We all remember the satisfaction we felt when it became clear that Michigan State would in fact complete their three score fourth quarter come back to win the 2014 Goodyear Cotton Bowl over Baylor. Or perhaps the feeling of hope we all felt as Wisconsin kicked an overtime field goal to take down the mighty Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl earlier that day. And neither of these hold candles to the euphoria we all experienced as Ohio State took down Goliath in the Super Dome and then claimed the College Football Playoff belt in Dallas.
No matter where you were, you felt the hairs stand up on the back of your neck during those moments. Whether you were watching in a shoddy hotel bar in downtown New Orleans, or on your throne-like fan chair in the great Midwest, that unfamiliar stimulus was the Big Ten reasserting itself nationally, on the biggest stages, in unison.
The 2014 bowl season provided Big Ten fans with a new identity. No longer were we the fans of programs that couldn’t compete away from the slow and uncompetitive Midwest. With a 6-5 bowl record, two New Year’s Day bowl wins, and the first College Football Playoff Trophy (Thanks Urban) all captured by the Big Ten, perceptions of the conference had to change.
The 2015 college football season kicks off tomorrow, and the Big Ten conference is at a significant crossroads. On one side, elevated from the other, a road leads to significance, stability, and perhaps most important of all, a national perception of unsurpassed excellence once again. On the lower road perpendicular, a darker path leads to embarrassment, talk of a fluke bowl season, and national depreciation for the athletic conference that ran the whole show not so long ago. There exists seven early season games which hold great weight in this Big Ten journey towards national prominence once again. Each of these seven Big Ten teams has an opportunity to help rebrand Big Ten football, one game at a time.
On Thursday night, in two cities known for their scenic lakes and record snowfalls, the crusade towards the higher path will begin for two representatives of the Big Ten, Michigan and Minnesota.
Michigan wields a new sense of self-importance with Mr. Harbaugh at the helm, but at the end of the day, the personnel between the hashes will have to be the difference they wish to see. Jake Rudock is most likely going to take the field on Thursday evening as Michigan’s starting quarterback. A transfer from Iowa, Rudock has been praised all offseason by Harbaugh and seems likely to get the start over Shane Morris. Another new face for the maize and blue will be the highly touted Jabrill Peppers who has battled injuries for much of his young collegiate career. Peppers will look to finally make the impact that many believed he would as a five star recruit out of high school.
Utah comes off of a 9-4 2014 season, which included a 26-10 domination of essentially the same Michigan team in Ann Arbor last September. With strong wins over ranked teams such as the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins last fall, the Utes look to continue their own momentum after ending the season with a decisive victory over Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Utah has high expectations this year as members of perhaps the toughest division of any conference in the country, the PAC-12 South. With visits to Eugene, Los Angeles, and Tucson on the calendar, the Utes cannot afford to lay an egg against an empirically inferior foe in Michigan.
Michigan is a 5.5-point underdog as of Aug. 31, but few are counting Harbaugh’s squad out. Michigan will have to force turnovers to win this one, and most importantly not get behind early. The impact of Michigan taking a win home from Salt Lake City would be of immense importance to the Big Ten, and would certainly put the rest of Michigan’s opponents on red alert.
In a city thousands of miles northeast of Salt Lake City, Thursday night’s second Big Ten member will suit up for a telling non conference matchup with the nation’s preseason #2 team, TCU. Minnesota will take the field in TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night with a chance to send shockwaves through the college football world. In what will be a hostile environment, Minnesota must strike early, and play proactively.
Running the ball into the ground will not be possible without David Cobb in the backfield or with TCU’s impressive defensive front. Therefore to score a monumental victory for the Big Ten conference, Jerry Kill’s Gophers will have to force Trevone Boykin to make dangerous throws and hope for turnovers and a shaky first start in 2015 for the Heisman contender. All things being equal the chances TCU slips up in the twin cities are fairly low, but strange things are known to happen when Gophers battle Horned Frogs.
A few days later on Saturday, another Big Ten representative will prepare just outside the windy city for a game defined by high SAT scores, polite fans, and grind-it-out football. Northwestern opens their 2015 season hosting 21st ranked Stanford for what will almost certainly be the only college football game to ever raise viewer’s IQ scores. The Wildcats, a team that has seemingly not been the same since its emotionally draining loss to Ohio State in 2013, will look to finally make their great step forward that so many were expecting in 2013 and 2014. They have a perfect opportunity to do just that on national television against a ranked west coast school, also known for its academic prowess. A win over Stanford to open 2015 could ignite a Wildcat team that acts as a perennial wildcard in the Big Ten West. Northwestern should be fired up, but I like senior Stanford signal caller Kevin Hogan, and his pro-style skillset to prevail.
Later that day, September 5th, in the great plains of Nebraska, the Cornhuskers will host BYU for what should be a shootout. Nebraska comes off a tough Holiday Bowl loss to USC last December, but should have a sense of momentum not only just because of how they played against a solid USC team, but because of the new culture Mike Riley brings from Oregon State. The Cornhuskers should be more offensively balanced this fall, and should also come into Saturday knowing that if they can contain Taysom Hill, they will put themselves in a prime position to secure a impressive win for their program and the conference. As the afternoon in Memorial Stadium becomes dusk, then night, the hostility in Lincoln should amp up, and if the Huskers can stay in the game into the late third and fourth quarters, I like their chances to pull out a win to open 2015.
Saturday night football, it’s back. And this Saturday to open the 2015 season another Big Ten gladiator will enter Jerry’s modern day coliseum, the Wisconsin Badgers. This may be the game that offers the most opportunity for the conference’s brand improvement. Wisconsin faces a tall task in lining up in week one against Derrick Henry’s Crimson Tide. The Badgers are heavy underdogs already, but I expect the line will be influenced heavily by how Michigan and Minnesota represent the Big Ten this Thursday night prior.
Corey Clement will have to run wild for Wisconsin to have a chance at winning, but perhaps most importantly of all, the Badgers must minimize Derrick Henry. Henry, a 6’ 3," 240 pound running back for the Crimson Tide is a load, and my personal favorite to win the 2015 Heisman Trophy as he will be relied on more than in the past because of the Tide’s lack of quarterback experience. A surprise win by the Badgers would almost certainly push the Big Ten rebranding process into high gear, and may very well be the accomplishment that earns Wisconsin a place among the league’s current ruling class, Ohio State, and Michigan State.
Speaking of the Big Ten’s ruling class, both members, Ohio State and Michigan State, have notable non-conference matchups of their own in the season’s beginning. Neither of the matchups are during opening weekend per say, but both will be in the national spotlight.
Ohio State starts 2015 in Blacksburg, Virginia this coming Labor Day evening, in what will almost certainly be the most hyped game to ever be played in Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. As the Buckeyes enter the field to the tune of ‘Enter Sandman’ they should be aware that the only team in the state of Virginia on September 7th that can beat them is wearing scarlet and grey. No matter who is starting under center, this game is about mental toughness.
Ohio State must do their part as rulers of the Big Ten to take care of business and carry the conference flag back to prominence one game at a time. The suspensions will undoubtedly cramp Tim Beck’s style early on but as both teams fatigue in the muggy southern evening, I expect the Buckeyes to march ahead, and never look back. Look for Braxton Miller to make a strong first appearance at H-back, and for him and WR Mike Thomas to each beat Virginia Tech’s star corner Kendall Fuller, a couple of times. For the resurgence of the Big Ten to make a stride forward, Ohio State must lead by example Monday night.
The Last marquee opportunity for the Big Ten to accomplish their rebranding process will take place in East Lansing, Michigan during primetime, on September 12th. The 2014 national runners up, the Oregon Ducks visit Michigan State for a rematch of last year’s score-fest in Eugene.
This game has a unique vibe because the majority of the national media have all but written Oregon off in this one, despite Oregon’s top ten ranking and solid road record. Although I think this is a dangerous and somewhat irrational line of thinking, I tend to agree with it. Michigan State, not Oregon, will this year have the more experienced signal caller in Connor Cook. With the calm and efficient style of Cook, and a defense which should be near the top of the country in most statistical categories, the Spartans sure seem like the team more poised to win.
Having witnessed Spartan Stadium in primetime last October when Ohio State came out victorious, I can say that it is most definitely a hostile environment unlike anything Oregon will have recently seen on the west coast. Home field advantage, a more experienced offensive line, and a more composed game plan will allow Mark Dantonio to secure this marquee win for the Big Ten’s cause, and should also set the stage for a clash of epic proportions in Columbus November 21st.