The balance of power in the Big Ten this year seems to be as pointed towards the Eastern division as ever. Ohio State starts the year with the swagger of being the only team to ever be voted the unanimous pre-season AP No. 1 team.
Michigan State starts the year with a Heisman contender at quarterback in Connor Cook and a top ten ranking. Penn State and Michigan look to be surprise contenders at a time when their programs are seemingly finding stability after years of on-and-off-the-field turmoil.
Most followers of Big Ten football would tell you that Ohio State will be representing the East division in Indianapolis this December, but, on the off chance they slip up, Michigan State will rightfully take the Eastern division flag to Lucas Oil Stadium to battle against a lesser foe.
The question then falls to who will represent the less mapped out wild west. The West division has a rather different feel than the top heavy East. The West is plagued with uncertainty and contains two or three teams that could be surprise College Football Playoff contenders but are just as likely to play for Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl as Illinois did last December. Wisconsin and Nebraska immediately jump to mind when describing these polar opposite fates. Both of these traditional powers are coming into 2015 losing Heisman contenders at half-back, in Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, respectively. Both of these teams have new men at the helm, in Wisconsin's new head coach Paul Chryst, and Nebraska's new shot caller from the great Pacific Northwest, Mike Riley.
Wisconsin starts the year with sleeping giant Alabama in the traditional sacrificial offering to the SEC in Dallas. As of Aug. 27, Alabama was a 12.5-point favorite to win yet another opener at Jerry's World in Dallas, but Wisconsin is coming off a big Outback Bowl win over SEC power Auburn in January. Nebraska starts their year off with some legitimate competition, as well, hosting dark horse Heisman contender Taysom Hill and his BYU Cougars. Judging by these two ambitious week one match ups for the Western division's most promising representatives, we should be able to get a fairly good take on their respective improvements and outlooks after their heavyweight clashes in week one.
But there is one more contender that many are excluding from predictions on the western side of the conference: Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota, led by Jerry Kill of Dilly Bar fame. The same Minnesota that took eventual College Football Playoff Champions Ohio State to the brink last November in a cliche Minnesota snowstorm.
Minnesota draws interest because they play such a 'go big or go home' schedule in 2015. The Gophers open their season with perhaps the most anticipated game to ever be played in TCF Bank Stadium. The TCU Horned Frogs will bring their massive chip on their shoulder to visit Minneapolis in week one for a Thursday night primetime showdown. This game should be a pretty good predictor of what kind of a team the Gophers will be in 2015. The game serves as the ultimate sink-or-swim approach for a team that is offensively challenged. Having lost star rusher David Cobb, Minnesota will find out if sophomore Berkley Edwards and senior Rodrick Williams are prepared to fill Cobb's shoes in 2015. Minnesota brings experience to the field in 2015, returning six offensive starters and seven for the defense.
MInnesota's schedule is filled with potential primetime matchups with heavyweights. They host Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which plays favorably to their western division chances, but they also have to visit Ohio State and Iowa in primetime on Nov. 7 and 14th, respectively. Most people see the threat of visiting the Horseshoe at night in November, but Iowa? Let's remember that Minnesota took a 6-1 record to Illinois last October and found a way to lose to a horrible Illini team led by recently fired Tim Beckman. Minnesota's program is still in the phase of unexplainable losses to bad teams, and this is going to be the worry leading into 2015.
However, if Kill can make sure his troops take care of business in games that they should be heavily favored to win, Minnesota has a uniquely favorable schedule featuring plenty of chances to beat the league's—and nation's—premier teams.
So which five games will most help the Big Ten sort out who will represent the powerful East and Tumultuous West in Indianapolis this December? I have ranked them in order of which will most likely influence this outcome:
1.) Michigan State @ Ohio State: Nov. 21, 2015 - Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
I think this game has been circled on most fans' calendars for most of the off-season as the premier matchup in the Big Ten this fall. Both teams should have no more than one loss—or, more likely, no losses—entering week 11 in Columbus.
The starting time for this game has yet to be announced, but the chances are good that it will be an 8 p.m. Saturday Night Football special on ABC/ESPN, with a visit from ESPN's College Gameday included. Assuming that Michigan State can take care of a reloading Oregon team in East Lansing during Week 2, and Ohio State can survive a crippled trip to the backroads of Blacksburg in Week 1, there is very little to suggest that this will not be a matchup of two top-5 unbeaten giants. This matchup could also feature a couple favorites for the Heisman trophy in Connor Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, and J.T. Barrett, only adding to the hype and pressure of this already colossal meeting. If that is the case, this game will serve as the de facto Big Ten East championship, making it the most influential game en route to Indianapolis of them all.
2) Wisconsin @ Nebraska: Oct. 10, 2015 - Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Nebraska
This matchup in Lincoln is intriguing not only because it features the two favorites in the West, but also because it happens so early in the season. Therefore, it should help shape the wild west's outlook from the get-go. This game may not get as much hype as it deserves because of the likely cumulative number of losses between the two teams just five weeks into the season.
Assuming oddsmakers are right, I wouldn't be surprised to see Nebraska with one or two losses through the first five weeks, leaving them at 3-2 when this game takes place. A visit from Taysom Hill's BYU and a trip to Coral Gables to get part of Al Golden's last stand may very well leave Riley's Nebraska team with two losses. Wisconsin, on the other hand, should be at the worst 4-1 when this game takes place, with their lone loss being in week 1 against the Crimson Tide. The national media may forget about this matchup between likely 3-2 and 4-1 Big Ten teams, but the importance of this early Big Ten matchup cannot be overlooked when thinking about who will represent the West in December.
3) Nebraska @ Minnesota: Oct. 17, 2015 - TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota
This game could be incredibly influential if the right things happen early on in the season. It could mean almost nothing if Nebraska and Minnesota lay eggs early on. In shaping the West, this game will be Minnesota's first major Big Ten test after a tough non-conference schedule featuring a visit from College Football Playoff favorite TCU and a trip to Colorado State.
Minnesota is fortunate to host their two most important western division matches this fall, and this meeting with Nebraska on the 17th will serve as the first of those two. Minnesota beat Nebraska last year in Lincoln on their way to a much improved season, but both of these teams may be offensively incapable after losing their two star rushers in Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb. I like Minnesota at home, in a likely primetime matchup, especially as the seasons change in the great north. Be ye warned, Cornhuskers; winter is coming.
4) Michigan State @ Nebraska: Nov. 7, 2015 - Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Nebraska
This game may mean very little for Nebraska at this point if they play poorly to start the year, but for Michigan State, this is the best chance for a slip-up between Oregon and Ohio State.
Primetime at Memorial Stadium can be a pretty hostile environment, and Michigan State will have very little legitimate road testing before this matchup. The Spartans trek to Piscataway, NJ, on Oct. 10 for a primetime meeting with a lackluster Rutgers team, and, although this should be good primetime practice, the Scarlet Knights and their High Point Solutions Stadium are hardly similar to Nebraska in Lincoln. Dantonio's squad then travels east to arch rival Michigan on Oct. 17, and there is very little reason to believe that this likely 3:30 matchup will be much of a test, either, even though it will be the definition of a hostile environment.
This leaves Nebraska as their most prominent test before the much anticipated trip to Columbus in late November. If the Spartans have any hope of sneaking into the College Football Playoff without beating Ohio State in Columbus, they must take care of business Nov. 7 in Lincoln.
5) Wisconsin @ Minnesota: Nov. 28, 2015 - TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota
The last week of the regular season often brings about unusual results. Wisconsin, the favorite to take the West's crown, will visit Minnesota in this final Big Ten matchup of the 2015 regular season, and my guess is that the winner of this game will be heading to Indianapolis the next week to face the East's champion.
This game could have a similar feeling to last year's matchup in Madison, when Wisconsin ran wild and solidified themselves as the West's best team, representative, and likely slayer of Ohio State (though we all remember how that went for the Badgers). The difference is that, this year, Wisconsin will be on the road, and Melvin Gordon will be watching from his home in San Diego. Corey Clement's Wisconsin Badgers will likely be coming off five easy wins to lesser Big Ten opponents as they enter week 12 with everything to play for. Minnesota, on the other hand, will be coming off the heart of their schedule, having played in primetime in three of the past five weeks and against teams such as Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, and Nebraska.
I can see Minnesota being a bit deflated and demoralized coming into this week 12 meeting with Wisconsin, but the X-Factor of Paul Bunyan's Axe being at stake should leave this game with plenty of energy from both sides.