Rank It: Is It Football Season Yet?
One of the best things about college football bowl games is the inter-sectional matchups we typically never get to see. Well, it’s only April but the Big Ten features some non-conference games that already have the look and feel of bowl games. So I compiled my top 15 non-conference football games coming our way next fall, the first in a series of occasional off-season “Rank It” posts.
But what fun are rankings if we don’t get some other points of view? So take a look at the upcoming football schedules for all 12 football teams inside and then tell the rest of us which Big Ten non-conference games have you fired up the most. I’m on Twitter and Facebook, too.
1. Michigan vs. Alabama (Arlington, Texas), Sept. 1. Ready or not, Wolverines, here come the Crimson Tide! Playing the defending national champions will be a good litmus test for how far along Brady Hoke’s program is coming off a smashing 11-2 debut capped with a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech. This Titanic matchup will be played in the Titanic home of the Dallas Cowboys. Fitting. If Michigan wins this, it will be stamped as a legit national title contender—just as LSU was after it whipped Oregon in this venue to open 2011. If Michigan loses, there will be no shame. This will be the fourth meeting between these college football icons. The last? The 2000 Orange bowl, when Tom Brady led Michigan to victory over Bama and Shaun Alexander in what many consider to be one of the best bowls–ever.
2. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 22: Last year’s game was epic, a heart-stopping back-and-forth affair that left no one with fingernails. The Wolverines have dominated the series of late, winning three in a row and five of six. But the games have been tight, as Michigan has won each of the last three meetings by four points. The last time the Wolverines dominated the Irish like this was when they opened the series with seven wins in a row from 1887-1908.
3. Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 15. The battle for the Megaphone is one of the most underrated rivalries in the nation. The Spartans are coming off consecutive 11-win seasons. And—get this—the 2012 team may be Mark Dantonio’s best yet. ND thumped MSU, 31-13, last year and has won two of the last three meetings, so the Spartans have revenge on their mind. FYI: ND hasn’t won in East Lansing since 2006.
4. Boise State at Michigan State, Aug. 31. The Spartans lift the lid on a Friday night vs. the Broncos. But know this: Kellen Moore no longer is the Boise State quarterback. How good will the Bronco offense be? And it will face what looks like Mark Dantonio’s best defense yet. Still, Boise excels in these kind of “prove it” games. Ask Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia. As a side note: These teams could meet in the Rose Bowl. How? If the Pac-12 champ plays for the national title and MSU wins the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl would be required to take the top non-automatic qualifying school. And that could be Boise State, which is now in the Mountain West.
5. California at Ohio State, Sept. 15. These teams met in the Rose Bowl after the 1920 season (Cal win) and 1949 season (OSU win). The stakes this time? Not nearly as high. This will be Urban Meyer’s first test vs. a BCS foe after opening vs. Miami (Ohio) and UCF. A sagging Golden Bear program under Jeff Tedford needs a victory like this.
6. Nebraska at UCLA, Sept. 8: New Bruins coach Jim Mora, Jr., will be looking for a signature victory in his debut season in Westwood. Good luck with that vs. a motivated Cornhusker program that will be aiming for a 4-0 start before welcoming Wisconsin to Lincoln. Time for the Blackshirts to show they are Blackshirts vs. a Bruin offense that has struggled. Nebraska won the last meeting, a 49-21 beating on the way to the 1994 national championship.
7. Air Force at Michigan, Sept. 8. Are you ready for the triple option, Michigan? The Wolverines can’t lose focus, coming off that monster Alabama game and looking forward to playing at Notre Dame two weeks later. The teams have met just once, with the Wolverines taking a 24-7 decision in the 1964 opener.
8. Illinois at Arizona State, Sept. 8: The Fighting Illini claimed a 17-13 win over the Sun Devils in Champaign last year on their way to a 6-0 start that had some thinking Rose Bowl. Well, we know how that turned out. The 2011 season proved to be the final run for Illinois coach Ron Zook. Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson suffered a similar fate. Now, it’s Tim Beckman vs. new ASU boss Todd Graham, who is on his third job in three years (Tulsa and Pitt). If Illinois can win, it may be sitting 4-0 with Penn State coming to Champaign.
9. Central Florida at Ohio State, Sept. 8. I know, I know. The Buckeyes typically devour directional schools in the Horseshoe. But Brutus needs to be wary. Yes, the Knights finished 5-7 last year, but George O’Leary has a talented Central Florida program led by a strong defense that’s filled with veterans and could be troublesome for a still-developing Buckeye offense.
10. Penn State at Virginia, Sept. 8: How big is this for the Nittany Lions? A win in Charlottesville could propel Penn State to a 6-0 start as it enters an off week and then treks to Iowa on October 20. That’s the type of momentum the program needs in Bill O’Brien’s maiden voyage. A loss? It could send the season sideways vs. what could be a fragile Penn State program that has lost two of the last three meetings with the Cavaliers, who are rising under Mike London.
11. Wisconsin at Oregon State, Sept. 8: The Beavers got steamrolled, 35-0, last year in Camp Randall Stadium. And, honestly, it wasn’t really that close. But Mike Riley has proven to be one of the better coaches in the nation over the past decade. Riley needs a win (or strong effort) to show he still has “it.” This is one of—if not the—toughest non-con games on a light non-con Badgers’ slate.
12. Boston College at Northwestern, Sept. 15. Does any Big Ten team play a tougher non-conference schedule than the Wildcats, who open at Syracuse, then play host to Vanderbilt and BC? NU opened last year with a 24-17 victory at Boston College, which struggled in 2011 but finished strong.
13. Ohio at Penn State, Sept. 1. This looks like an innocuous season opener. But, it isn’t. In fact, the Bill O’Brien era could begin with a home loss if he and the Nittany Lions aren’t ready. Frank Solich has one of the top programs in the MAC, going an aggregate 27-14 the past three seasons (19-5 in the MAC). He also has momentum, coming off a MAC East title, bowl win and three bowl trips in a row. Conversely, O’Brien is searching for an offense while also trying to maintain everyone’s focus for a program that has myriad off-field issues buzzing about.
14. Iowa State at Iowa, Sept. 8. For all that Kirk Ferentz has done in Iowa City—and it’s a lot–he hasn’t mastered Iowa State. In fact, he is just 6-7 vs. the Cyclones. That has to rankle him. The teams will battle for the newly designed Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Trophy, a bauble that the Hawkeyes won three seasons in a row before the Cyclones claimed a wild 44-41 triumph last year on the way to surprisingly successful season. If Iowa can prevail, it may be 5-0 entering an off week before a big game at Michigan State on October 13.
15. Syracuse at Minnesota, Sept. 22. Remember that zany 35-33 Minnesota comeback win over Syracuse in 1996? Well, it has no bearing on this matchup, but it’s fun to bring up. This is a huge game for a Golden Gopher program looking for some mojo to start the second season of the Jerry Kill era. The Orange are on the rise under Doug Marrone, who also must deal with Northwestern and USC in non-league games. Still, he will get no sympathy from Kill, who is coming off a 3-9 debut.
Others to watch: Northwestern at Syracuse, Sept. 1; Vanderbilt at Northwestern, Sept. 8; Purdue at Notre Dame, Sept. 8; Navy at Penn State, Sept. 15; Temple at Penn State, Sept. 22; Indiana at Navy, Oct. 20.
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, and all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart. Send questions to his weekly mailbag, subscribe to his RSS feed, and check out his video Q&A.