The Big Ten's 2011 Top 10 Games to Watch

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Camp Randall will play a pivotal roll in the Big Ten title race in 2011.

Camp Randall will play a pivotal roll in the Big Ten title race in 2011.

The start of the 2011 college football season is two weeks away. With kickoff right around the corner, Athlon takes a look at the top 10 must-see games in the Big Ten for 2011.

1. Nebraska vs. Wisconsin (Week 5)
Oct. 1, All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 3-2

This game will usher in a new era of football for Nebraska as it travels to Madison to play in its first ever Big Ten conference game. The corn-fed Big Red will have to face the dairy-fed Big Red in what could be a preview of the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. These look like the two most complete teams on paper as the play of Taylor Martinez against the JJ Watt-less Badger pass defense will be the deciding factor. These two Midwest powers have not been on the same field since 1974, when the Huskers topped the Badgers 21-20 in MadTown – which will be absolutely rocking for the visit from Bo Pelini and Company.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 6

2. Ohio State vs. Nebraska (Week 6)
Oct. 8, All-Time Series: Buckeyes lead 2-0

In what will be another first for Nebraska fans, Larry the Cable Guy and the rest of Husker nation will welcome the Buckeyes to Lincoln for the first time. It will also mark the return of the Tat-5 (or four) when Mike Adams, Boom Herron and DeVier Posey rejoin their teammates on the field. This too could be a preview of the Big Ten title game as the Buckeyes, despite the suspensions, are very much a contender in the Leaders Division. Quarterback play will be huge in this game as both teams should struggle to run the football against two solid front lines. Can ageless wonder Joe Bauserman or youngster Braxton Miller keep their composure in one of the most difficult places to play in the nation?

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 3

3. Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (Week 9)
Oct. 29, All-Time Series: Ohio State leads 53-18-5

Ohio State won 21 straight meetings with the Badgers from 1960 to 1980. Since then, Wisconsin has held its own in the blossoming rivalry 11-14-1 in the 26 games since. In fact, the these two teams have split the last six, eight and 10 games played. But Ohio State has won the last two in Columbus in convincing fashion (at least on the scoreboard) 69-30. Russell Wilson will be playing in the most hostile environment of his career when he walks into the Shoe and will need his running game if he expects to leave Columbus with a win. However, the Bucks have totally stymied the Badgers’ potent rushing game in the last two meetings on the Banks of the Olentagy’s. Sconie has mustered only 130 yards on 81 carries in the two losses.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Buckeyes by 4

4. Ohio State vs. Michigan (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Michigan leads 57-43-6

The greatest rivalry in all of college football will be renewed for the 107th time when these two Midwest powers lock horns in the final week of the regular season. Despite the prestige, tradition and nostalgia created from watching the Maize and Blue battle with the Scarlet and Gray, this rivalry has been totally one-sided of late. Ohio State has won seven straight and nine of the last ten. Brady Hoke and Denard Robinson look to have Michigan pointed in the right direction and could be in a position to surprise in 2011. However, the Buckeyes should be too strong at the end of the season for Michigan to sneak-up on them. Michigan will beat OSU in the near future, it just isn’t likely to be in 2011.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Buckeyes by 7

5. Michigan State vs. Nebraska (Oct. 29)
Oct. 29, All-Time Series: Nebraksa leads 5-0

The Spartans are still looking for their first ever win over Nebraska, and with one in 2011, they could find themselves playing in December in Indianapolis. After a nearly unblemished 2010, Sparty fancies itself as the primary contender in the Big Ten Legends Division and has no desire to let the new kid win it all. The sledding will be tough for Michigan State despite the outstanding skill talent it possesses on offense. There are 39 starts gone from the offensive line and the new faces will be put to the test against Jared Crick and the All-American Husker front seven. The last meeting between the two took place in the Alamo Bowl in 2003 and Nebraska has outscored Michigan State 181-34 in the five meetings with an average margin of victory just under 30 points.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 4

6. Iowa vs. Nebraska (Week 13)
Nov. 25, All-Time Series: Nebraska leads 26-12-3

These two heartland powers really haven’t met since World War II. The border rivals met regularly during the World War I era as well as in the 30s and 40s, but have played only six times since 1946. The renewal of what is now an intra-divisional rivalry could provide a berth into the Big Ten title game. The whole ear of corn, so to speak, could be on the line in the season finale in Lincoln. The Hawkeye offense, despite losing leader Ricky Stanzi, shouldn’t miss a beat under James Vandenberg. And even though Kirk Ferentz must replace most of his starting defense, one would assume that by Week 13, this group will once again be a hard-hitting, stingy unit. Home-field advantage is the deciding factor in this one.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers by 3

7. Michigan State vs. Ohio State (Week 5)
Oct. 1, All-Time Series: Ohio State leads 27-12

These two both earned a share of the Big Ten title a year ago but never got a chance to settle it on the field. That won’t be the case in 2011 as these two title contenders take the field in Columbus. However, seeing as how it’s the fifth game of the Buckeyes’ season, Sparty won’t have to face Boom Herron, DeVier Posey or Mike Adams among others. Will the wet-behind-the-ears replacements gain enough experience in the first four games of the season to get a huge win? The Bucks know they must hold serve at home in order to land the first Leaders’ Division title – and it starts with Michigan State. Ohio State has won seven in row, 12 of 14 and is 20-4 against MSU since 1974.

Athlon's Very Early Predictions: Buckeyes by 7

8. Wisconsin vs. Michigan State (Week 8)
Oct. 22, All-Time Series: MSU leads 28-21

These two have swapped victories in the last six meetings including a tight 10-point win by Michigan State a year ago that cost the Badgers the outright conference title. Kirk Cousins converted a few key goalline fourth downs to give Michigan State its first share of a conference title since 1990. Wisconsin should bring another stellar rushing attack to East Lansing but Jerell Worthy and company will be prepared along the Spartan front. The key could be the reworked Spartan offensive line facing a defensive line that must replace JJ Watt. Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson will likely hold the key to success.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Badgers by 1

9. Notre Dame vs. Michigan (Week 2)
Sept. 10, All-Time Series: Michigan leads 22-15-1

These two have been playing virtually every season for over 30 years and each has had its time in the sun. However, Michigan has won four of the last five including the last two tightly-fought four-point victories. Shoelace Robinson announced his authority on national television with 258 yards rushing and two touchdowns - including an electric 87-yard scoring scamper. He added 244 yards passing with another touchdown as his fantasy stardom was off and running. But Notre Dame developed on the defense as the season went along and looks to have potentially its best defense in two decades. Michigan will have to show improvement on its own atrocious defense before it can claim another victory over the Irish’s Mad Scientist head coach.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Irish by 7

10a. Nebraska vs. Penn State (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: PSU leads 7-6

10b. Nebraska vs. Michigan (Nov. 19)
Nov. 19, All-Time Series: Michigan leads 3-2-1

Nebraska has a rough enough schedule through September and October, but won’t get any breaks in the final three weeks of the regular season either. In back-to-back weekends, the Huskers have to play in front hostile 110,000-seat crowds in Happy Valley and Ann Arbor. It was 2002 the last time Big Red headed to Penn State and 1962 the last time it played at the Big House. On paper, Penn State doesn’t look to have the offensive power to hang with Nebraska while the Wolverines don’t have anyone to slow Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead. However, by the end of the season both PSU and UM should be much improved from 2010 and will be hosting a title contender. Anything can happen.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers over PSU by 7
Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Huskers over Michigan by 14

Other Top Games to Watch:

Michigan State vs. Iowa (Nov. 12)
Penn State vs. Ohio State (Nov. 19)
Penn State vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 26)
Michigan vs. Michigan State (Oct. 15)
Michigan State vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 17)
Iowa vs. Penn State (Oct. 8)
Michigan vs. Iowa (Nov. 5)
Ohio State vs. Miami (Sept. 17)
Alabama vs. Penn State (Sept. 10)
Ohio State vs. Illinois (Oct. 15)
Northwestern vs. Nebraska (Nov. 5)
Arizona State vs. Illinois (Sept. 17)
Illinois vs. Penn State (Oct. 29)
Wisconsin vs. Illinois (Nov. 19)
Pitt vs. Iowa (Sept. 17)
Penn State vs. Northwestern (Oct. 22)
Oregon State vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 10)
Northwestern vs. Boston College (Sept. 3)

Other Big Ten Content:

Athlon Sports' Big Ten 2011 Unit Rankings

Ranking the Big Ten's Top 40 Players for 2011
Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team

Top 25 Players of BCS Era

Best Quarterback in the Big Ten?

Will Michigan Surprise in the Big Ten title race?

Illinois: A Sleeper Team?

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