Everyone seems to be beating up on the poor old Big Ten lately.
Then again, maybe the conference deserves it. For three straight years now, the Big Ten has failed to show up in big-time bowl games, and the rap against the conference is now clear: Too slow. Outdated. Overrated.
Whether or not the league’s image will improve in 2009 remains to be seen. But, say what you will about the Big Ten’s performance out of conference, the fact remains that Big Ten league play is some of the hardest hitting and most closely contested you’ll find anywhere.
Here, we take a look at the best Big Ten games for 2009.
Illinois at Ohio State (Sept. 26)
(Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
After shocking the college football world with a run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, the Illini took a big step back in 2008. With Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn powering their offense, though, the Illini should be better, and achieve more, in 2009. And it would certainly help their cause if they could win two of their first three games. The season opener against Mizzou is a toss-up, and the Week 2 date with Illinois State is a gimme, so the Ohio State game looms large. The Buckeyes lost a ton of firepower from its 2008 offense and may not be firing on all cylinders in September, so if Williams and Benn can keep the Illini offense moving, this could be the season’s first big upset.
Iowa at Penn State (Sept. 26)
(David Purdy/Getty Images)
The Hawkeyes broke the Nittany Lions’ hearts last year, derailing Penn State’s national title hopes on a cold, snowy day in Iowa City. So you can bet the Nittany Lions—and their fans—have this one circled on their calendars. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has given Penn State fits over the years, but the Hawkeyes might be walking into a hornet’s nest here: The game is set for an 8 p.m. start, and those night games in Happy Valley can be real nightmares for visiting teams.
Wisconsin at Minnesota (Oct. 3)
The first Big Ten game at Minnesota’s new home, TCF Bank Stadium, figures to be both a huge event for the program in general and a key early-season test for a tough-to-figure 2009 Gopher squad. Minneosta got off to a strong last year but absolutely collapsed in the stretch run, and so the jury’s still out on coach Tim Brewster. A win over hated rival Wisconsin would be a sweet way to christen their new stadium. It would also likely catapult them to a solid bowl berth.
Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 3)
(Danny Moloshok/Getty Images)
After years of being tortured by the Wolverines, the Spartans finally knocked off their in-state rival last year. In fact, all of a sudden, the Spartans look like the state’s premier program. Coach Mark Dantonio is recruiting extremely well in Michigan and building a solid, disciplined program there in East Lansing. The Wolverines, meanwhile, are still struggling to find any kind of identity (not to mention a quarterback) under Rich Rodriguez. This is a huge game for both teams.
Wisconsin at Iowa (Oct. 17)
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
The heat is on for Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who has seen his team’s win total drop in each of his first three seasons in Madtown. This trip to Iowa City, coming one after a tough trip to Ohio Stadium and one week before a bye week, has the look of a season-changer for Wisconsin. Win it, and a New Year’s Day bowl bid is in play. Lose it, and it’s back to the Champs Sports Bowl. Not that there’s anything wrong the Champs Sports Bowl. Right?
Ohio State at Penn State (Nov. 7)
(Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Penn State must replace three starting receivers, three key cogs from offensive line and most of its defensive secondary. Oh, and Aaron Maybin. Ohio State, meanwhile, must reload with the loss of longtime stars James Laurinaitis, Malcolm Jenkins, Beanie Wells and Brian Robiskie, among many others. Even with question marks all over their rosters, however, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions still look like the favorites to win the Big Ten in 2009, making this game the de facto league championship. This series has developed into one of the nation’s best in recent years, and the contests in Happy Valley have been especially entertaining. One possible advantage for the Bucks? By Big Ten decree, this game can’t have an 8 p.m. start.
Ohio State at Michigan (Nov. 21)
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Ohio State’s dominance of this series can’t last forever. You can bet Big Blue nation—players, coaches, fans—are growing tired of the talk that this game isn’t what it once was. Some have even suggested that Penn State-Michigan State has become more important than the hallowed old Buckeyes-Wolverines showdown. But the fact is, none of that talk is going to stop until Michigan starts beating Ohio State again. I don’t think Rich Rodriguez will have the horses to make that happen this year—but I do expect a much, much better game than what we saw in 2009. Another blowout, though, and Rodriguez is going to start feeling the heat of the hot seat. Seriously.