Soft schedules and a crucial month
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Reading Bruce Feldman's list of the nation's softest nonconference schedules got me thinking about August/September and how critical it will be for the Big Ten. Four Big Ten teams made Feldman's top 10 -- Indiana (1), Northwestern (3), Minnesota (7) and Iowa (10) -- and Wisconsin likely would have been there if not for an intrepid trip to Fresno State (can't wait for that game). I know bowl bids are gold and stacking up early wins is the way to get there, but this league needs to make an early statement, especially after what happened in Pasadena and NOLA earlier this year.
Fortunately, several teams passed on cupcakes and will play games that will determine whether the Big Ten regains national respect. You probably know about the one in Los Angeles on Sept. 13, but here's a rundown.
Illinois vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), Aug. 30: The general feeling when the BCS selections came out was that Illinois didn't deserve a spot and Missouri did. The two teams' bowl performances didn't do much to change that. Missouri enters the Braggin' Rights game with national championship aspirations. Illinois lost its best player (Rashard Mendenhall) but brings back quarterback Juice Williams and wideout Arrelious Benn. A win here vaults Illinois into the Big Ten title picture with Ohio State.
Michigan State at Cal, Aug. 30: The Spartans appear to be on the right track under Mark Dantonio, but a solid road win would undoubtedly raise their national profile. Michigan State won only two road games last season -- one against hapless Notre Dame -- so a win in Berkeley would further the argument that the Spartans can be this season's Illinois.
Utah at Michigan, Aug. 30: The notion that Michigan should win this type of game no longer exists after Appalachian State. Add to that a new coach, a completely new offense, a new quarterback, a new running back, new wide receivers -- do I need to go on? Oh yeah, and Utah is very good. Brian Johnson understudied for Alex Smith and has boatloads of experience. The Utes' backfield is stacked. A win here wouldn't guarantee a ton of respect for Michigan, but the Wolverines certainly wouldn't lose any.
Oregon State at Penn State, Sept. 6: Penn State's new quarterback -- Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin -- faces a rebuilding Oregon State defense in a game the Nittany Lions should win at home. But given Oregon State's recent success, this would qualify as a solid early win for Penn State.
Ohio State at USC, Sept. 13: Don't miss this one. The nation's premier nonconference game pairs two teams that have combined for 12 BCS bowl appearances and five national title game appearances. Ohio State can silence talk of its back-to-back title game stumbles with a road win against USC, which has some issues on the offensive line but always boasts top-shelf talent. An Ohio State win puts it in prime position for another national title push.
Oregon at Purdue, Sept. 13: The knock on Purdue, from coach Joe Tiller on down to quarterback Curtis Painter, is that it no longer wins big games. Here's an early chance to prove otherwise. Oregon lost Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart but boasts a defense that will test an iffy Boilermakers passing game. Purdue played it bold in scheduling this year with Oregon, Central Michigan and as always, Notre Dame, and a win against the Ducks would be a great start.
Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 13: Neither team is expected to contend for a BCS bowl berth, but the annual matchup of the game's two winningest programs always merits plenty of attention. The scary thing for the Wolverines is that they have a lot of the same issues Notre Dame had in 2007, especially with personnel on offense. A strong performance on the road against a team Michigan embarrassed last season would give RichRod and the Wolverines a major boost before league play.
Wisconsin at Fresno State, Sept. 13: Props to Wisconsin for doing what most teams avoid at all costs -- playing a game in Fresno. Pat Hill has had too many BCS teams back out of games at Bulldog Stadium, so it's nice to see one squad follow through on its word. Wisconsin's new starting quarterback faces his first major test, and the Badgers must stop Tom Brandstater, Ryan Mathews, Bear Pascoe and Co. If Wisconsin leaves the Central Valley with a W, people will take notice.
Notre Dame at Michigan State, Sept. 20: Dantonio is changing the culture in East Lansing, but it's hard to forget the Spartans' collapse in the rain two years ago against Notre Dame. The loss spelled the end for John L. Smith. Beating Notre Dame doesn't carry the glitz it once did, but Michigan State has the opportunity to continue its success against a rival and notch another eye-catching win.