The Big Ten had some terrific non-conference matchups to look forward to last season. But then 2020 took its toll on those plans, and the conference was left scrambling to figure out whether or not it would even play games. When the dust settled on the Big Ten's decision to move forward with a schedule, all non-conference games were dropped entirely in favor of a conference-only schedule. Fortunately, the 2021 plans for the Big Ten include non-conference play, and once again there are several matchups to keep an eye on.
Big Ten teams will take on teams from every power conference this season as well as some notable independent and Group of 5 programs. Among the highlights of the Big Ten's non-conference schedule include matchups with College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame (Wisconsin, Purdue), Pac-12 champion Oregon (Ohio State), and the top Group of 5 program from 2020, Cincinnati (Indiana). Throw in a classic rivalry game (Nebraska-Oklahoma) and a fun home-and-home series getting started (Penn State-Auburn), and the Big Ten should have plenty of big moments to come in the fall.
Here is a look at the 10 non-conference games the Big Ten is playing this year that carry the most intrigue.
10. Michigan State at Miami, Sept. 18
Mel Tucker at Michigan State and Manny Diaz at Miami are both looking to take their respective programs back to the top. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Miami is a bit ahead of them going into the 2021 season. Or so it would seem. A road win against the Hurricanes by Michigan State could be a much-needed confidence boost for the rebuilding Spartans to spring forward some progress in 2021.
9. West Virginia at Maryland, Sept. 4
Taulia Tagovailoa and the Maryland Terrapins face West Virginia from the Big 12 in the season opener. Mike Locksley has his Maryland program heading in a positive direction, but a victory to start the year against a decent Big 12 team (and former Big East rival) would be a great way to kick off the new season.
8. Army West Point at Wisconsin, Oct. 16
Do you like offenses that run the football? Well, this is the game for you! While Wisconsin may have a more competent passing game than in years past, the Badgers still know how to grind out yards on the ground. The Badgers' defense should fare well against Army's option-oriented attack, but this game could fly by with minimal clock stoppages.
7. Nebraska at Oklahoma, Sept. 18
A classic rivalry is finally renewed as Nebraska goes head-to-head with their old Big 8 nemesis. Scott Frost guides his Cornhuskers into Norman to face a high-powered Sooners program continuing to strive with their passing attack. This one could get out of hand, but it will be darn good seeing Nebraska-Oklahoma on the field once again.
6. Cincinnati at Indiana, Sept. 18
There is an argument to be made that this game should be considered much higher on this list. Cincinnati was the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion last season, and the Hoosiers are coming off one of the best seasons in Bloomington in program history. Both teams could potentially be ranked for this game, making this a nice little early-season matchup worth paying close attention to.
5. Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 11
We could have a battle of top-25 teams in the state of Iowa in Week 2. Iowa has won five straight meetings in this in-state rivalry, but the last three years have been close calls. Expect another tight contest between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones, two teams that could play for their respective conference titles in 2021.
4. Washington at Michigan, Sept. 11
One of the most intriguing non-conference games the Big Ten lost from its schedule a year ago (and the Pac-12 too) was the matchup between the Wolverines and Huskies. Part of what makes this game intriguing is the Jim Harbaugh storyline sure to follow him around this season. Washington may not be the same caliber opponent it was a few years ago, but the Huskies would have played for the Pac-12 championship last year if they didn't have to back out due to COVID-19 issues and open the door for Oregon.
3. Auburn at Penn State, Sept. 18
A fun home-and-home series is scheduled to begin this season as Penn State hosts Auburn (Penn State makes a return trip to Auburn in 2022). James Franklin's Nittany Lions got off to a terrible start last season before ending the season on a winning note. Auburn has a new head coach in Bryan Harsin, previously of Boise State. Penn State's defense will have its hands full.
2. Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame (Chicago), Sept. 25
The Wisconsin Badgers hype is growing following a terrific offseason, and they are the favorite to win the Big Ten West in 2021. A couple of weeks after opening the season against Penn State, the Badgers head to Chicago for a neutral-site game at historic Soldier Field against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame is coming off a College Football Playoff appearance in 2020. And who could potentially be Notre Dame's new starting quarterback? None other than Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan.
1. Oregon at Ohio State, Sept. 11
Defending Big Ten champion vs. defending Pac-12 champion. This was supposed to be the second game in a home-and-home series that was scheduled to start in Eugene in 2020. Before the game was canceled, it also was being hyped as a Rose Bowl/College Football Playoff preview. Needless to say, now is as good a time as any to see the Ducks and Buckeyes get on the field. Ohio State will once again be a top contender for a spot in the playoff. Oregon's own hopes would receive a major boost with a road win in Ohio Stadium. That will, of course, be easier said than done.