Iowa's season opener against Northern Illinois could be just a blip on the Week 1 national radar, but the game's impact for the Hawkeyes can't be minimized.
Kirk Ferentz's crew comes off of its first losing regular season since 2000 and enters the fall with several glaring question marks, including quarterback. A win against a Northern Illinois program that reached the Orange Bowl last season, has won 23 games the past two seasons and is led by fringe Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch would boost confidence in Iowa, both inside and outside the program. A loss to the Huskies -- especially in blowout fashion -- could set the course for another lost season.
As The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Mike Hlas writes, the Northern Illinois opener is a perception-maker for Iowa.
For the Hawkeyes to restore some luster to their national image, beating Northern Illinois on Aug. 31 would be a good first step. A loss, though, would bring out a lot of sharp verbal and written pitchforks.
NIU is undoubtedly the perception-making game for Iowa this season. What about the other Big Ten teams? I took a look at potential perception-makers around the conference.
I'm a firm believer that perception is shaped early on, so for the purpose of this post, I only considered games in the first six weeks of the season (weekend of Aug. 31-weekend of Oct. 5).
Here are the perception-makers around the Big Ten
ILLINOIS: Sept. 7 vs. Cincinnati
Tim Beckman's Illini have to show obvious improvement early on to avoid a here-we-go-again mentality in Champaign. Although Illinois must be careful with FCS Southern Illinois in the opener, it has a great opportunity to show things will be different as it hosts Cincinnati, a 10-win squad last season, in Week 2. Poor performances against Cincinnati and the following week against Washington in Chicago would brand Illinois a lost cause once again.
INDIANA: Sept. 21 vs. Missouri
It's a close call between the Missouri game and a Week 3 home contest against Bowling Green, which was a better team than the Tigers last season. But beating Bowling Green likely won't boost Indiana's perception, especially if the Hoosiers fall short the following week against an SEC foe. If Indiana completes non-league play at 4-0, ending with a victory against Missouri, it will be viewed as a potential surprise team entering Big Ten play.
IOWA: Aug. 31 vs. Northern Illinois
MICHIGAN: Sept. 7 vs. Notre Dame
The Wolverines have beaten Notre Dame in recent years without getting much of a perception boost, but the Irish are coming off of a perfect regular season and a national runner-up finish. This is a big moment for Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, who looks for a signature win early in his first full season as a starter. Michigan remains a talented but young team that will need to grow up in a hurry to contend for big things in 2013. The Notre Dame game provides a great chance to do so.
MICHIGAN STATE: Sept. 21 at Notre Dame
The Spartans look for a bounce-back season and need a validating win early on to boost their perception after falling short of expectations in 2012. Notre Dame provides by far the biggest challenge for Michigan State in non-league play, and Mark Dantonio's team tries to end a two-game slide against the Irish after winning three of the previous four under Dantonio. It's a huge opportunity for quarterback [fill in the blank] and a Spartans offense that managed only three points and 237 yards against Notre Dame last season.
MINNESOTA: Sept. 21 vs. San Jose State
The Gophers' non-league schedule is mostly uninspiring, but keep an eye on this Week 4 showdown with San Jose State. The Spartans won 11 games last season under Mike MacIntyre, now Colorado's coach, and boast one of the nation's top quarterbacks in David Fales, who finished third in the FBS in passing efficiency (170.8 rating). Although an Oct. 5 win at Michigan would transform Minnesota's perception, the Gophers must first get past San Jose State.
NEBRASKA: Sept. 14 vs. UCLA
This is one of the easiest picks on the list. Not only is UCLA by far Nebraska's biggest non-league test, but the Bruins appear to be the Huskers' most formidable challenge in the first two months of the season. A Nebraska win would help validate the impressive record the Huskers likely will have when the calendar flips to November. Another loss to the Bruins, who edged Nebraska last September at the Rose Bowl, would raise doubts about the Huskers' legitimacy even if they go on to pile up wins.
NORTHWESTERN: Oct. 5 vs. Ohio State
The Wildcats play two major-conference foes (Cal, Syracuse) in non-league play, but neither game has real perception-making potential. Besides, Northwestern has handled itself well in non-league play in recent years. The Ohio State game likely will be the most-anticipated home game for Northwestern in the Pat Fitzgerald era. Northwestern can transform its perception with a win, while a loss would reinforce the Wildcats as a good program that can't really beat the Big Ten's elite.
OHIO STATE: Sept. 28 vs. Wisconsin
The Buckeyes' non-league slate is pretty uninspiring, and while San Diego State (Week 2, home) or Cal (Week 3, road) could provide a few clues about Urban Meyer's squad, Ohio State will be heavy favorites in both contests. If Ohio State meets its preseason perception, it will handle Wisconsin at home fairly easily in Week 5. A shaky showing or a loss certainly would change the way people feel about the Buckeyes' chances to get to Pasadena, both for the Rose Bowl and for the BCS title game.
PENN STATE: Aug. 31 vs. Syracuse (at East Rutherford, N.J.)
It's a little dangerous to pick the opener for Penn State, which changed its perception during the course of last season after stumbling in its debut against Ohio. But there are new questions about Bill O'Brien's team, particularly at the quarterback spot as Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson takes control. Penn State faces another transitioning team in Syracuse at a neutral site. A strong performance could propel Penn State to a 5-0 start before Michigan visits Happy Valley on Oct. 12.
PURDUE: Aug. 31 at Cincinnati
The Boilers are one of the Big Ten's mystery teams as a new staff takes control. Purdue faces one of the nation's tougher non-league slates, going up against two BCS bowl teams from 2012 (Notre Dame, Northern Illinois) and another that won 10 games (Cincinnati). A victory at Nippert Stadium in Darrell Hazell's Boiler debut would give Purdue a nice confidence boost and force folks to take notice of the Boilers heading into their Week 3 home showdown against the rival Irish.
WISCONSIN: Sept. 14 at Arizona State
We'll learn a lot about Gary Andersen's Badgers in the first month of the season as they play two extremely challenging road games against Arizona State and Ohio State. Big Ten teams struggle mightily in Pac-12 venues, and Wisconsin's shaky secondary will be tested by quarterback Taylor Kelly and the high-powered Sun Devils offense. A win would give Wisconsin some confidence as it faces untested Ohio State in Week 5, while a loss could signal trouble ahead.