You may have heard. The Big Ten has a bit of a perception problem heading into this season. Despite actually performing well in bowls as of late and sending its share of talent to the NFL over the past five years, the conference has been relegated to ACC/Big East territory when viewed with its peer conferences.
The bowl record doesn't matter, because the face-plant by the Buckeyes the last two years and the Appalachian State debacle at That School Up North (and to some large degree the Oregon follow-up) are what fans and writers are going to remember. The experts agree: the Big Ten is down.
The only remedy, of course, is to play well out of conference. The bowls are a few months off, but here are nine out of conference games the Big Ten can use to improve its standing in the college football world.
#22 Illinois at #6 Missouri, 8/30 - 8:30PM ET, ESPN
The Tigers nipped the Illini 40-34 last year in St. Louis, but despite losing Juice Williams to injury in the 2nd quarter, the Zook Express rallied back from a 37-13 deficit before a late interception ended any doubt. Sure, Illinois lost Mendenhall and Leman, but the recruiting hauls are due to start paying dividends. It will pain me greatly to cheer on Juice and crew, but I will do it.
#25 Utah at Michigan, 8/30 - 3:30PM ET, ABC
This game was so hot of an upset pick that Blogpoll voters actually moved Utah into the top 25 while Michigan was relegated to the ORV short bus. The Utes are loaded across the board (including outstanding special teams) and will figure to be BYU's main competition in the Mountain West, but you have to like the Wolverines' chances at home under the new regime.
Michigan State at Cal, 8/30 - 8:00PM ET, ABC
Two good, but not quite good-enough-to-be-ranked teams kickoff the first of several high profile Big Ten/Pac-10 matchups. Buckeye fans have a chubby for Dantonio and should have no problem rooting Sparty on against Cal. If I were a gambling man, I'd jump on Michigan State and the five points they're getting, though they'll win this one outright.
Oregon State at #21 Penn State, 9/6 - 3:30PM ET, ABC
Penn State and the new Spread HD offense will get a tune-up with Coastal Carolina before welcoming the Beavers to town in week two. This is a game the Nittany Lions can and should win at home, and assuming Sparty took care of business at Cal, the Big Ten would own a 2-0 record over the Pac-10. The conference swagger injection will help the following week.
Northwestern at Duke, 9/6 - 7:00PM ET, CB RADIO
From 2005 through last season, Duke managed to register just 2 victories against 33 defeats. One of those victories was against VMI in 2005 and the other came at the hands of the Wildcats in Evanston last year. Revenge here won't necessarily register on a national scale, but make no mistake, revenge must be served. Get it done, Sutton.
#18 Oregon at Purdue, 9/13 - 3:30PM, ABC
The third of four Big Ten/Pac-10 matchups is lining up favorably for the Boilers. Yes, Painter hates to play well against elite competition, and the Taylor injury will hurt, but the Ducks will be breaking in a new quarterback. Is a signature final season victory too much to ask of Wilford? Let's hope not.
#2 OSU at #3 USC, 9/13 - 8:00PM, ABC
THE. GAME. Even if the Big Ten lays an egg in the other games mentioned here, a nice Buckeye win will go a long way towards helping the conference shed its current image. The Trojans are the most dominant team of this decade (sorry LSU) and a seven to 10-point win in their place with some Ohio speed on display will vault the Buckeyes to the top of nearly everyone's poll. From there, the next move is Madison.
#13 Wisconsin at Fresno State, 9/13 - 10:30PM ET, ESPN2 The Badgers are breaking in a new quarterback of their own, but they return plenty of talent, including the prototypical bruiser at running back and perhaps the nation's finest tight end. Fresno State is another hot upset pick and the late start could throw a minor wrinkle into Wisconsin's prep, but if you have to trust anyone with time management, Bielema is a good choice.
Iowa at Pitt, 9/20, TBA
The Wannstache's boys are ranked 25th and nobody in their right mind is convinced he's a clutch major college coach, but the Hawkeyes have coaching questions marks of their own and no proven running back. Still, a win by Iowa on the road would be a major coup for the conference and it's probably more likely to happen than most think. Remember, never underestimate the Wannstache's ability to lose when he shouldn't.
Rooting for some of these teams may seem unnatural and may even sting a little, but the college football landscape has shifted. We must back our own.