Now the fun can really begin.
Technically, not every team is at the starting line yet in the Big Ten. But the race is about to get underway in a hurry with a handful of marquee matchups that should reveal a lot about how the finishing order might stack up late in November.
After three weeks of nonconference play, the teams that are legitimate contenders -- and the teams that could be facing some difficult questions -- could separate themselves this weekend.
The stakes are about to rise.
“I think the out-of-conference schedule is just what it is,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. “You can lose them, still recover and play and win a Big Ten championship. You start playing a little bit more for real, I think, in terms of understanding that these are the things that lead you to rings, big bowl games, playoffs, those type of things.
“When you're playing in-conference ... the chips just get a little bit bigger.”
The Spartans might be playing with the biggest ones on the table Saturday with Wisconsin coming for a visit for what should be a physical, entertaining battle. Neither program tends to dominate the preseason conversation, but both have a tendency to elbow into contention for a title seemingly every year. And their head-to-head meetings rarely disappoint.
While those two will likely provide the main event Saturday, Michigan and Penn State square off in a crucial East Division game in the Big House that should be every bit as informative in establishing the league’s early pecking order. Will Jim Harbaugh keep the early momentum rolling for the Wolverines? Will James Franklin finally claim a signature victory that might relieve some pressure for the Nittany Lions?
For an equivalent in the West, Nebraska’s trip to Northwestern comes with similar storylines. While the Huskers are back in the Top 25 and look like a contender, the Wildcats (1-2) have struggled early and will be looking for a shot at redemption thanks to the clean slate provided by the start of league play.
Those three games will highlight the schedule and shouldn’t be missed. But that’s not all on tap in the Big Ten.
A Bison bounceback?
Other than perhaps the measure of pride that slipped away by losing at home to an FCS program, Iowa really hasn’t lost all that much aside from the chance at a perfect record. The truth is there’s no shame to being another victim of five-time defending national champion North Dakota State, considering that team seems to rise to the occasion every time a major program makes the mistake of putting them on the schedule.
And here's the reality for the Hawkeyes: They still have a legitimate opportunity to control their fate. Assuming the Bison are rightfully evaluated as more than a run-of-the-mill FCS squad, Iowa could be forgiven if it can right the ship and go on the kind of streak in conference play it put together a year ago. That certainly isn’t going to be easy with a difficult conference schedule. But losing to the Bison did nothing to blunt the impact of Iowa’s chances of winning the West, and now the Hawkeyes must focus solely on getting back on the right foot at Rutgers -- where new coach Chris Ash is waiting and trying to claim a crucial victory of his own.
Thanks to early byes, Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana each still have one more nonconference date left to work out some kinks and try to claim another win to count toward bowl eligibility before kicking off league action. The three games certainly aren’t all equal in terms of appeal or how valuable the victories might be for the Big Ten opponents, as Colorado State visiting the Gophers or Nevada playing Purdue likely won't do much for the league profile. With only the Hoosiers playing another Power 5 member, their matchup with Wake Forest might be the most meaningful for the Big Ten as a whole.
The Hoosiers are favored by more than a touchdown. And if their defense continues to trend in a positive direction, they could be an interesting team to watch with Michigan State and Ohio State on deck to start conference play.
Illinois, Maryland and Ohio State have the weekend off to watch the rest of the league from the couch. Next Saturday, though, brings the glorious return of full slates to the league with all 14 teams in action. There is only one more week with three teams off simultaneously -- and after Rutgers and Iowa take byes on Oct. 29, the rest of the season will be nothing but wall-to-wall Big Ten action.
As difficult as it might be to believe, Nebraska’s return to the polls at No. 20 this week marked the first time Mike Riley has had the storied program in the rankings since he took over. The Huskers have been a historical fixture in the polls, but they hadn’t appeared there since entering the postseason in 2014 at No. 25. Northwestern obviously has a chance to knock them back out -- and put itself in prime position in the West with a win.