As the opening week in college football approached this time a year ago, most of the attention in the Big Ten focused on Michigan's game against Alabama.
While the Wolverines went into that game as major underdogs and quickly showed why, there was still something about that matchup that's mostly missing from the Big Ten's nonconference schedule in 2012: the opportunity for a statement.
Michigan ultimately had no answer for the Crimson Tide juggernaut, but at least it had the chance to register a perception-altering, program-defining victory against the defending national champions, potentially benefiting not only Brady Hoke's team but the entire Big Ten in the process.
Nothing like that exists in Week 1 this year for the league, where the best games look like Penn State-Syracuse, Northwestern at Cal, Northern Illinois at Iowa and Purdue at Cincinnati. In other words, no opportunities for wins that would make the rest of the country sit up and take notice.
And, sadly, that describes much of the 2013 out-of-league offerings. Big Ten schools will face only two opponents who are ranked in the preseason Top 25 of either major poll: Notre Dame, which is No. 14 in the AP poll and No. 11 in the coaches rankings, and UCLA, which is 21st in both.
The Notre Dame game is always important to Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, but it is also a double-edged sword. If the Big Ten manages a winning record against the Irish, the immediate takeaway nationally will be that Notre Dame is overrated, not that the league is on the rise. The Irish are always good at stealing headlines.
Similarly, Nebraska will be expected to beat UCLA on Sept. 14 because the game is in Lincoln. If the Huskers fall to the Bruins for a second consecutive year, all people will talk about is Bo Pelini's failures. Nebraska does not suddenly become a national title contender by beating UCLA at home.
In fact, much of the Big Ten's schedule is like competing on that game show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?" If you win, well, of course. You were supposed to do that. If you lose, what the heck happened? In fact, maybe we should just call this nonconference season "Are You Better Than A Mid-Level AQ Team?"
So you beat Cal? Yawn.
You lost to Cincinnati? Cue this guy.
The Big Ten desperately needs some big nonconference wins to improve its reputation, but the schedule doesn't really allow for it. The expected best team, preseason No. 2 Ohio State, doesn't play an opponent that got even a single vote in either major poll. The only SEC opponent on the schedule is Indiana's game against Missouri, which spent all of last year showing that it wasn't ready for the SEC.
Consider another league that's fighting for respect, the ACC. Its teams play Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia -- and that's just in Week 1. The ACC may well fall flat on its face, but at least that conference has a chance to break through.
Perhaps we're overstating preseason expectations, because 2012 Big Ten opponents such as Oregon State, Utah State and Northern Illinois all turned out to be much stronger than anyone thought. Maybe the same thing will happen this season with teams like Cal (Northwestern and Ohio State), Syracuse (Penn State and Northwestern), Cincinnati (Purdue and Illinois), Arizona State and BYU (Wisconsin) becoming surprising powers, conference champions and/or BCS bowl teams. If so, though, that likely means the statement made by a Big Ten win would only come in retrospect.
Luckily, this appears to be a one-year anomaly, as the Big Ten's push for upgraded schedules should pay off as soon as 2014. Wisconsin opens next season vs. LSU, Michigan State goes to Oregon in Week 2 and Ohio State plays Virginia Tech the following week. Those games will be true opportunities for the conference to show its worth and bolster its image.
In 2013, though, the nonconference schedule looks more like a lose-lose proposition for the Big Ten.