NCF Nation: Kellen Lews
No football league in the country is better configured for road trips than the Big Ten. From my home base in Chicago, I can drive to eight of the 11 schools in five hours or less. If I'm feeling ambitious, Columbus and Minneapolis are within driving range. After a case of Red Bull, so is State College.
Piggybacking off a fabulous idea from colleague Brian Bennett, I've decided to outline the perfect Big Ten road trip for the 2009 season. Follow this route and you're bound to get a good feel for the league, and have a blast along the way.
Sept. 3 -- Eastern Kentucky at Indiana
Sure, the matchup isn't sexy, but the college football season kicks off in Bloomington, and you should start your trip there. It's like attending Opening Day at PNC Park -- you've just got to show up. Check out Indiana's new pistol formation and how the Hoosiers survive without standout Kellen Lewis. The tailgating scene at Memorial Stadium isn't bad, and you probably won't be back this fall, so it's worth a trip.Sept. 5 -- Illinois vs. Missouri in St. Louis
Make the four-hour drive to St. Louis and catch by far the best matchup of a pretty bland opening weekend for the Big Ten. Get ready for offense under the Arch, as these rivals have combined for 168 points in their last two games. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn lead a high-powered Illini offense against Missouri's new quarterback, Blaine Gabbert.
Total distance traveled: 227 miles
Sept. 12 -- USC at Ohio State
Do whatever it takes to be in Columbus for this one. Ohio State can regain some respect for itself and the Big Ten with a victory against college football's gold standard. See if Terrelle Pryor is up to the task against a new-look Trojans defense. And be sure to arrive in Columbus on Friday night to hang out on High Street and catch Notre Dame-Michigan on Saturday afternoon.
Total distance traveled: 647 miles
Sept. 19 -- California at Minnesota
There's a new stadium in the Big Ten this fall, and here's your chance to check it out. Head up to Minneapolis and watch a talented Gophers team take on Jahvid Best and nationally ranked Cal at TCF Bank Stadium. The weather should still be nice, and Minnesota could be a surprise team in the league this year. If the Twin Cities are too far away, head to South Bend for Michigan State-Notre Dame.
Total distance traveled: 1,413 miles
Sept. 26 -- Iowa at Penn State
The conference season kicks off with a game that will shape the title race. Beaver Stadium at night is not to be missed, and Penn State guns for revenge against Iowa after losing on a last-second field goal in 2008. Some excellent quarterback and linebacker matchups here.
Total distance traveled: 2,404 miles
Oct. 3 -- Michigan at Michigan State
One of the league's best rivalries resumes at Spartan Stadium, as Michigan State goes for back-to-back wins against the Wolverines after snapping a six-game slide last fall. Michigan's new starting quarterback faces his first major road test and can put the Wolverines on the right track by knocking off the Spartans.
Total distance traveled: 2,860 miles
Oct. 10 -- Home
Not a great slate of games this week, so take a breather at home and watch the Big Ten on TV before gearing up for the second half. Most Big Ten teams don't have a bye week this season, but you deserve one.
Oct. 17 -- Iowa at Wisconsin
Make the drive to Mad-town and experience one of the best game-day atmospheres in college football. The Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry usually produces some drama, and there's always the subplot of Badgers head coach Bret Bielema facing his alma mater. Running backs John Clay and Jewel Hampton make this one worth watching.
Total distance traveled: 3,234 miles
Oct. 24 -- Penn State at Michigan (day), Iowa at Michigan State (night)
Feeling ambitious? If you plan things right, you can catch at least part of both games, which take place just 64 miles apart. The Spartans and Hawkeyes are playing under the lights, so root for a noon ET kickoff at the Big House as Penn State tries to win in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1996. The Iowa-Michigan State winner could determine who challenges Penn State and Ohio State for the league title.
Total distance traveled: 3,686 miles
Oct. 31 -- Penn State at
It's awfully tempting to head up to Madison, which throws a huge Halloween party every year, but the Purdue-Wisconsin matchup is rather eh. Northwestern comes off a 9-4 season and has a very favorable early schedule, so the Wildcats could come into this one at 7-1 or 6-2. The game features several elite defenders like Penn State's Sean Lee and Northwestern's Corey Wootton.
Total distance traveled: 3,926 miles
Nov. 7 -- Ohio State at Penn State
For the second straight year, the Big Ten title likely will come down to these two teams. Ohio State's Big Ten road win streak could be at 17 games when it heads to Beaver Stadium, the last place it lost a conference road contest. You've got Pryor returning to his home state, Daryll Clark gunning for another win and Joe Paterno vs. Jim Tressel. Not to mention some off-the-hook tailgates around the stadium.
Total distance traveled: 4,528 miles
Nov. 14 -- Iowa at Ohio State
Iowa's conference road schedule is downright brutal, but if the Hawkeyes are still breathing at this point, they could be playing for a league title in Columbus. The game features two of the league's most rabid fan bases, two time-tested defensive schemes and two on-the-rise quarterbacks in Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi. Good stuff.
Total distance traveled: 4,867 miles
Nov. 21 -- Ohio State at Michigan
You should be in the state of Michigan no matter what -- Penn State-Michigan State is your other option -- but for me, The Game still gets the nod. Former Michigan offensive lineman Justin Boren returns to the Big House wearing the hated Scarlet and Gray of Ohio State. He and his Buckeyes teammates won't be received warmly, but they won't care if they beat Michigan for the sixth straight time.
Total distance traveled: 5,057 miles
Nov. 27 -- Illinois at Cincinnati
There's only one Big Ten game on tap this week, but it's a good one, and it essentially takes place in Big Ten country. Illinois visits cozy Nippert Stadium to take on the defending Big East champs, who probably will have figured out their situation on defense. It should be a very exciting game, and one that could play a huge role in Illinois' postseason hopes.
Total distance traveled: 5,301 miles
Dec. 5 -- Fresno State at Illinois
Big Ten football in December? Better bundle up. Die-hard Big Ten fans will happily brave the elements and head out to Memorial Stadium to see the Illini take on Pat Hill's Bulldogs. Sure, you could fly to Honolulu to watch Wisconsin face Hawaii, but where's the fun in that?
Total distance traveled: 5,539 miles
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The first round of Big Ten games are in the books and the conference landscape hasn't changed much, which could be a bad thing. Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin look like the class of the league, and all three squads rolled in games in which they should.
But the first month of the season provides the Big Ten ample opportunities to boost its deteriorating national reputation, and so far the league has failed to do so. For the second straight year Illinois fell way behind in the first three quarters against Missouri and couldn't recover. Michigan State couldn't keep up with Cal's running backs and fell short in Berkeley. Michigan's offense was generally a mess and the Wolverines couldn't knock off a solid Utah team.
It's time to look back at five revelations from Week 1. This will be a Sunday staple throughout the season.
1. Michigan offense under construction: The offense looked bland and basic in Rich Rodriguez's debut, and the simplistic system still prompted plenty of mistakes. Both quarterbacks had their share of struggles, though redshirt freshman Steven Threet made several plays down the stretch that could earn him the starting nod in Week 2. The quarterbacks will endure their share of growing pains, but Michigan can't afford getting next to nothing from its running backs. The talent is there on both sides of the ball, but the Wolverines won't win many games averaging 1.4 yards a carry.
2. Impact of Beanie Wells' injury: The foot/ankle/toe injury to the star running back overshadowed what otherwise was a brilliant day for Ohio State, which received nice performances from freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor and many others in a 43-0 win against Youngstown State. X-rays were negative, but foot and toe problems can be tricky, especially for a running back who can now be labeled injury prone. The priority is getting Wells ready for a Week 3 matchup at USC, so if he has to sit out next week's game against Ohio, so be it. Given what the Trojans did to Virginia, Ohio State will need all hands -- or feet -- on deck at the L.A. Coliseum.
3. Michigan State still not clutch: Six close losses in 2007 fueled preseason hype for the Spartans. Well, add another near miss to the list. Quarterback Brian Hoyer completed only 20 of 48 passes, and though he found a capable target in Mark Dell (202 yards), the senior signal caller couldn't get his team over the top in a 38-31 loss. More unsettling for Michigan State was a defense that allowed 203 rushing yards. Good teams reflect their head coach, and though the Spartans have started to do so in many areas, a Mark Dantonio team shouldn't be this vulnerable on defense.
4. Running backs impress: For all the talk of pass-happy spread offenses in the Big Ten, the league still has quite a few guys who can run a bit. Led by under-appreciated junior P.J. Hill, Wisconsin unveiled arguably the league's most powerful rushing attack and racked up 404 rushing yards against Akron. Wells had 111 rushing yards on just 13 carries before his injury, and Penn State's two backs (Stephfon Green and Evan Royster) combined for five touchdowns. Iowa's Shonn Greene (109 yards) showed no signs of rust after a year away from football and the Hawkeyes found a Jewel, as in freshman Jewel Hampton (68 yards, 2 TDs). Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton showed why he's still one of the league's top backs, and Minnesota's Duane Bennett came up big when it counted. Quarterback Kellen Lewis continues to be Indiana's best running back, collecting 185 rushing yards Saturday.
5. Illini defense overvalued: I'll be the first to admit I bought into Illinois' defense too much this summer. Any defense that loses its core (two safeties, a middle linebacker and a tackle) will probably struggle at first, and Illinois certainly did against Chase Daniel and Missouri. A line that coach Ron Zook called the team's strength generated only one sack -- end Derek Walker did return an interception for a touchdown -- and Daniel passed for 323 yards. Linebacker Martez Wilson still looks like the real deal, but the Illini need more from others if they want to be considered an elite defense.