Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.
The season starts in six weeks, and Big Ten teams will play several high-profile nonconference games this fall. No doubt, the league needs to come through in some of them to improve its perception and enhance strength-of-schedule rankings for the College Football Playoff. Today's Take Two topic is: What's the Big Ten's best chance for grabbing a signature nonconference victory in 2014?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
While there are several notable matchups on tap -- Miami-Nebraska and Virginia Tech-Ohio State among them -- I believe only two games can truly begin to elevate the Big Ten's overall status. Those, of course, are Wisconsin's opener against LSU and Michigan State's Week 2 trip to Oregon.
The Spartans' road game is also the toughest matchup any conference team will have to navigate this season. Yet given Wisconsin's inexperience at key positions such as receiver and the defensive front seven, I think Michigan State has the better chance to notch a marquee victory.
Sure, Oregon will likely begin the year in the top 10 and perhaps the top 5. The Ducks have a frighteningly fast offense, led by Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota. Traveling to the West Coast has never been easy for Big Ten teams, and Autzen Stadium is an intimidating environment.
Still, one team that has given Oregon problems the past two years is Stanford. Well, Michigan State does many of the same things as the Cardinal, as we saw in that closely-contested Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. The best way to slow a hurry-up, spread offense is to hit it hard and repeatedly, forcing third-and-long situations. The Spartans can do that, even while replacing several key starters from last year, and they can create turnovers. A veteran offense led by Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford might not score quite like the Ducks like to do, but it can control the clock and find the end zone.
Michigan State proved last year it can win a huge game on Pac-12 turf. I'm not predicting the Spartans will win, but as Michigan State assistant Harlon Barnett said recently, "I promise you we’ll show up." And they'll have a chance to pull off an important victory.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg
I can see a path for Wisconsin to beat LSU and give the Big Ten some much-needed cred against the SEC, but I'm not prepared to walk down it right now. Wisconsin could end up being a very good team by the Big Ten stretch run, but it has too many question marks at key positions to have an overly realistic chance of beating LSU in a virtual road game.
Like others, I get the sense Wisconsin will lean toward Tanner McEvoy as its starting quarterback. If so, LSU will be a very tough draw for McEvoy's first start under center. Les Miles is 9-0 in season openers as LSU's coach and his teams have eclipsed 30 points in seven of those games. They smacked Oregon and TCU in these teams of games -- season openers at NFL stadiums in Texas -- in 2011 and 2013, respectively. They're just a very tough opener for a revamped Badgers team. Could Wisconsin win? Sure. But the Badgers must play virtually mistake-free.
I'm also going with Michigan State here despite the hostile setting and the majestic quarterback on the other team. The Spartans' defense under coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn't easily intimidated, and while Oregon's speed poses a significant challenge, MSU shouldn't break too many times. I recently wrote about defensive innovation in college football -- you always hear about it on offense -- and Narduzzi talked about the post-snap adjustments his players make and some of the unique schematic nuggets that set MSU apart.
Will MSU shut down Oregon the way Stanford has done? Probably not. But I also think people are underestimating the Spartans' offense. Yes, Cook got away with a lot of near interceptions last season. But he should be more polished with another offseason under his belt. He has all but one of his weapons back, and while three offensive line starters depart, I like the potential of that group to reload. Expect big things from left tackle Jack Conklin going forward.
I don't love the Big Ten's chances in either statement game, but I also give MSU the nod.