The time is running out to make a splash outside of the Big Ten, a league that collectively has been having a hard time keeping its head above water so far this season.
Some have obviously had it better than others, particularly since Nebraska and Penn State both have spotless records. But the ghastly overall mark for the league in matchups with Power-5 members has left a few teams facing critical must-win games in the middle of September, either for the sake of playoff contention, a push for a bowl bid, or just to show any signs of life at all.
Heading into Week Four, the Big Ten blog crew takes a look at which program needs a victory the most -- and there were plenty of options.
Adam Rittenberg: Iowa
It's still fairly early in the 2014 season, but Iowa has yet to play a good game. The Hawkeyes were fortunate to beat Northern Iowa and extremely fortunate to beat Ball State before falling last week to Iowa State. The run game struggles are utterly baffling, and it's critical Iowa gets Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Co. going against a Pittsburgh team that ranks ninth nationally against the run. A Hawkeyes defensive line pegged to be the team's strength must step up against James Conner. This game has no bearing on whether Iowa wins the Big Ten West Division, as I predicted before the season. But Iowa has looked nothing like a league title contender, and something needs to shift in a hurry.
Austin Ward: Indiana
The Hoosiers have already fallen behind the projected win schedule that would send them back to the postseason, so even at this early stage they’ll likely need to pull an upset to get back on track. So Indiana has a pressing need, but it probably also has the longest odds of getting a victory as it heads to Missouri. The problem that has plagued Kevin Wilson’s program again popped up in the shootout loss to Bowling Green, and that’s troubling given all the offseason talk about making defensive adjustments and improvements to complement the high-powered offense. The combination of tailback Tevin Coleman and quarterback Nate Sudfeld makes Indiana a dangerous opponent for anybody -- even the reigning SEC East champions. But without a few stops against the Tigers, the Hoosiers could find themselves in a hole before conference play even starts.
Josh Moyer: Rutgers
Believe it or not, a lot is on the line for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are coming off an incredibly emotional loss after they played in front of the biggest crowd in school history in a game in which an RU player said “could change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever” -- if Rutgers won. The Knights can’t afford another letdown, or else they could very well see a Northwestern-like fall with their tough schedule. Not only do they have the East Division to contend with, but they also face Nebraska and Wisconsin. In other words, after Tulane next week, it’s not going to get any easier. Rutgers needs a confidence boost before the schedule gets harder, and a win against Navy could be just what it needs.
Dan Murphy: Nebraska
Not all is lost for the Cornhuskers if they don’t hold off a fast Miami team, but no team can do as much to help themselves and the Big Ten as a whole as Nebraska can Saturday night. Bo Pelini’s group is one of two undefeated teams left in the league. Get past Miami and Nebraska should be in good shape for a 10-win season. A victory against an out-of-conference opponent with some brand-name cache will help the Big Ten save a little bit of face in its last real chance to do so. That could help the Huskers if they make a run toward the College Football Playoff, or it could help the overall resume for whatever Big Ten team knocks them off to win the conference title.
Mitch Sherman: Michigan
The Wolverines are closing in on the one-year anniversary of their 42-13 win over Minnesota. Why is that significant? It’s the last victory about which Michigan could actually feel good about. Since, Michigan is 4-7. Its two wins this season reveal next to nothing about the ability of Brady Hoke’s team to play to always lofty expectations. In its lone chance to build momentum this season, Michigan laid an egg against Notre Dame. The Wolverines need to beat Utah like the human body needs food. Their players need it. Their coaches need it. Their fans need it. A win would surpass in prestige any that a Big Ten team has achieved this season. A loss could send the Wolverines into a spiral -- just in time for the big meeting with Minnesota.