Most important game: Illinois

With a nod to our friend over at the ACC blog (we're reasonably sure they still play varsity tackle football in the ACC), we're starting a new series today looking at the most important game for each Big Ten team in 2012.

These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Let's start this off alphabetically with Tim Beckman's Illinois Fighting Illini.

Most important game: Sept. 29 vs. Penn State

Why it's important: There's no time for Beckman to get his feet wet in Big Ten action. Right off the bat, conference play opens with a very important matchup against the Nittany Lions. This will be a battle of two teams with new head coaches making their Big Ten debut, as Bill O'Brien leads Penn State into Champaign. The Illini lost an ugly 10-7 game in the snow last season in State College (which so happened to be Joe Paterno's last game) and trail the all-time series 4-15. But they have beaten the Nittany Lions twice since 2007, and both teams should come into this year's game with similar strengths and weaknesses. Both likely will field excellent defensive teams that may need to find some offense.

Illinois' toughest games this season, at least on paper, are all on the road: Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern. So protecting home turf will be paramount for a successful season, and a win against Penn State in the league opener could help build some momentum, not to mention a leg up in the Leaders Division race.