(This is the first of what is planned to be a weekly column covering the biggest stories of Big Ten football, please provide feedback in the comments below and enjoy!)
The long offseason finally ends tonight, as Rutgers and Minnesota kick off the 2014 season alongside the big game of opening night, South Carolina vs. Texas A&M. This season brings a bevy of changes, including the addition of two teams Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten Conference as well as a 4-team College Football Playoff.
While there will be plenty of time to discuss the short- and long-term effects of having the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights join the B1G, the more important and pressing topic is correcting the perception problem in this conference.
Face it: the playoff is exciting for the whole country, but it will only be a big hit in Big Ten country if one of our own makes the big show.
No Big Ten team has played for a National Championship since 2007, and the only BCS Championship the conference owns is Ohio State’s 2002 title. That drought, combined with poor performances in non-conference play and bowl games over the past few seasons, have led public perception to be that the Big Ten is one of the weakest (if not the weakest) major conference.
And simple math tells us perception will be key with 13 committee members deciding which teams belong in the new 4-team playoff at the end of the season. With five major conferences fighting for four spots, someone will be left out and it could very well be the Big Ten. The SEC, Pac-12, and to a lesser extent the Big 12 all have more positive perception overall at this point, and the ACC has Florida State, which will get the benefit of the doubt after winning the championship in 2013.
How can the Big Ten solve this potential problem? Other than having an undefeated conference champion (which never happened in the Legends and Leaders era), the best way to ensure a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff is to win the important non-conference games while avoiding the potential landmines during that same phase of the season.
So which games fit into these two categories? Let’s take a look first at the games most critical to improving perception of the Big Ten as a whole immediately, and then take a look at the games that would be most costly to lose.
Games to Best Improve Big Ten Perception
Wisconsin vs. LSU, Aug. 30 – Undoubtedly one of the biggest games of opening weekend will be this neutral-site battle in Houston. LSU has made a habit of winning these big opening-weekend games over the past four seasons, but this could be the year to take advantage of inexperience on Les Miles’ team. Wisconsin must replace much of its defensive front, but LSU will be breaking in a young new quarterback, which negates the usual problems this would cause.
LSU is considered one of the top-tier teams in the SEC, which makes this a huge potential feather in the conference cap if the Badgers win. With SEC-Big Ten games outside bowl season being very rare (there are only two scheduled this season), every single win counts against the supposed best competition in the country.
Michigan State @ Oregon, Sept. 6 – Anytime a defending Rose Bowl champion heads west to play a Pac-12 team the following season, it becomes a big deal for both conferences. Considering Oregon is starting the season in line to be a playoff participant, winning on the road at Autzen Stadium carries a nearly immeasurable amount of weight for conference perception. The Spartans may not need this win to make the playoff (12-1 with a single loss here is a great resume), but the conference could use the bump from knocking off a playoff favorite in the Pac-12.
Virginia Tech @ Ohio State, Sept. 6 – When Braxton Miller went out with injury for the season, this game immediately became much more intriguing. It appears that the tough Hokies defense will be back for Frank Beamer’s squad this season, and Ohio State will still be figuring out how to run the offense with J.T. Barrett and the new play makers in week 2. Virginia Tech should be one of the top teams in the ACC and perhaps the biggest challenge to Florida State, so a win here would confirm that Ohio State and the conference is plenty deep, even without the conference MVP of the last two seasons.
Michigan @ Notre Dame, Sept. 6 – Make no mistake about it: the second weekend of the season is huge for potential perception gains in Big Ten country. This will be the final year of the Notre Dame conundrum (with three teams playing the Fighting Irish, a Big Ten sweep against Notre Dame lessens the impact of the wins for all, but losing to Notre Dame can wreck a season as well just like Michigan State in 2013). Michigan needs an early statement win to prove it is back among the contenders in the Big Ten and nationally, and a win in the final scheduled game of this great series would be a big first step towards those goals. This is the most important of the games against Notre Dame and it comes early enough to make a lasting impact.
Illinois @ Washington, Sept. 13 – Now we come to the more speculative games on this list, but still games that have huge upside for conference perception if upsets occur. Illinois is not considered to be a serious contender for the Big Ten conference, but Washington has been a solid team just behind Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North. The Huskies also appear to be on the upswing with Chris Petersen coming in from Boise State this year, and that helps this become a good upset possibility. A road win at another difficult Pac-12 venue would go a long way to establishing that the Big Ten is just as deserving as the western schools for a shot in the playoff, when the end of the season is reached.
Minnesota @ TCU, Sept. 13 – On the same weekend that the Illini head west, Minnesota goes down south to take on the Horned Frogs. Although TCU took a slight step back in 2013, this is the first time since TCU left the Mountain West that the team has a lot of quality experience coming back. TCU could be headed for 10 wins, which means a win for Minnesota would prove that the middle of the Big Ten is comparable or better than the mid-to-upper tier of the Big 12. Another good opportunity in Texas for the Big Ten this month.
Indiana @ Missouri, Sept. 20 – Missouri found all the right pieces to make a run at the SEC championship last season, coming just short of a likely appearance in the final BCS Championship. The Tigers are set to step back in the SEC East in 2014, but early on this will still look like a huge road win against what was one of the SEC’s best last season. Even if Indiana and Missouri are both just middle of the road teams in their respective conferences, a win here provides another positive comparison point against the supposed best conference in college football. Thus, even if Wisconsin can’t manage a win opening weekend, a split of the two games against the SEC would be a net positive for the conference come playoff debate time.
Trap Games that could Cost Big Ten
Maryland @ USF, Sept. 6 – Not surprisingly, the opening weekend does not involve any big trap games because most major conference teams open with a softball or a toss-up big inter-sectional game. Maryland could be caught in week 2 looking forward to rivalries against West Virginia and Syracuse, and first road games are always tricky. The Bulls are not a likely contender even in the American Athletic Conference, which would make a loss here look worse as the season goes on. Maryland probably does not lose this game, but a big perception hit for the Terrapins’ new conference would occur with a loss.
Northern Illinois @ Northwestern, Sept. 6 – This is not the same Huskies team without Jordan Lynch, but NIU is still one of the most dangerous teams in the non power-5 conferences. Barring an upset at home against Toledo late in the year, Northern Illinois will be playing for a MAC title again. Losing to that caliber of team might not be terrible in the abstract, but any high profile loss at home to a MAC team will shoot huge holes in the Big Ten’s reputation. Northwestern is considered to be a big bounceback contender even without Venric Mark, so a loss here could damage more than just the Wildcats.
Indiana @ Bowling Green, Sept. 13 – Speaking of dangerous games against top-tier MAC teams, the other competitor in the MAC Championship last year was BGSU, and the Falcons host Indiana in week 3. Kevin Wilson finally has a roster loaded with his guys and a ton of experience should help the defense be better, but that may still not be enough to avoid a shootout loss in the plains of northwest Ohio. If that occurs, just like with the previous game, Big Ten critics will lob grenades through the already-tattered perception of this conference.
Utah @ Michigan, Sept. 20 – The Wolverines are supposed to be the better team in this matchup, but that may not be for certain until after the Notre Dame game discussed above. Still, defending the home turf against Pac-12 teams has sometimes been a problem for top Big Ten schools. An upset here to a middling Utah team from the Pac-12 could be devastating when considering the impact of wins for and against Michigan during Big Ten play later in the season.
Iowa @ Pittsburgh, Sept. 20 – The Hawkeyes have had to hear how easy the first 10 games on the schedule are for months now, but this is one big trap game in the road opener right before Big Ten play. Coming off an emotional battle against rival Iowa State the week before, a game at Pittsburgh is no automatic win for a sometimes inconsistent Iowa squad. Assuming Iowa becomes the Big Ten championship contender everyone pegs them to be, the Hawkeyes cannot afford to be the top Big Ten team that lost to a mid-pack ACC team. There’s real danger in this road trip.
Miami @ Nebraska, Sept. 20 – A similar situation plays out in Lincoln the same night as Iowa heads to Pittsburgh. Nebraska has thrown up clunker performances in the non-conference schedule each of the last two seasons (losses to UCLA), and Miami has enough talent to take advantage if more lapses occur. Of course, Miami just named a true freshman as starting quarterback, so there is no reason Nebraska should let this game get away at home. If the worst comes to pass, this will be more proof that the Big Ten is falling behind the ACC and the other major conferences.
Cincinnati @ Ohio State, Sept. 27 – If you remember how porous the Buckeye pass defense was at the end of 2013, seeing a wide-open attack led by QB Gunner Kiel (high quality Notre Dame transfer) and Tommy Tuberville on the opposite sideline is highly troubling. Ohio State has not won convincingly against this best of the in-state competition in the last decade, so the Bearcats are hungry for a huge upset here. Even with the Bearcats being one of the best teams in the American Athletic Conference, a loss to a non-power-5 conference team at home would verify doubts about the depth of the Big Ten Conference.
Trying to put this in numerical perspective, there are at least seven big opportunities to add to the perception of the conference and seven opportunities to confirm the doubts many have raised about the Big Ten. Considering that the Big Ten will not be favored in many of the first list of games above, getting four or five victories in those seven games would make a splash overall that cannot be ignored by the national media and the playoff committee.
That being said, losing more than one of the seven games in the second list would likely undo whatever positive momentum those wins could produce. Thus, it is paramount to win all or nearly all of those trap games against seemingly lesser competition, while stealing a few big wins will perfect the conference resume for inclusion in the 2014 College Football Playoff.
Are there any other games you think are critical to the Big Ten’s playoff chances? Speak up in the comments if so!
Big Ten Rooting Interests, Week 1
One of the regular features in this column for 2014 will be a look at what games are most important to have go right for the future hopes of a Big Ten appearance in the College Football Playoff. Some weeks will merit more explanation than others, but in view of the detailed discussion above, the description of rooting interests will be short this week.
Here’s a list of the important items to root for in Week 1, for the sake of the B1G:
- No losses to FCS Competition – the conference cannot afford more perception hits, even if it comes from the lower tier of the Big Ten.
- Steal at least one of the two toss-up neutral-site games (Wisconsin vs. LSU, and Penn State vs. UCF) – Cheering for the Nittany Lions and/or Badgers might not be in your nature, but it will help the conference this week in a big way.
- Good Starts for New Members (Rutgers @ Washington State, and James Madison @ Maryland) – There will be increased focus on the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights this season, and it would be nice to avoid embarrassing performances from either in non-conference play. Rutgers is more at risk here, but a close loss is likely OK for the Big Ten.
Dave’s Projected Big Ten Standings
Finally, the Big Ten OT is and has been bringing you a series of schedule analysis articles and predictions over the two weeks leading up to kickoff (written by site founder Andy Coppens). Just so he isn’t the only writer stepping out on a limb to end up being horrendously wrong, here are my projections for the Big Ten 2014 football season (tied teams are listed in order by tiebreaker, so the head-to-head matchup):
- Michigan State: 7-1, 10-2
- Ohio State: 7-1, 11-1
- Michigan: 6-2, 10-2
- Indiana: 4-4, 7-5
- Penn State: 3-5, 6-6
- Maryland: 3-5, 7-5
- Rutgers: 0-8, 2-10
- Iowa: 7-1, 11-1
- Wisconsin: 7-1, 10-2
- Nebraska: 4-4, 7-5
- Northwestern: 3-5, 6-6
- Minnesota: 2-6, 5-7
- Purdue: 2-6, 4-8
- Illinois: 1-7, 4-8
Big Ten Championship: Michigan State over Iowa
Now go prove me wrong, gentlemen.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out our game previews and game recaps around the upcoming weekend, and come back next week for more discussions of the biggest topics in the Big Ten. Enjoy the football weekend.