There's no dancing around it: Nonleague play simply matters more for the Big Ten than any other major conference.
The league's national reputation is constantly dissected, and the inevitable question that follows -- how does the Big Ten improve its perception? -- is directly tied to performance in games against top teams from other conferences. If the Big Ten steps up and records several key wins early in the year, it remains in the national discussion, especially this season with the inaugural playoff approaching. If the league struggles, it becomes less relevant and possibly left out of the top four on Dec. 7 -- the worst possible scenario after more than a decade without a championship.
This list examines the five most significant nonleague games for Big Ten teams. They're rated according to quality of the opponent, expectations for the Big Ten team, where the game is being played and when it's being played. There's a drop-off after the top two contests but all five games matter in shaping Big Ten perception.
Without further ado ...
1. Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: Michigan State handed Ohio State its first loss under Urban Meyer and then beat preseason national title contender Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The next step, as the Spartans openly acknowledge, is competing for a national title. It might take an upset victory at Autzen Stadium -- one of the nation's toughest venues for a visiting team -- or at least a good showing to remain in the playoff mix. But a win would be huge, not only for Michigan State's profile as a program that has moved up in class, but for the Big Ten, which has struggled in true road games against the Pac-12. A close loss wouldn't ruin MSU's playoff hopes. A blowout loss would damage the Big Ten's push for respect.
2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (at Houston), Aug. 30: The opponent isn't as sexy and the location isn't as daunting, but any win against an upper-class SEC opponent benefits the Big Ten. Wisconsin enters the season with numerous questions, from quarterback to receiver to defensive front seven, but it can provide a resounding answer about its expectations by upsetting LSU at NRG Stadium. It's a big opportunity for Badgers running back Melvin Gordon to make a statement in the Heisman Trophy race against a top defense. A Wisconsin win would put the Badgers in the playoff discussion, given their favorable Big Ten schedule. A double-digit loss adds to the SEC's superiority case against the Big Ten.
3. Miami at Nebraska, Sept. 20: This is a hold-serve game for both Nebraska and the Big Ten, and it's a bit more significant for the Huskers than the league as a whole. Bo Pelini's team simply has to win this one, especially on its home field against a Miami team that has had major personnel problems during the offseason. Miami isn't UCLA, and Nebraska can't have a meltdown like it did in last year's top nonleague showdown. Unless Nebraska stumbles at Fresno State the week before, it should be poised to improve to 4-0 with a win, two weeks before the first of several Big Ten road tests at Michigan State. A victory keeps the possibilities alive for Nebraska. A loss here, and it's hard to envision the Huskers winning in East Lansing, Madison or Iowa City.
4. Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Sept. 6: This is very similar to the previous game: a home contest against a good but not great ACC opponent that the Big Ten team absolutely has to win to remain nationally relevant. Ohio State likely will enter the season as the Big Ten favorite and the league's best bet to reach the playoff, but it can't afford a slip-up against Virginia Tech. Unlike Michigan State, which probably could remain in the playoff hunt with a close loss at Oregon and a Big Ten title, Ohio State might have to run the table to make the top four. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Virginia Tech is no longer an ACC bigfoot that provides a schedule boost. Ohio State has to take care of business on its home field, ideally by 10 points or more.
5. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 6: This one is tricky. The game pops nationally because it's Michigan and Notre Dame. It's also the teams' last meeting for the foreseeable future. It's Notre Dame Stadium under the lights. And it's big for Michigan. But has there been a more misleading game for Michigan in recent years? What have the recent Notre Dame victories -- 2013, 2010, 2009 -- meant for Michigan? Bupkis. The dramatic win in 2011 propelled Michigan to an 11-win season, but for the most part these games have been big teases for the Maize and Blue. Still, Michigan needs an early win away from Ann Arbor, if only because tougher road tests -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- follow during Big Ten play. Perhaps this season mirrors 2011 and the Notre Dame game actually propels Brady Hoke's team. Although Big Ten wins against Notre Dame haven't meant much, they don't hurt, either.
Five more games with B1G importance: Iowa at Pitt, Sept. 20; Nebraska at Fresno State, Sept. 13; Minnesota at TCU, Sept. 13; Cincinnati at Ohio State, Sept. 27; Northwestern at Notre Dame, Nov. 15.