Will Nebraska vs. Michigan decide a division? Could it be one of biggest games in 2013?
(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)
September has never held so much importance to the Big Ten. No, we aren't talking about 2014 and the crazy schedules that will be played, we're talking about 2013 and the conference setting the tone early on. Why?
Parts of the conference race could be decided by the time we turn to October and the general narrative of where this conference is heading as a whole will be settled - so yes, the first month is rather important to the race. However, it won't be the only month that matters as November holds some keys to this race as well.
So, expect the Big Ten to hold your attention from beginning to end, unless of course September ends badly and then, well.... Um, um.... hey, there's always that annual butt kicking in the SEC's backyard on January 1st.... err.... um, ya - let's just not think about that happening.
In fact, let us instead focus on the ten biggest games this conference will play in 2013.
10. Northwestern at Cal (Aug. 31): If it weren't for another game that appears on our list this would be the conference's biggest game on opening weekend. Northwestern has a lot of good press coming there way following that whole ten win season and finally getting a bowl win since before WWII. However, the Big Ten traveling out to Pac-12 country hasn't exactly been fun, no matter the records or anything we check on paper. The tone for the conference as a legit contender will be set in the first weekend against a new look Cal team led by Sonny Dykes. Expect this one to be a track meet on offense, but if Northwestern wins expect the defense to be the reason why - it's vastly underrated nationally. All that's on the line is the reputation of the conference right off the bat - no big deal, right?
9. Wisconsin at Arizona State (Sept. 14): Let us not forget that UW finished last season 7-5 in the regular season - there were clearly issues. This will be the only test Wisconsin faces in the non-conference slate before they begin B1G play later in the month (a game you'll see later on in this list). ASU was a good team with a lot of youth on offense last season, making a bowl game and sending a message in said bowl game victory over Navy. Again, a trip out west is always tricky for the Big Ten and luckily for Wisconsin they face the Sun Devils at night - avoiding a real issue in playing in the desert heat. It also happens to be one of my personal favorite games in the non-conference slate nationally because these teams are so evenly matched on paper, which means we could see a very good game and know exactly where these two teams stand for the rest of the season following the game.
8. Northwestern at Wisconsin (Oct. 12): The Wildcats have a ten win season under their belt and a lot of returning talent to bring to the table in 2013. They also have a brutal schedule and this is one of those such games. Northwestern hasn't won at Wisconsin since 2000, but on the whole the past 13 years of this series has been ridiculously crazy. UW leads 6-4 in the past ten meetings. A Northwestern win in Camp Randall in mid-October would put them on the map - especially with this game getting a 2:30pm kickoff time. While it won't have divisional connotations to it, this game is the 2nd biggest Wisconsin will play this year (sorry PSU - your postseason ban kind of makes you irrelevant to the whole discussion of division races). The winner of this game gets a ton of momentum heading down the stretch and the loser - well, they could be on some rocky ground in their hopes of heading to Indy in December.
7. Missouri at Indiana (Sept. 21): Anytime the Big Ten and the SEC get together in the regular season is massive (at least up until the next few when these matchups become more frequent). However, this could be a tone setter for the Hoosiers. Yes, Missouri isn't the cream of the crop in the SEC, but either is Indiana in the Big Ten and a win for IU puts them on the map as a team to take more serious as a threat for an above mediocre finish. It also would help the conference gain some ground in the national conversation. A loss and well, it's Indiana - does anyone really care outside of Big Ten country?
6. Northern Illinois at Iowa (Aug. 31): There is talk amongst the Hawkeyes that this game could be the single most important opener at Kinnick in a VERY long time and I agree. Look, the wheels have come off to an extent over the past few years in Iowa City, yet they found a way to win by one point last season over a team that went on to go to the Orange Bowl in Northern Illinois. Jordan Lynch is a better QB now than he was in that opener last season and for Iowa a W against a team this good can bring them some hope that all won't be lost. Sure, they'll still have work to do, but a loss against the Huskies could bring about the beginning of the end of the Ferentz era at Iowa. I'd say that's huge, no?
5. Michigan at Michigan State (Nov. 2): This game has always mattered to the Spartans, but getting the Wolverines to admit this game matters to them too - now it's on. Both of these teams had very disappointing seasons in 2012 compared to their expectations of competing for (MSU) and winning (Michigan) a Big Ten title. Michigan has a bye heading into this game and so does MSU (does playing Illinois even count? I kid) - so they will be fresh for what has become a pretty brutal battle between these two in-state rivals as of late. If either have hopes of competing for a division title they'll have to win in East Lansing and for MSU a W here could really prove they are contenders after a pretty easy slate to open Big Ten play (Indiana is hardest game before this one).
4. UCLA at Nebraska (Sept. 14): This was one of the best non-conference games of the year in 2012, with UCLA making it's first stamp on the "We're Back" trail in dramatic 34-31 fashion. Now, the issue is if the Bruins can duplicate what happened and become more than a one year wonder. Going into Lincoln and winning would sure do that. For the Huskers it's also about holding up some tradition in the Big Ten of not letting Pac-12 teams win in Big Ten country. The road records between the conferences are pretty similar (although the B1G has gone west more often than the Pac-12 has come east). Nebraska also will put it's defense to the test. If they can pass this one and win at home they can also make a statement that they will likely be a player in the Big Ten this season after winning a division championship last year.
3. Ohio State at Michigan (Nov. 30th): Surprised to see this not at the number one spot? I bet you are. However, as you're about to see there are a lot of variables for this game to even matter outside of it being "The Game" and such. It also could just be the precursor to a rematch of this game a week later. Either equation means this game loses it's national and regional luster on the final weekend of the regular season. That said this game could be a massive game for one side or the other and in that case I'd vault it up to the top, but there are too many reasons and variables along the way to week 13 of the regular season to think this game will actually live up to the hype others are putting on it.
2. Nebraska at Michigan (Nov. 9th): So, about that whole "The Game" not having as much importance as it could.... What if Nebraska takes down Michigan in the Big House a few weeks before? Then that game doesn't matter nearly as much as one would hope. For the Wolverines this is the sandwich game in a three game stretch that will really define their season (at MSU and at Northwestern between this game). For Nebraska this will be just the 2nd road game all season long for them and comes on the heels of hosting Northwestern and the 2nd of a four game brutal stretch of NU, at Michigan, MSU, at Penn State. Needless to say a win here puts whomever it is in the drivers seat in the Legends Division - assuming they both get passed Northwestern of course. Point being this game matters a lot.
1. Wisconsin at Ohio State (Sept. 28): This game in September? All that's on the line is the drivers seat to the Big Ten championship game from the soon to be defunct Leaders Division. No big deal or anything. Add in a night game atmosphere in Columbus and you have the makings of a huge game for the conference and for these two teams looking to prove what happened last season wasn't a fluke. For OSU it's all about proving they can repeat an undefeated season and for UW it's all about proving that the Big Ten championship win wasn't a fluke and that they will be contenders instead of falling into the title like they did last year. Both of these teams return potentially explosive offenses, but it will be the defenses that decide it. Simply put, the winner of this first Big Ten conference matchup holds the keys to Indy in their own hand and the loser is back to the drawing board and needs some help.