- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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After an interminable wait for football, we'd be happy for any game to watch right now.
Still, all games are not created equally, especially in the nonconference portion of the year. We've been ranking the top out-of-league games for the Big Ten in 2012, starting with the ugly (No.s 48-35), the bad (No.s 34-21) and the good (No.s 20-11) -- or something like that. Now it's time for the great.
Here are our choices for the top 10 nonconference games featuring Big Ten teams this season:
No. 10: Northwestern at Syracuse, Sept. 1: We swear we didn't put this game in the Top 10 because of the schools' journalism programs. The Orange may or may not be any good this season, but this is still an intriguing opener for both teams. And with the game being played indoors at the Carrier Dome, we like the potential for a pinball-like contest where both teams could score in the 30s.
No. 9: Purdue at Notre Dame, Sept. 8: The last couple of Boilers-Irish games have been total snoozers. But at least this one will give us a very early indication of whether Purdue is actually as improved as we think they might be this season. Danny Hope's team lost to Notre Dame by four touchdowns at home last year but should be better prepared to compete this season.
No. 8: Illinois at Arizona State, Sept. 8: It got lost in both teams' poor finish last season, but the Illini and Sun Devils played an exciting game last September in Champaign when everybody thought both teams were pretty good. Of course, they both ended up firing their coaches and now have lots of questions marks going into 2012. Tim Beckman can make some believers right away against an Arizona State team that returns only eight starters.
No. 7: Cal at Ohio State, Sept. 15: These aren't exactly Aaron Rodgers' Golden Bears, as Cal hasn't really been relevant the past few seasons. Still, this should present the toughest non-league test for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, and the Zach Maynard-led offense should give the Ohio State defense a challenge.
No. 6: Iowa State at Iowa, Sept. 8: This rivalry hasn't garnered a whole lot of attention outside of Iowa, but maybe it should after last year's 44-41 triple overtime thriller won by the Cyclones. Iowa State hasn't won in Iowa City since 2002, but Paul Rhoads' teams have always been good for a big upset or two every year. Bonus: this series gives us an excuse to link to this thing.
No. 5: Nebraska at UCLA, Sept. 8: Chris Fowler got off a good line at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon when he guaranteed that the Cornhuskers would be going to Pasadena this year -- to play the Bruins in Week 2. UCLA might have been one of the worst teams ever to make a conference championship game last year but could be much improved with 16 starters back and a new head coach in Jim Mora Jr. Either way, it will be hard for Nebraska fans not to get excited about their team playing in the Rose Bowl and wondering whether this year's team is good enough to get back there New Year's Day.
No. 4: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State, Sept. 15: Weird things happen in this series, like the "Little Giants" play two years ago or last season's surprisingly one-sided game in South Bend. Nine of the last 12 meetings have been decided by single digits. The Spartans should be considerable favorites in East Lansing, but nothing in this rivalry would shock us.
No. 3: Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 22: If strange things happen when Michigan State and Notre Dame meet, then amazing happens when the Wolverines and Irish get together. The past three installments have each been decided by exactly four points, and the team that's favored hardly ever seems to come out on top. Michigan has won three straight against Notre Dame and its seniors will go for the sweep. Worth watching if for no other reason than to see Denard Robinson, who seems to save his most jaw-dropping heroics for this opponent.
No. 2: Boise State at Michigan State, Aug. 31: The Spartans are 22-5 the past two years. Which is great, until you consider that Boise State is a remarkable 73-6 since 2006. Give Michigan State a lot of credit for scheduling this game as its opener. The intrigue here revolves around the quarterbacks, as the Broncos are trying to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Kellen Moore and the Spartans will break in Andrew Maxwell. It should be a hard-hitting, physical game, and I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be on the final Friday night of August.
No. 1: Michigan vs. Alabama, Sept. 1: Well, yeah. What a treat to open the season with the defending national champions squaring off against the defending Sugar Bowl champions, in a matchup of two of the most storied programs of all time. There's not much more to be said about this game that hasn't been breathlessly typed all offseason. We're counting down the seconds to kickoff.
After an interminable wait for football, we'd be happy for any game to watch right now.Still, all games are not created equally, especially in the nonconference portion of the year.