Big Ten athletic directors have made a conscious decision to bolster the strength of non-conference scheduling in coming seasons.
It’s about time. As much fun it is to see MACtion on Saturdays and in locations such as The Big House, getting more opportunities to see heavyweights against heavyweights is far more appealing to the common fan.
The slate hasn’t reached the intended level quite yet, but it is at least encouraging to think higher-profile games are ahead.
Here are the biggest 10 non-conference games including Big Ten teams:
1. Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 7
This could be the Fighting Irish’s last trip to The Big House for the foreseeable future. And Michigan coach Brady Hoke isn’t a fan of those responsible for “chickening out.” Sure, much will be made of Hoke’s remarks made during his offseason speaking circuit. Hoke, who has already started to backtrack, will continue to do so and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will continue to downplay the comments. When this game kicks off, none of it will matter. It will just be one fantastic football game between a pair of teams with aspirations greater than winning one football game in early September.
2. UCLA at Nebraska, Sept. 14
Two sleeper conference contenders with rosy aspirations meet in Lincoln for one of the season’s most under-the-radar great non-conference matchups. UCLA proved to be a thorn in the Cornhuskers’ side last season, upsetting a ranked Big Red squad 36-30. Both teams went on to win their respective divisions. QBs Taylor Martinez (Nebraska) and Brett Hundley (UCLA) are two of the most dynamic in the nation.
3. Wisconsin at Arizona State, Sept. 14
Night games in Tempe are always tricky. Second-year coach Todd Graham gave Arizona State new life last year and would love a signature non-conference victory early in the season. The Sun Devils are considered among the favorites in the Pac-12 South. Wisconsin has made three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and is expected to be Ohio State’s toughest divisional competition.
4. Michigan State at Notre Dame, Sept. 21
There are no national implications in this matchup. The game won’t determine whether Michigan State wins the Big Ten or (necessarily) if Notre Dame returns to the BCS National Championship Game. It simply features two annual rivals in one of the sport’s most spectacular venues. The Fighting Irish have won the last two and three of the last four against the Spartans.
5. BYU at Wisconsin, Nov. 9
As if the Big Ten schedule wasn’t enough, AD (and former coach) Barry Alvarez slid a game BYU team into the November slate. The Cougars get 15 days to prepare for their trip to Camp Randall Stadium. Last year BYU allowed 20 points just three times. This could be one of the best defensive matchups in the nation in 2013.
6. Northern Illinois at Purdue, Sept. 28
First-year Purdue coach Darell Hazell gets a shot at revenge against the team that cost him a BCS berth last year at Kent State. The Huskies instead beat Hazell and the Golden Flash in the MAC Championship Game and, in the process, took the Orange Bowl berth. This is the second of two games against Big Ten opponents for Northern Illinois, which also faces Iowa to start the season.
7. Purdue at Cincinnati, Aug. 31
Boilermakers fans don’t have to wait long to see their new coaching hire get his first test. Purdue opens with a Bearcats team that fell an overtime loss at Louisville shy of winning the conference formerly known as the Big East in 2012. Purdue needs to get off to a fast start for a realistic shot at a bowl – especially with non-conference games against Notre Dame and Northern Illinois, both of whom made BCS games last season.
8. Syracuse vs. Penn State (in East Rutherford, N.J.), Aug. 31
Of the few regrettable moments for Penn State coach Bill O’Brien in Year 1, losing the opener to Ohio probably ranked high on the list. This year’s season debut isn’t exactly easy, either. Both teams will break in new quarterbacks, though, and Syracuse – coming off an 8-5 season that included a bowl win – will break in first-year coach Scott Shafer.
9. Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 14
The Hawkeyes have failed to bring home the CyHawk Trophy in each of the past two seasons, leading many to question coach Kirk Ferentz. This game doesn’t feature much national importance – and last year’s game certainly won’t make any football instructional videos. Still, two fan bases’ bragging rights hinge on the outcome of this game.
10. Missouri at Indiana, Sept. 21
A four-win season in 2012 has Hoosier fans thinking their team could be bowl-ward-bound this year. Coach Kevin Wilson’s team has work to do on defense and this matchup, the only one pitting a Big Ten team against an SEC team this season, could dictate whether that’s true.
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