College Football 2011: Power Ranking the Big Ten's 10 Most Important Showdowns

David LutherFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2011

College Football 2011: Power Ranking the Big Ten's 10 Most Important Showdowns

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    As the start of the season inches closer at a frustratingly slow pace, the talk has turned from preparation to anticipation.

    Team rosters are shaping up, depth charts are being formulated, and coaches are preparing for the opening of fall camp just a few short weeks from now. In the meantime, fans around the nation begin to look ahead to their team's schedule.

    In the era of the BCS and expanding conference championship games, every conference game takes on new importance.

    Here are the 10 most important showdowns for the 2011 season in the Big Ten.

10. Michigan State at Iowa—November 12

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    Last season, the Spartans were on a roll, and it seemed as if no one could stop them. A trip to Iowa threw a giant wrench into Michigan State's Rose Bowl hopes, and eventually allowed Wisconsin to make the trip to Pasadena.

    Not only did Iowa beat the Spartans last season, the Hawkeyes trounced MSU, 37-6. It was a thoroughly embarrassing loss for the Big Ten leading and top ten Spartans.

    This year, the game a week later in the schedule, and Iowa is expected to be in a rebuilding year. Michigan State is returning enough talent that they could make a run in the Big Ten's first year of divisional play. Kirk Cousins is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the country, and his on-field intelligence makes him one of the more underrated signal callers in the Big Ten—possibly the entire nation.

    If Iowa isn't in a position to compete for a Legends Division title, they would relish the opportunity to again spoil MSU's season in 2011. But don't think Sparty has forgotten the humiliating defeat. MSU will be well prepared, and expect 2010 to feature heavily in Dantonio's pregame pep talk.

9. Michigan at Northwestern—October 8

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    Dan Persa is back for his senior season under center for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats. It's now or never for Northwestern, and their first major clash of the 2011 Big Ten season will come early, as they host the improving Wolverines on October 8.

    Dan Persa missed two games last season due to injury, but still managed to throw for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns. He only had four interceptions in his eleven games last season, giving him an impressive 159.0 QB rating, as well. Add in his nine rushing touchdowns, and it's easy to see why Persa means so much to the success of Northwestern.

    Michigan also has an impressive quarterback, and depending on the fortunes of the Wolverines as a whole, a potential Heisman candidate in Denard Robinson.

    Robinson impressed pretty much everyone in the nation early last season with his multiple 200-200 games, and his over 500 yards of total offense against Notre Dame. Robinson also had some injury issues last season, and missed parts of several games. Still, he finished just 29 yards behind Oregon's LaMichael James for the top rusher in the nation. He accounted for 4,272 yards of total offense—a staggering 7.8 yards per play. He also contributed 32 total touchdowns to U-M's total.

    If both quarterbacks can stay healthy throughout 2011, both teams should have improved seasons. That makes their early Big Ten meeting important not only in terms of bowl position, but also could greatly affect final standings in the Legends Division.

    While neither team is expected to compete for a Big Ten championship this season, with Ohio State likely on the sidelines—at least in terms of Big Ten Championship Game consideration—anything is possible in the conference this season, especially since both teams should improve over last season.

8. Michigan State at Northwestern—November 26

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    This game is admittedly more important to Michigan State than to Northwestern, and that's why it's not higher on our list.

    This is the Big Ten regular season finale for both teams, and in the case of MSU, it could be a make-or-break game to get the Spartans a bit to the Big Ten Championship Game on December 3.

    Last season, Northwestern jumped out to a 17-0 lead on the undefeated Spartans, and Dan Persa eventually racked up three rushing touchdowns for the Wildcats. But MSU showed that their top-10 ranking did mean something, scoring 21 fourth quarter points to top the Wildcats, 35-27.

    Both teams will remember this game from 2010. For Michigan State, they'll remember that way Persa and the Wildcats can take advantage of any opening, regardless of how tiny. The Wildcats will remember that if you let Sparty hang around long enough, you'll pay for it sooner or later. Both teams could be improved over their 2010 editions, and this game will be a real dandy for the Big Ten regular season closer. And for Michigan State, the entire season may boil down to this one trip to Evanston.

7. Wisconsin at Michigan State—October 22

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    Last season, Wisconsin seemed pretty much unbeatable in the Big Ten. There was one team that topped the Badgers, however, and that team was Michigan State.

    The 2011 rematch will take place at Spartan Stadium—the same site as the 2010 edition. This time, the Badgers will be hoping for something a little different.

    Last year, Kirk Cousins threw for 269 yards and three touchdowns to give the Spartans their fifth win of the season in five games—the first time since 1999 that has happened. The Spartans also racked up 175 rushing yards on a very stingy Wisconsin defense, and MSU defeated the Badgers, 34-24.

    Interestingly enough, regardless of rankings, the home team In this series has won every game for the last six seasons. This year's game will again be at Spartan Stadium, and you can expect the crowd in East Lansing to be as noisy as 75,000 people can get.

    This game is also an interesting cross-divisional game, and it's entirely possible that this game could be a preview of the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game. Both teams have the potential to win their divisions this year, and both teams will be ranked highly enough on October 22 to give this Big Ten clash some national appeal.

6. Michigan at Michigan State—October 15

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    For many, many years, this game was really only important in the state of Michigan. Like many of these types of rivalries, the game pitted friend against friend and brother against brother for one Saturday afternoon. You either wore green or you wore blue. There was no way to straddle the fence—you picked a team, and that's who you cheered for. But when the game was over, each side went about its business, and tranquility returned.

    But a few years back, Mike Hart made a little comment after a Michigan comeback win over Michigan State. After the 2007 game, Hart said, “I was just laughing. I thought it was funny. They got excited... Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you're playing basketball and you let him get the lead. Then you come back and take it from him.”

    Oops.

    Even MSU head coach Mark Dantonio felt the need to respond to Hart's rather classless comment. “Whether they [U-M] want to mock us or not, they can say what they want, I saw them on the sidelines. If they don't consider this a rivalry, they looked pretty scared. I didn't see anybody laughing. This is not over. It will never be over. This is just starting.”

    Dantonio is apparently part prophet, and he led his Spartan team to victories over the Wolverines the next three seasons.

    The little brother is all grown up.

    The 2011 matchup will have a little different flavor. First off, Michigan State will be heavy favorites, and by October 15, the Green and White may be sporting a top ten ranking, while the Maize and Blue could have a loss or two already on their record. Still, the perception is that Michigan is on the up-swing. If that's true, then head coach Brady Hoke would be wise to remember that MSU has endured endless ridicule from the Michigan fanbase. The Spartans won't let go of their success over Michigan easily.

    This game will be hard-fought, and hard-won by whomever emerges. Bottom line: this rivalry is really beginning to heat up.

5. Ohio State at Michigan—October 26

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    It doesn't matter who you are, what state you live in, or what your favorite sport is, the Michigan-Ohio State game is just simply the greatest rivalry in all of sport.

    There are very few rivalries that even approach the level of hatred that is apparent in this series. While the spite seems to pervade every facet of Ohio State's program (their marching band constantly marches to “I Don't Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan”—even if Michigan isn't the opponent that week), Ann Arbor seems to be a little more circumspect. The Ohio State game is all anyone can talk about, but only for the one or two weeks before the actual game.

    Still, the only thing that really comes close is Alabama-Auburn. Sorry baseball fans, but the Yankees and Red Sox have nothing on the Wolverines and Buckeyes. Duke and North Carolina can't hold a flame to this brawl.

    And this may just be the year that the game once again becomes relevant.

    With divisional play in the Big Ten, each team has the opportunity to spoil another team's season. Assuming Ohio State is eligible for the Big Ten CCG (which is a huge assumption at this point), Michigan could be primed to play the role of spoiler. Every Penn State or Wisconsin fan will become a Michigan fan on October 26, and Brady Hoke will have his first shot at doing what Rich Rodriguez never could: beat the Buckeyes.

    Ohio State will also be without Terrelle Pryor or Jim Tressel, and it's curious to see how Ohio State's season will play out. Could this game be a redemption game for Ohio State as well?

    The game this season is at the Big House for the first time since the renovations were completed. Expect this game to break the existing NCAA football attendance record (also held by Michigan Stadium), expect Denard Robinson to have a huge game, and expect this game to be much more entertaining this year that it has been the past few seasons.

4. Nebraska at Wisconsin—October 1

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    This Big Ten opener is important for a whole host of reasons. First, it's Nebraska's first-ever Big Ten conference game. Second, it is between two teams sure to be carrying lofty national rankings. Third, it's between two of the favorites in their respective Big Ten divisions.

    Nebraska, having never played a Big Ten game, is already a favorite in the Legends Division. While their primary in-division foe—Michigan State—comes later in 2011, this game will set the tone for Nebraska's entire Big Ten season. Can Nebraska compete with the top teams in the Big Ten? The smart money says yes, but we will all get an look for ourselves, right out of the gate.

    Wisconsin is a favorite in the Leaders Division in 2011, and depending on how the Ohio State saga plays out after the NCAA meets with OSU personnel in August, they may be the odds-on favorite for a Big Ten Championship Game berth. Wisconsin also sports an offense that isn't seen much in the Big 12. The Badgers are a run-first team, that relies on big, strong backs to plow through any unsuspecting defender. While the Big 12 definitely has their fair share of powerful ball-carriers, Wisconsin's style is completely different from the balanced attack seen “down south.”

    There are plenty of reasons to watch this game, and the result could tell us a lot about both teams—and their championship chances.

3. Michigan State at Nebraska—October 29

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    October 29 brings us to a meeting between the two favorites in the Legends Division of the Big Ten. Both Michigan State and Nebraska are sporting preseason Top 25 rankings, and they're likely to be the only Legends teams to do so until the season is well underway.

    Michigan State is returning a core of talented players, and Nebraska has a few budding stars that could really propel the Cornhuskers back into the BCS picture. The question becomes: who will break out first?

    This game will probably provide that answer. In reality, this one contest will probably do more to determine the Legends Division champion than any other single game, and that's why it's placed so high on our list. Both MSU and Nebraska have legit shots this season in the division, and while Michigan, Iowa, and Northwestern could all make things interesting, it's not realistic at this point to consider them for the division title (and Minnesota has absolutely no shot). That just leaves the Spartans and Huskers.

    Nebraska is still a wild card in the conference. While the Big 12 and Big Ten probably have about as similar a style of play as any other two BCS conferences, there are differences. For instance, October can provide some very different weather conditions between Lincoln and East Lansing. While it may be snowing in East Lansing, it could be in the 70's or warmer (it was 72 degrees on October 29 last year).

    It's also just as important to ask how well the Big Ten teams will be able to adjust to Nebraska. You just can't ignore the Huskers' style of play, and particularly the big play ability of Taylor Martinez. If Martinez can get his throwing game in order, he could be a lethal threat in the Big Ten. If not, Nebraska will find speedy Big Ten defenses ready to take advantage of any errant pass.

    With one exception, this game is probably the biggest on Nebraska's calendar. It's almost certainly the biggest on Michigan State's—at least in terms of importance for the rest of the season.

2. Penn State at Wisconsin—November 26

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    As previously mentioned, the issues surrounding Ohio State have yet to be resolved. While Ohio State has vacated all of their wins from 2010, it's doubtful that will satisfy the NCAA. Ohio State is probably looking at a minimum of one year of postseason ineligibility—and the Big Ten is already on record stating that any team with a postseason ban in place will not be able to participate in the Big Ten Championship Game.

    If that comes to pass in Columbus, that will mean the Leaders Division will come down to the November 26 game between Penn State and Wisconsin at Camp Randall.

    Wisconsin would be the clear favorite if this game was played in September. The same will probably be true on November 26—but that's a long time from September 3, and a lot can happen to a team in the interim. Penn State isn't expected to be a BCS contender in 2011, but Wisconsin is expected to be a prime candidate for the Big Ten CCG.

    The Nittany Lions don't really have a lot that screams double digit wins this season, but Penn State should still be able to improve upon last season's uninspired 7-6 finish. Their biggest asset will be the returning experience. Joe Paterno has 16 returning starters—eight on each side of the ball—from his 2010 squad, and that alone should provide Penn State fans with more to cheer about this season. Wisconsin, on the other hand, seems pretty depleted at first glance, returning just 11 starters, and only five on offense. But Wisconsin is nothing if not proficient on defense, and one of the best defensive lines in the entire country returns essentially intact for 2011. Sprinkle in a returning linebacker, corner, and safety, and you suddenly have a defensive squad that will make putting up points rather difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

    The divisional race may have already been decided by November 26, but if it's not, this game between what will likely be the top two (eligible) teams from the Leaders will be more important than any meeting between the Nittany Lions and Badgers in history.

1. Ohio State at Nebraska—October 8

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    And now we come down to it. The game that looms largest on the Big Ten schedule.

    This game isn't just important for each team in the game, it's important for the conference as a whole.

    Nebraska, the new kid on the block, will face the team that has won at least a share of the last seven Big Ten championships. Nebraska will be faced with the best of the best from the Big Ten, and winning this game would go a long, long way towards announcing to the rest of the conference that the Cornhuskers are here to play for championships. Ohio State, for their part, will need to tell the conference, and the nation, that Ohio State is still Ohio State. This game will be the first game for the “Tattoo Four” as they will have finished their suspensions in time for the trip to Lincoln.

    While Ohio State will likely be playing for nothing more than pride this season, there is an awful lot of Buckeye pride in Columbus. It's hard to imagine too many things that would give Ohio State fans more pride that showing Nebraska the Big Ten ropes, and welcoming the Huskers to the conference with a loss on their home field.

    This game could also provide an opening to other Legends Division teams—particularly Michigan State—as Ohio State wins won't count for much, but losses to Ohio State will. MSU had the advantage of playing this cross-divisional foe prior to the return of the suspended players.

    Nebraska has thirteen returning starters from 2010, none more important than Taylor Martinez. His talent is unquestionable, and his Big Ten quarterback stock jumped when Terrelle Pryor backed out of his promise to stay at Ohio State for 2011. Martinez can probably now count himself among the top three quarterbacks in the conference.

    Ohio State is only returning eight total starters from a season ago, but that doesn't include the suspended players. When those four return, Ohio State will have the added services of three additional starters. The obvious question will be whether or not these players will be able to keep up with their Nebraska counterparts, who should be in midseason form by October 8.

    Because of the storyline and commentary surrounding Ohio State and the fact that a Nebraska loss could really open up the Legends Division, the October 8, 2011 meeting between Ohio State and Nebraska tops our list of Big Ten's 10 Most Important Showdowns.