What are the top non-conference games to watch in the Big Ten this year?
The Big Ten is in desperate need of some non-conference success.
This league has begun to fall behind the rest of the biggest boys in college football and some marquee non-conference wins — along with expansion — is a great way to regain some national respect.
In 2014, the Big Ten has plenty of opportunities for headline grabbing wins against national powerhouses (like LSU or Oregon). Because after what happened to the Big Ten a year ago outside of the league was downright shameful.
Michigan beat Notre Dame and Wisconsin beat BYU. That’s about it as far as marquee non-conference wins for the league. (For the record, Notre Dame also beat Michigan State and Purdue).
The B1G went 5-4 against Power 5 teams and those five wins came against 1-11 Cal (twice), 6-6 Syracuse (twice) and 3-9 Iowa State. The league lost to every quality opponent it faced from a Big 5 league — UCLA, Missouri, Arizona State and Washington — while also taking losses to Navy, UCF, Northern Illinois and Cincinnati (well, mostly just Purdue, but you get the point).
Not only are there marquee showdowns on the slate for this league in ’14 but the matchups are fairly even and the Big Ten could easily win one or two meaningful non-conference tilts. Here are the top 10 most important out of league bouts for the Big Ten in 2014:
1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. Not only would it give the league a marquee non-conference win over a playoff contender on the road, but Mark Dantonio would send a massive shot across the B1G bow that Sparty isn’t going anywhere. A win would put MSU in the Big Ten driver’s seat and would immediately place the Spartans in playoff contention. That said, with a rebuilt defense, stopping Oregon on the road in Week 2 will be a tall order.
2. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30, Houston)
From a pure entertainment standpoint, the Tigers-Badgers semi-neutral field battle in Houston might be the most entertaining non-conference game to watch in '14 regardless of league. This game will feature what should be two equally matched opponents, both of whom are expecting to compete for division titles in their respective leagues. The winner is buoyed right out of the gate with a top-20 win, while the loser may be out of the national title picture after just 60 minutes of football. LSU and Wisconsin feature two of the best power running games in the land and this game will be a throwback showcase for both.
3. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6)
There is rich history and tradition between these two programs, and with the game going the way of the dodo bird, this meeting has more meaning. These two teams are breaking in three new coordinators, most importantly, Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. He will be pitted against new Irish defensive mind Brian VanGorder as both units have questions entering the season. A win for Brady Hoke entering Big Ten play can’t be overvalued, while a victory for Brian Kelly could place Notre Dame into playoff contention.
4. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)
From an intrigue standpoint, few non-conference games in college football will feature two more powerful brands than this Week 4 meeting in Lincoln. These two have met in multiple national title situations, including four Orange Bowl and three national title games. The last two meetings were a Miami beatdown in the BCS title game in 2001 and a Nebraska national championship-clinching win in the 1995 Orange Bowl. And, of course, who could forget the 1984 Orange Bowl and the most infamous two-point conversion attempt in college football history.
5. Virginia Tech at Ohio State (Sept. 6)
The Hokies will once again have an elite defense led by historic coordinator Bud Foster. This is the reason Virginia Tech is the frontrunner to win the Coastal Division and face Florida State in the ACC title game. Ohio State is a top playoff contender and is breaking in a new offensive line, so facing this defensive line is a great early measuring stick for Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will be a clear favorite in this game and a decisive win could give OSU a critical non-conference win over a quality opponent.
6. Iowa at Pitt (Sept. 20)
Pitt is going to be one of the most improved teams in the ACC this year and will give Iowa all it can handle at home in Week 4. The Hawkeyes are spying a run at a West Division title and while games with Pitt and Iowa State don’t impact the standings, two wins over those foes will catapult Kirk Ferentz’s squad into conference play with tremendous confidence.
7. Iowa State at Iowa (Sept. 13)
This is a passionate in-state rivalry that has been played 61 times (Iowa leads 41-20). The Hawkeyes won easily in Ames a year ago but lost 9-6 the last time these two met in Iowa City (2012). This game has seen high-scoring overtime affairs (44-41 in 2011) and low-scoring defensive battles. Fans never really know what they are going to see when these two get together.
8. Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15)
From a regional standpoint, this game has tremendous intrigue. The Irish have dominated the Wildcats, winning 37 of 47 total meetings. That said, the last time these two met was a historic 17-15 win for the Wildcats in 1995 — a win that propelled the traditional Big Ten doormat into a historic Rose Bowl season. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad should be much improved, especially by the middle of November.
9. Nebraska at Fresno State (Sept. 13)
The week before Nebraska welcomes Miami to Memorial Stadium, Bo Pelini will have to take his team on a long road trip to Southern California. Fresno State is breaking in a new quarterback but is still considered one of the best teams in the Mountain West. Pelini needs to be sure his squad doesn’t look ahead to the Hurricanes or the Bulldogs will jump up and bite him.
10. Minnesota at TCU (Sept. 13)
Jerry Kill and Gary Patterson are two of the most well respected coaches in the game today. Minnesota is coming off an eight-win season and wants to prove it can sustain some level of success, while TCU is projected to be a much better team in 2014. This game may not look like a great matchup on paper but by season’s end, one of these two teams will have a really good non-conference win.
Other games to watch:
Penn State vs. UCF (Aug. 30, Dublin)
It’s James Franklin’s debut, the game is in Ireland and there will be revenge on the mind of Penn State.
Bowling Green at Wisconsin (Sept. 20)
The Falcons are going to be sneaky good and UW better not take them lightly.
Cincinnati at Ohio State (Sept. 27)
The Bearcats are the frontrunner for the AAC crown and the regional rivalry adds some interest.
Indiana at Missouri (Sept. 20)
Two great passing offenses could rack up a boatload of points in an SEC-Big Ten bout.
West Virginia at Maryland (Sept. 13)
An under-the-radar rivalry that needs to be dubbed the Steve Slaton Bowl.