Few times in the past decade have Big Ten teams faced matchups with both teams in the Top 10 of the rankings. Even more rare is the Saturday where three or more Big Ten powers all schedule a legitimate opponent for the same day.
But on Saturday, September 6, 2014, we get both.
Michigan State kicks off the evening with a 6:30 EDT game at Oregon, the highlight of the day as two playoff contenders and Top 10 teams clash. Followed shortly thereafter by Michigan kicking off at Notre Dame at 7:00 EDT. If that weren’t enough, Virginia Tech comes visiting the Buckeyes at 8:00 EDT to cap the evening.
Get your remotes ready Big Ten fans, it’s going to be a wild Saturday evening on the television.
These games take on extra importance in the new College Football Playoff era, where team and conference-wide perception is the new “name of the game.” With the Big Ten struggling in the respect department, it could be now or never for the conference even though the season is only entering Week 2.
That’s right: playoff or bust for the B1G on Saturday night!
Looking over the college football schedule as a whole for this upcoming Saturday, the pickings are slim for high quality opponents against Top-25 competition. Other than the three games listed above, the only other game of note is the mid-afternoon conference opener between ranked Pac-12 teams Stanford and USC.
In other words, as of 6:30 EDT on Saturday night, all eyes will be on the big games in the Big Ten. Thanks in large part to where the games are being played, they will also fill up each of the major Saturday night network slots (FOX, NBC, and ESPN). That high amount of exposure will make it inevitable for the Big Ten to face its perception problems head-on this weekend.
And if you don’t think the Big Ten has perception problems or a narrative building against it, you simply are not paying much attention. Last week the conference went 12-2, which looks good except when you consider that includes a 1-2 mark against fellow Power 5 conference opponents.
Even worse, arguably the biggest game of the weekend (Georgia vs. Clemson also had an argument for such) was one of these two losses, as Wisconsin imploded after taking a 17-point lead to end up losing to SEC power LSU.
The national media took full note of this result, and the fallout was not just limited to the Badgers. Instead, more questions were raised (on twitter, podcasts, and elsewhere) about whether the Big Ten was worthy of a College Football Playoff spot at all, regardless of who the conference champion may be.
Certainly it’s not just Wisconsin’s fault, though the Badgers failed to win any of three straight Rose Bowls earlier this decade. Continually failing to consistently win these types of games in non-conference play and especially in bowls have taken their toll, highlighted by some truly awful statistics at the highest level (0-2 in National Championships in the last decade, 2-8 in last 10 Rose Bowl appearances).
When the two-time league MVP (Braxton Miller) is lost to a season-ending injury before the first games are even played and then one of the conference powers loses in such a disappointing fashion in Week 1, it’s easy to see why the narrative is building against the Big Ten champion, whomever it turns out to be.
So Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State are not just playing for themselves on Saturday. These teams are also playing for the sakes of teams like Iowa and Nebraska, which could be left on the outside of the College Football Playoff with a disaster performance in Week 2.
That’s right Hawkeye fans and Cornhusker crazies: get ready to cheer on the East Division like never before if you want either of your teams to have a legitimate shot at breaking into the inaugural playoff.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these games and assess the matchups and why each will be viewed as important for evaluating conference strength on Saturday (full previews of these three games and others will run on this site on Friday!):
1. Michigan State at Oregon – Only twice in the past five years has Oregon faced a top Big Ten team, both times in the Rose Bowl (winning the 1/1/2012 game against Wisconsin and losing the 1/1/2010 game against Ohio State). Oregon brings a fast-paced offense led by dynamic quarterbacks like Marcus Mariotta that are highly difficult to stop, and only teams like that 2009 Ohio State squad and Stanford have been able to consistently slow the Ducks down. Michigan State may have reloaded half of the defensive personnel from 2013, but this defense is still built on the same principles that coaches like Jim Tressel and David Shaw have used to conquer the Ducks. Thus, even as a 12-point underdog, the Spartans have the right make-up to compete with the Ducks at tough Autzen Stadium.
Indeed, the large spread makes this task even more impressive should MSU pull out a victory. As the only likely non-conference game between two Top-10 foes this regular season (at least until rivalry weekend in November), this will be the crown jewel of any game in the resume of any playoff contender this season. This is also another chance to prove the Big Ten is just as good as the Pac-12 on the highest levels, which is important as the Pac-12 perception is skyrocketing towards SEC status.
2. Michigan at Notre Dame – Part of the mystique surrounding this game is the fact that this rivalry is on hold after this season, likely for a long time. Michigan has dominated the series of late, winning 4 of the last 5 despite having serious program struggles since Lloyd Carr retired. Plus, with Notre Dame missing Michigan State on the schedule this season, this is the only game the Irish have against the top level of the Big Ten in 2014 (sorry Northwestern, the Cal game drops the Cats out of this conversation).
Notre Dame has Everett Golson back, the key ingredient to the national championship appearance two seasons ago. Thus, a win over an Irish team led by Golson on Notre Dame’s home field (ND favored by 4) will likely look very good as the season goes along and Notre Dame likely wins many games. A Notre Dame win here likely means a 3-0 sweep of the three home games against the Big Ten in 2014, which looks incredibly bad for the conference as a whole.
3. Virginia Tech at Ohio State – Braxton Miller can be thanked for making this game a lot more interesting. Ohio State is favored by 11, but there are a ton of questions for a rebuilt offensive line and freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett to answer this season. Virginia Tech generally has a solid to great defense, and expect a lot of pressure to be applied to Barrett in this one. This will be a much better indicator as to whether Ohio State will be fine in 2014, as Navy provided a unique attack in Week 1 unlike what most teams will throw at the Buckeyes.
This is also the last truly notable opponent for Ohio State until the November trip to East Lansing. Thus, what happens in this game is likely to linger on how the Buckeyes are ranked and perceived well into when the committee starts providing their rankings in late October. Virginia Tech is not a lock for a good record like ND and Oregon seem to be, but the Hokies are due for a bounce back into the upper echelon of the ACC, which would make this win look all the more important when done without Miller’s help because it would show the depth of talent OSU and the Big Ten have.
Other than last weekend’s game between Wisconsin and LSU, the Big Ten does not appear to have any other truly marquee non-conference games outside this weekend. The best left on the schedule include the likes of Minnesota at TCU, Miami at Nebraska, and Northwestern at Notre Dame. None of which are likely to carry the same weight as the triple-pack of simultaneous games in the spotlight this weekend.
The best-case scenario would be for the Big Ten to finally have a banner day at the top, taking down all three of these high profile games (while also not having the rest of the conference “crap the bed” against inferior competition).
A 3-0 record would immediately put the brakes on the national narrative that the Big Ten cannot compete with the big boys in the Power 5 conferences, taking away whatever stain was made by Wisconsin last weekend. Instead, national writers and podcasters may actually begin praising the Big Ten for scheduling tough/respectably and winning those contests at the highest level. Even if the conference perception cannot truly be changed except over multiple seasons and bowl campaigns, at least the overly negative stories and comments would probably stop relative to the Big Ten conference.
If nothing else, Michigan State would certainly be penciled into one of the four playoff spots until the Spartans lose (and if that loss comes to an undefeated Nebraska, Michigan, or OSU, then that team may jump right into the vacated spot). The Spartans could probably even make the playoff hypothetically at 11-1, assuming that the road win at Oregon is better than anything any other one-loss team could show the committee in December.
The worst-case scenario would be 0-3, as the favorites win over the Michigan schools and OSU gets upset at home. Sprinkle in a couple bad losses for the remainder of the conference, and this could rival the worst days the conference has seen in recent memory (0-5 on New Year’s Day at end of 2011 season, 6-6 overall record in Week 2 of the 2012 season).
At this point, the national pundits would all but write off the entire Big Ten, noting that none of the name brands and recent BCS Bowl contenders took care of business in non-conference play. Iowa and Nebraska would be the only reasonable contenders left for the playoff that could go undefeated, and every win against the supposed top tier in conference play would not be viewed as favorably since Wisconsin, MSU, Michigan, and OSU would all come into the game with the previous loss(es).
If the conference champion ends up with one loss, a very likely scenario, then the relative strength of the Big Ten compared to the other conferences that one-loss playoff contenders emerge from will be critical. 0-4 in the biggest games of the season would be thrown in the face of the committee every time the Big Ten team is discussed, even should that team be Nebraska or Iowa. The narrative would simply be too much to overcome, as a second SEC or Pac-12 team would be far more likely to get in if this worst-case scenario occurs.
The reality will probably end up somewhere between these two extremes (1-2 or 2-1), and the playoff hopes of the Big Ten will not yet be decided in Week 2.
However, make no mistake about it. This Saturday night brings about a rare opportunity for a conference with a bad perception to gain the inside track to at least one playoff berth. A bad performance and 2014 could be a bust for national title hopes once again, just like every season since 2007.
In view of that, we should all be united just this once in cheering: Go Green, Go White! Go Blue! Go Bucks!
And yes, I understand that most of you just threw up a little. Trust me, it’s much better than having to listen to how bad this conference is for the rest of the season and then being left out of the best thing to happen in college football since the dawn of the BCS.
Until next week, let’s hope for some broken trends and a great day for the Big Ten this weekend.