Contrary to prevailing opinion, it’s still unknown whether the SEC will get two teams into the first playoff or if the Big Ten could have a one-loss team in the mold of 2013 Michigan State qualify. But in order for the Big Ten to do so, it will need to help itself in the first few weeks of the season. In a narrative-driven sport that has no clear guidelines or precedent for choosing its playoff participants, Big Ten teams claiming early season wins against LSU and Oregon could go a long way toward helping the conference champion attain a playoff spot.
Here’s a look at the top five non-conference games that could either earn the Big Ten more respect or give SEC proponents more ammo in the never-ending conference strength arguments.
1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
Fair or not, no game will be cited more frequently as a measuring stick between the Big Ten and Pac-12 than this one. (What, you thought it would be Illinois at Washington?) Not only is Michigan State the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions, but the Spartans also play a physical brand of football that has given Oregon trouble in the past.
A Michigan State win on the road would obviously be a feather in the cap of the Big Ten, but it would also give a signature win to any conference foe who might take down the Spartans later. On the other hand, an Oregon win would saddle one of the Big Ten favorites with a September loss and likely force MSU to run the table to have a shot at a playoff berth.
2. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Aug. 30 in Houston)
The Badgers will never catch LSU at a better time. LSU’s quarterback situation remains unresolved, and the three-headed true freshman monster featuring quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Malachi Dupre obviously has no college football experience.
Wisconsin appears to be the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten West, and this might be the only opponent they won’t be favored to beat if they live up to those expectations. LSU isn’t on the level that it was in 2007 or 2011, but a win against a top-15 SEC team would help the Big Ten’s cause.
3. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6)
Plain and simple – the Big Ten can’t afford for Michigan to be weak. Purdue and Illinois are places where you take the success when it comes without complaint otherwise, but the conference needs one of the winningest programs in college football history to actually do some winning. A strong Michigan would put the Big Ten East as one of the top divisions in the country and give the division champion one more reason in early December to say it shouldn’t be left out of the playoff.
On a more team-specific note, Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke can’t afford to go winless against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Beating the Irish is his best chance at making that happen.
4. Virginia Tech at Ohio State (Sept. 6)
The Hokies don’t quite carry the same weight as the aforementioned opponents, but it would be in the Big Ten’s best interests if Ohio State – no matter who’s lining up at quarterback – didn’t drop night game at home in September. Getting through the first month of the season will be huge for Ohio State, and if the Buckeyes can do that they’ll be right in the thick of the playoff conversation come Nov. 8.
5. Penn State vs. Central Florida (Aug. 30 in Dublin)
I initially had Nebraska’s home game against Miami (Fla.) penciled into this spot since the Nittany Lions are ineligible for the postseason, but it’s important for the league that new hire James Franklin get started on the right foot this season. There are so many variables in this game – a trans-Atlantic flight, the time difference, an active volcano… – that it’s borderline absurd to try to take away any meaning from this outcome. That won’t stop people from trying if Penn State loses.
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Rutgers at Washington State (Aug. 28)
Rutgers is going to take abuse about its place in the Big Ten, and there’s nothing short of acquiring a time machine that it can do to rebut the argument about its historic mediocrity. At the same time, taking down Mike Leach in their first Big Ten game would be a nice start for the Scarlet Knights in their new conference. It’s not likely to happen – the Cougars are favored by more than a touchdown – but other teams have shown that they can make a splash after joining a new conference.
Maryland vs. West Virginia (Sept. 13)
Assuming the seemingly cursed Terrapins haven’t by this point succumbed to the unstoppable injury bug for the third straight year, this game should give them a chance to showcase the immense talent (Stefon Diggs, anyone?) that they have. As Florida State and Clemson have shown recently, the ACC has plenty of talent of its own. This is a game that the Terrapins won 37-0 last year, and another win over the Mountaineers could serve as a springboard to a respectable showing in Big Ten play.