The air is electric around here. Big Ten football is less than a week away and the crew at Off Tackle Empire couldn't be more excited. It's a new year. A fresh slate. Everyone is 0-0.* Ohio State is off the ankle bracelet and set to make their run for Pasadena. Michigan, Nebraska, or Wisconsin look to play spoiler to the Buckeyes...but that's conference talk.
If Ohio State is to make a run at the BCS National Championship and Michigan, Nebraska, or Wisconsin want to make a BCS game they'll have to win their non-conference games. With that being said...
/looks over the Big Ten's non-conference schedule
Well then. We should just be honest with ourselves and admit that the Big Ten non-conference schedule is downright hilarious. It's undisputed that the only "elite" team on the entire list of opponents is Notre Dame. Teams like UCLA, Northern Illinois, Cincinnati and San Jose State had great if not excellent years but c'mon...it's Jim Mora, two MAC teams (Cincinnati is in the MAC, right?) and SAN JOSE STATE. What are we doing here?
Regardless, we can't change who we play. I sent a Google Document out to the writers here at OTE and asked them to rank the best Big Ten non-conference games. I didn't specify criteria. They could've received the ranking based upon the importance, competitiveness or simple entertainment value. Using faulty math I averaged out a top ten and now present it to you here.
10. Purdue vs. Notre Dame (September 14th, ABC/ESPN, 7:00PM CT)
The Fighting Irish get their Big Ten games out of the way early by playing three teams in three weeks. First, they travel to Ann Arbor and take on the Wolverines under the lights. A week later they jump on the bus and take on Purdue in West Lafayette. They conclude their Big Ten schedule with a home stand against Michigan State.
On paper, Purdue shouldn't win this game. They haven't defeated the Fighting Irish since 2007. They have a brand new head coach in Darrell Hazel. Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush are gone. Notre Dame is coming off a BCS National Championship. Purdue is coming off a Heart of Dallas Bowl. Worst of all: the Boilermakers could enter this game at a disappointing 1-1. Purdue is 0-5 over the past five seasons in non-conference road games and faces Cincinnati in week one.
If there's one thing the Boilermakers have going for them it's Notre Dame's schedule. The Irish don't catch any breaks by taking on Michigan at night on a national stage; A Michigan team that has gone 5-2 in their past seven meetings and seeking revenge for the debacle that was the 13-6 snoozefest last year. In week four the Irish take on the Michigan State Spartans at home and continue a series that up until two seasons ago was extremely competitive. The Spartans are considered by some to be a dark horse in the Big Ten and won't lay down like last season.
Sandwiched in between those two key matchups is Purdue. This is your classic trap game. The Irish could either be riding an emotional high coming off a big win at Michigan or sulk into West Lafayette looking ahead to Michigan State. Nothing will come easy for the Boilermakers this season but Hazel could start his tenure off right by sneaking one past the Irish.
9. Illinois vs. Cincinnati (September 7th, ESPN2/ESPNU, 11:00AM CT)
Of the innumerable bad things we could say about the Illini...at least they've got a coach and a conference. The death of the Big East brought forth something known as the American Athletic Conference. A name that is incredibly generic and has an acronym that is sure to be confused with the ACC. They also lost their head coach to Tennessee and have surely hired some nobody to pick up the pieces that Butch Jones left behind.
Wait, what? The American Athletic Conference includes such powerhosues as UConn, Houston, Memphis, SMU, USF, Temple and UCF? They hired Tommy Tuberville? So not only are they going to have another 10 win season but Tuberville escaped the purgatory of Lubbock and took over a pass happy team? Things are looking up for the Bearcats.
Then there's Illinois. After going 2-10, winless in conference and ranking last in nearly every offensive statistic of importance in the Big Ten, Tim Beckman is supposedly on the "hot seat" after only one season. In an attempt to shake things up Beckman hired former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator. Fortunately for Cubit, the Illini return
Juice Williams Nate Scheelhaase...but that's about it. There are only four total starters returning on offense. On the other side of the ball the Illini lost a few players to the NFL Draft and are bringing three new starters on the secondary. This may be the definition of a "rebuild."
There's not a lot of history between Cincinnati and Illinois or Beckman and Tuberville. The Illini have only played the Bearcats once, losing 49-36 at Cincinnati back in 2009. The teams meet in week two after Illinois (hopefully) dispatches Southern Illinois and Cincy takes on the Boilermakers at home. The outcome of Cincy's game should set the tone for week two. If Cincy manages to beat Purdue at home they'll roll into Champaign with a head full of steam. If they lose, Illinois will have the jump on them. It's as simple as that. Beckman needs to at least show that his team is improving in his second year and the best way to do that is beat quality teams at home. If he doesn't...he'll be in the Penn State parking lot looking for a new job.
8. Iowa vs. Northern Illinois (August 31st, BTN, 2:30PM CT)
Last year's matchup at Soldier Field was supposed to be a tune-up for the Hawkeyes before taking on Iowa State at Kinnick. It wasn't. I was there. It was awful. NIU's quarterback, Jordan Lynch was your typical Persa, running all over the field and giving the Hawkeyes fits. Iowa's offense was laughable. For a while it looked like Iowa was about to be upset by what we thought was a middling MAC team. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes pulled it off and NIU went on their way...to win 12 straight games and appear in the Orange Bowl.
Things are polar opposites for the Huskies and Hawkeyes in 2013. NIU is coming off arguably their greatest season in school history. Iowa is coming off one of Kirk Ferentz's worst. Iowa needs a quarterback and an offense. NIU returns both a quarterback and an offense. Iowa is expected to finish in the cellar of their conference. NIU is expected to compete for a championship. These appear to be two programs headed in two different directions.
That's why it's so important for Iowa to win this game. If Kirk Ferentz wants to avoid 2013 being a tire fire the Hawkeyes need to beat a MAC team at home. Win, and start the non-con off right. Lose, and the rumblings of "OMG BUY HIM OUT" despite it being mathematically impossible will resurface for the second straight season.
7. Iowa @ Iowa State (September 14th, Fox Sports 1, 5:00PM CT)
Everything I just said? Yeah, that all over again. Iowa can't be taken seriously in the conference if they can't even be taken seriously in their own state. After five straight losses it looked like Ferentz had finally figured the Cyclones out, going 6-2 from 2003-2010. But he's fallen into his old ways. First, the Hawkeyes lost a 3OT "thriller" to the Cyclones at Jack Trice in 2011. Last year they followed it up by losing one of the most unwatchable football games 9-6 at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa State hadn't won since something something Seneca Wallace something awesome OMG Seneca Wallace.
NIU is probably a better football team than Iowa State. There, I said it. But Iowa plays Iowa State on the road and Ferentz has only won twice at Jack Trice. Want a worse stat? Since Ferentz started coaching the Hawkeyes have only covered the spread three times against ISU. Like Iowa, the Cyclones are supposed to finish at the bottom of their conference and miss a bowl game. Major media outlets have been saying that for years despite ISU constantly exceeding expectations and making the postseason. Paul Rhoads uses that disrespect as motivation; and why wouldn't he?
ISU has questions at wide receiver, defensive line and linebacker. Iowa can exploit a few of those matchups but has its own weaknesses at quarterback, defensive line and in the secondary. In short: this game will likely be a pick'em. Ferentz may be stoic, emotionless and stubborn but he's not blind. He knows that another loss to ISU will cause restlessness in Iowa City. Restlessness that will haunt him if Iowa tanks in November. Hell, it will haunt him even if Iowa doesn't struggle in conference play. This game is important for Iowa's bowl chances, the fan psyche and Ferentz's eroding support in the stands. Iowa vs. Iowa State may not be the most important game of the season, but it will give us an idea of how Iowa's season is going to play out.**
6. Ohio State @ California (September 14th, Fox, 6:00PM CT)
Considering Cal went 3-9 last year and fired Jeff Tedford you might get the impression that there isn't much to this Big Ten v. Pac-12 matchup. To add, new head coach Sonny Dykes is implementing the spread offense, switching to a 4-3 and looking for a quarterback. Also: Ohio State is set to make a run at the BCS Championship and is loaded across the board. Then again, that sounds a lot like last year (minus the run at the BCS Championship). A terrible Cal team went blow for blow with Buckeyes at the Shoe as a 16.5 underdog, eventually losing 35-28. Playing one of the best teams in the nation is motivation for any squad, even those in the rebuilding process. Part of being a BCS contender is taking care of business on the road and that's exactly what Ohio State needs to do against California.
Part II will drop later this week.
*Unless Illinois has already found out a way to lose a game...which is always possible.
**Unless you're talking about 2002, when it really didn't matter.