I’m just going to say it. College football’s regular season is the greatest in all of sports. Every loss counts. And, because of that, the regular season just means more.
Even with college football electing to implement a four team playoff beginning in 2014, games played between the first weekend in September and last weekend in November will ultimately decide who gets to play for the grand prize—a National Championship.
With every team required to play games against teams in their respective conferences (except for FBS independents), it is often early non-conference games that can make or break a team’s chance at a National title.
Playing in these big games early in the season can be a double-edged sword. If your team wins, it makes a statement and adds a marquee win to the résumé, albeit very early in the season. If you lose, however, it sometimes can be too deep of a hole to climb out.
It’s better to lose early in the season as opposed to later, obviously, but winning that early non-conference matchup with the whole country watching gets you noticed.
In recent years, Big Ten teams have played other juggernaut schools in non-conference play, but not with much success. This year may be different, it may not be. But we’re going to take a look at my top ten non-conference matchups for Big Ten teams this season.
10. Ohio at Penn State (Beaver Stadium, State College, Pennsylvania) – Sept. 1: This game has very little to do with the Ohio Bobcats. After the NCAA brought the hammer down on the Penn State football program on Monday, all eyes will be on the Nittany Lions as they open their 2012 season against Ohio. Many question marks still remain with Penn State; including how many of their current players will still be there come Sept. 1.
9. Vanderbilt at Northwestern (Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois) – Sept. 8: A game between two teams that usually finish in the middle to bottom of their respective conferences. But, Northwestern has an exciting player in quarterback Kain Colter that could make this game an exciting one to watch.
8. Illinois at Arizona State (Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona) –Sept. 8: Like the Vanderbilt-Northwestern game, this one features two mediocre teams from power conferences, but could provide some excitement out in Tempe. Illinois lost its best player from a season ago in wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, so it will be interesting to see how quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the rest of the Illini look at the beginning of 2012.
7. Nebraska at UCLA (Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California) – Sept. 8: UCLA has 16 starters projected to return and it will be new coach Jim Mora Jr.’s first home game. Nebraska should get by Southern Mississippi in its season opener, but if the Huskers want to get back to Pasadena later in the season they must beat the Bruins in early September.
6. Iowa at Iowa State (Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa) – Sept. 8: This game is mainly on here because of the dandy played last year in Ames, won 44-41 in overtime by Iowa State. Look for James Vandenberg to lead the Hawkeyes to a victory this year at home.
5. California at Ohio State (Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio) – Sept. 15: Urban Meyer’s first game against a team from a BCS conference comes on Sept. 15 against the Cal Golden Bears. Cal finished 7-6 last season, but will be the first real test for a young Buckeyes team that a lot of people in Columbus are excited to see.
4. Notre Dame at Michigan State (Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan) – Sept. 15: Sparty has a bad taste in its mouth after last year’s 31-13 defeat in South Bend. Notre Dame cannot look ahead to its matchup the following week against Michigan, or they will be in for a long one against the Spartans. This game is also around the time when Notre Dame fans start believing “they’re back,” and I would love nothing more than for MSU to bring them back to reality.
3. Boise State at Michigan State (Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, Michigan) – Aug. 31: This is the opening game of the season for what will likely be two top 25 teams. Boise State lost its best player in quarterback Kellen Moore and Michigan State lost its leader in quarterback Kirk Cousins. Boise State may not be as strong as in past seasons, but the Broncos have multiple top ten finishes in the last decade. This one will be very fun to watch.
2. Michigan at Notre Dame (Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Indiana) – Sept. 22: The Michigan program made a strong comeback last year in Brady Hoke’s first season as coach. Michigan-Notre Dame is one of college football’s better rivalries, and we all remember what happened last year. Michigan is going for its fourth straight win over the Irish.
1. Alabama vs. Michigan (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas) – Sept. 1: This seems to be the premier game of the college football non-conference schedule. Both teams will be ranked in the top ten, with Alabama likely No. 1 or No. 2. The Crimson Tide are coming off of a National Championship season, but they’ve never seen a player quite like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Something worth noting, though: Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was arrested earlier this week on a DUI charge and was suspended indefinitely. If he misses this game, it is a big loss for the Wolverines.
While the saying “championships cannot be won in September, but they can be lost” may be cliché, it is cliché for a reason. Hopefully the Big Ten can do better with these big games than they have in recent years, but it will surely make for an exciting month of college football.