on offense and will have no problems putting up points on a weak Purdue defense. The same can be said from Purdue against the Spartans D.
Basically, this will be a shootout with the winner bowl-bound, and the loser needing one more.
November 20th: Illinois at Northwestern
“Holy cow, folks!”
That is probably what ol' Harry Caray would say as the Illini play the Wildcats for the Land of Lincoln trophy.
So, why is this game important?
Well, the 'Cats have seemingly gotten better as the season goes on in recent years, and this could be their last chance to become bowl eligible if they are not already.
Also, it could be a chance for drunken Cubs fans to see someone play later than early October.
The Illini are looking to replace pieces, as are the Wildcats. Illinois must replace Juice Williams and find a defense that can actually stop someone.
N'Western should have a good feeling for probable starter Dan Persa at this point. Whoever runs the ball the best might win this one, and neither team looks that great in that department.
Ron Zook, enjoy this one, your last Big Ten game as a head coach at Illinois, and Coach Fitz, enjoy the atmosphere that is so desperately needed in Evanston.
November 20th: Ohio State at Iowa
At the end of this game, we will know who your Big Ten champions will be. Iowa will look to avenge last season's OT loss in Columbus that sent the Bucks to the Rose Bowl and Iowa to an at-large in the Orange Bowl.
The Hawks defense will look to corral Terrelle Pryor, while the Bucks' defense will hope to shut down the Iowa running game.
Whoever wins this battle will win the game.
This could also be a game that determines the BCS national title game if Ohio State has already gotten by Wisconsin and Miami. The same can be said if Iowa survives an early road game at Arizona and home games against Wisconsin and Penn State.
However, I can't see both teams being unbeaten at this point, so I guess it will just have to be for the Big Ten Title again...
November 27th: Northwestern at Wisconsin
On a day when most people will be forced to watch a blowout between Ohio State and Michigan on ABC, many folks in the Dairy State will be rooting on their Badgers in a possible Big Ten clincher.
Northwestern has played the Badgers well in recent years, winning 33-31 last season and 51-48 in 2005.
But those games were played in Heavenston. The Wildcats have had less success playing at the Camp, and this could be the deciding factor in this shootout.
Northwestern will be able to throw the ball. Wisconsin will be able to run the ball. Both teams will be playing to their strengths, it is just a matter of if the Badgers want it more.
Either way, I think this one will be huge for the Big Ten race. As long as the Badgers can split with Iowa and Ohio State, anything can happen Thanksgiving weekend...
There are certainly other games that will help guide where these teams end up at the end. Early in the season on September 11th, there are two of these such games.
The "U" heads into Ohio State to have a rematch of the 2003 title game.
This is one that I think the 'Canes will take because of their defense and speed. Terrelle Pryor will be terrorized all day, and the Bucks' defense will struggle enough to let Miami score a few times and the conversation of if the “U” is back will continue.
Also, that same day Penn State heads into Tuscaloosa to take on the Tide.
I say this appears to be one-sided on paper, but never underestimate a Joe Paterno-coached team. A strong Evan Royster performance and a few lucky bounces could lead to a huge upset in the season's second week.
A week later, Iowa travels to Arizona for a night game.
Yikes! Traveling out West is never easy as it is, but when you make it a night game, that kicks at 9:30 Iowa time, you may have a body clock problem.
Iowa appears to be better on paper, but 'Zona can put up the points and can be a very scary team with 10 offensive starters back. Where they may struggle is on defense that is lacking in experience.
This is just one to keep an eye on, as I expect Iowa to come out victorious.
You could pretty much say that every game in Big Ten play is huge, since each team only has eight league games, but there are certain ones that are bigger.
I think that the conference this year is fairly balanced, at least at the top.
Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State will go No. 1-2-3, with Penn State challenging to get into the group. Everyone else in the conference will be fighting for those 5-8 positions and a bowl bid.
Again, these are just the games that I think are going to be the best and most important this year. As always, I could be and probably will be wrong.
So what games are you looking forward to? Who do you think will win the conference? Any surprises this year?
Please leave me your feedback on what the 2010 Big Ten season will hold for its teams and fans...