The Big Ten football season opens up with a huge opportunity for the conference to build off its bowl season performance and continue to climb the conference ladder.
Six teams will ring in the 2015 campaign squaring off against high-quality, Power Five conference opponents. It’s perhaps the most competitive opening weekend the conference has had.
But the challenge should be welcomed by a conference whose strength has been questioned over the past decade. Certainly a 6-5 record in bowl games and national championship has improved the image of the Big Ten, but there’s still some doubt regarding the conference’s depth.
In other words, the Big Ten is still viewed as a two-team conference, whereas the Pac-12 and SEC are considered to have more quality from top to bottom.
With nearly half of the conference’s teams battling another major FBS opponent and a few other interesting matchups in the first weekend of the year, there’s a chance to earn some respect for the Big Ten as a whole.
Action begins Thursday, September 3rd, with Michigan and Minnesota both in the spotlight. New head coach Jim Harbaugh will take his Wolverines out west to battle Utah while the Gophers will host a top-five opponent in TCU.
On Saturday, three big games will be on the national platform. Northwestern will host a gritty Stanford team and Nebraska will travel to BYU. A neutral site game is also on the slate that day with Wisconsin and Alabama facing off in AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The opening weekend rounds out on Monday night with Ohio State traveling to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech and avenge its only loss in 2014.
Combined, those six opponents finished the season 56-23 with every team earning a winning mark and reaching a bowl game.
Improvements in the Big Ten’s opening weekend schedule also provides plenty of diversity, playing one opponent from the SEC, Big XII and ACC each as well as two squads from the Pac-12. BYU falls under the independent category.
Outside of these six games, some other Big Ten programs will have their hands full in the first game of the season. Purdue will travel to Marshall, a team that finished 13-1, won the C-USA championship and was the third-most prolific offense in the country a season ago. Iowa will take on Illinois State, which reached the FCS championship game in 2014.
Michigan State rounds out that group, traveling to Western Michigan. The Broncos finished last year 8-5.
In some of the more traditional opening week games, Indiana hosts Southern Illinois, Rutgers will play Norfolk State and Maryland will face off with FCS Richmond. Also on the schedule will be Penn State traveling to Temple and Illinois hosting Kent State.
The schedule provides an opportunity for the Big Ten to prove it’s more than just a conference headed by Ohio State and Michigan State. Teams from the conference don’t need to finish the opening weekend with an unblemished mark heading into week two, but it does need to be competitive and probably win a majority of those games to join the conversation as a conference that compares to the SEC.
If things go poorly in the first week of the season, it’s easy to believe that the preconceived notion that the Big Ten is a bad conference with a few good teams will only continue.
The conference home to a national champion will get another shot to prove it belongs in the conversation as the top conference in college football. Will the teams in the hot seat respond? Or will we see a replay of what happened on September, 6th, 2014?