Is Big Ten Football Back? We’ll Find Out Quickly

By the end of last college football season, you had the sense the Big Ten was regaining some of its mojo. The proud conference had become more powerful in negotiations with TV networks and cable providers than it had been on the football field for about nine years. Then, the positive dominoes started to fall.

Jim Harbaugh took the job at Michigan and gave the league another coaching superstar to go with Urban Meyer at Ohio State. On New Year’s Day, Michigan State upset Baylor in the Cotton Bowl and Wisconsin knocked off Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Finally, that night, Ohio State started its improbable run to a national title riding third-string quarterback Cardale Jones to a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and then over Oregon eleven days later in the national championship game.

Was that just a nice little run or did indicate something deeper at work, something that suggests the Big Ten is in the midst of a restoration project. If so, will we see the fruits right away this season? As to the latter question, it won’t take long to find out—there’s three big prime-time games in a span of a week that will tell us.

In order, Wisconsin plays Alabama at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas on Saturday night, September 5. Two nights later, Labor Day evening, sees Ohio State go to Virginia Tech. If you forgot the Hokies crushed the Buckeyes last year in Columbus, be assured Meyer and his players haven’t. Then on September 12, the prime-time feature game is Oregon-Michigan State from East Lansing.

What are reasonable expectations for these games? I don’t think Wisconsin has to beat Alabama to make a case for the Big Ten, but the Badgers to do need to show they can match up in the trenches, that running back Corey Clement can get his yards and they can’t get run out of the building the way Michigan did on this same stage to open the 2012 season.

Conversely, it won’t be enough for Ohio State to simply beat Virginia Tech. Never mind the Hokies winning last year, or that the Buckeyes’ elite defensive end, Joey Bosa, is suspended. We saw last year in full display how much depth Meyer has and with this being such a big revenge situation, Ohio State needs to make a decisive statement.

The Oregon-Michigan State game will be much purer test. Both teams have key personnel losses at their most important areas. The Ducks have to replace Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Spartans have to replace important pieces of their vaunted defense, including coordinator Pat Narduzzi, now the head coach at Pitt. If this game were in Eugene, maybe a good effort would be enough for the Spartans. But in East Landing, they need to win the football game to make a case for the Big Ten’s return to elite status.

These three games are the focal point of what promises to be an interesting September. Other games to circle…

September 3: On the opening Thursday night of the season, Minnesota hosts TCU. The Horned Frogs are getting a ton of love in the preseason polls and nothing short of a Playoff trip is expected. If the Gophers give them fits, it’s a good sign for them and the league. Michigan plays the first of two intriguing non-conference games. They visit Utah on this night and host BYU on September 26. We’ll have an early feel for how the Harbaugh Effect has the Wolverines matching up with bowl-caliber programs.

September 19: The highlight of this very busy day on the Big Ten calendar is Nebraska’s visit to Miami, something that will spark replays of the epic 1984 Orange Bowl, but also tell us whether the new-look Cornhuskers of Mike Riley are going to be a contender. A win against a bowl perennial from the ACC on the road would be a nice statement. Other games on the 19th include…

*Pitt-Iowa: Can the Hawkeye run defense stop Pitt’s outstanding James Connor?
*Virginia Tech-Purdue: There’s high hopes for improvement in West Lafayette. Should VT be on Upset Alert?
*Air Force-Michigan State: After what’s surely going to be an emotional game against Oregon, Sparty has to be ready to face as disciplined a team as there is in the country…and one that won 10 games last year.
*Northern Illinois-Ohio State: No chance the Buckeyes lose in the Shoe, but will they squash the MAC’s best program?
*Illinois-North Carolina: Tim Beckham looking to build off a six-win bowl season in 2014 and save his job. But I find it more interesting that it’s a rematch of the national basketball championship game from 2005. Remember Sean May, Deron Williams & Co?

We know the Big Ten can exert its muscle on the financial landscape of college football. It’s time to see it on the football field again, not just for a brief run in January, and not just from one team. But for the entire non-conference schedule and up and down the league.