Big Ten must seize opportunity in Week 3
What would Mickey say to the Big Ten heading into its Week 3 showdowns with the Pac-12? "What are you waiting for?!"
Adam Rittenberg | ESPN
When asked before the season how to repair the Big Ten's ragged reputation, the league's coaches, to their credit, didn't sidestep the topic.
How the Big Ten got to this spot is complicated -- recruiting/population trends, coaching turnover and resource distribution all play a role -- but the solution is pretty simple. It's the same thing a post-comatose Adrian tells Rocky in "Rocky II."
You can almost hear Jim Delany, doing his best Mickey Goldmill voice, shouting, "What are we waiting for?!"
A Saturday like this one.
We talk about conference perception and compare different leagues year round, but we rarely get a comprehensive assessment on the field, especially not in the regular season. There's no ACC/Big Ten Challenge in football, and although schedule upgrades are on the way, both in the Big Ten and elsewhere, there still aren't enough exciting, meaningful, image-shaping games.
That's why Week 3 in the Big Ten is so refreshing and important. After two weeks of mostly unappealing games, the Big Ten has four -- four! -- matchups against Pac-12 programs, kicking off with No. 23 Nebraska hosting No. 16 UCLA at noon ET and ending with No. 20 Wisconsin visiting Arizona State, a contest that will spill into Sunday in Big Ten country.
There are two in-state rivalries on the docket -- Purdue hosting No. 21 Notre Dame and Iowa visiting Iowa State -- as well as some sneaky-good games like UCF-Penn State and Bowling Green-Indiana. Sure, there are your standard non-league sleepers (Western Illinois-Minnesota), but they're finally in the minority.
"There's certain weekends of the year that you can change the perception," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "As you look at the schedule, this is one of those weekends."
Fitzgerald's team did its part by defeating two major-conference teams (Cal and Syracuse) in the first two weeks. With a late kickoff Saturday against Western Michigan, the Wildcats will watch from their hotel as teams like Nebraska carry the Big Ten banner.
Program relevance is a bit of a sensitive topic in Husker Country these days, as Nebraska has come up short in statement games the past few seasons. UCLA outlasted Nebraska in a shootout last September, and the Bruins could provide the only real test for Bo Pelini's crew until a November grind against the Legends division.
"We want to win all the out-of-conference games," Pelini said. "Our conference, I think it's very good, it's deep, and that’s going to show itself as the year goes on. We have a lot of respect for the Pac-12 and their conference.
"It's going to be a challenge. It always is."
Traveling West always presents a huge challenge for Big Ten teams, which had gone 5-20 in the previous 25 true road games against Pac-12 schools until Northwestern beat Cal. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen noted Tuesday that no Big Ten team has beaten Arizona State at Sun Devil Stadium in eight tries. He'll take his team to the desert on Thursday to provide extra prep time.
The Badgers have yet to allow a point and ran all over Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech. But Arizona State can light up the scoreboard with quarterback Taylor Kelly, who has thrown 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in his last four games and faces a Wisconsin secondary using three new starters.
UCLA poses a similar problem for Nebraska with standout quarterback Brett Hundley, who ranks fourth in QBR and shredded the Huskers for 305 pass yards, 53 rush yards and four touchdowns last season.
While no one confuses UCLA and Arizona State with Stanford and Oregon, wins against two upward-trending Pac-12 programs would boost the profiles for Nebraska and Wisconsin, not to mention the Big Ten. The SEC is the measuring stick for every conference, but the Big Ten recently has had more chances to gauge itself against the Pac-12, both in the regular season and in the Rose Bowl.
"It's important for the Big Ten for a lot of reasons," Andersen said. "It’s a huge opportunity for us and for the other schools and the conference to hop out of conference play before we get into it here in a week or so, and show what we can do against another quality conference like the Pac-12."
Ohio State has more to lose than to gain against a young Cal team, but the Buckeyes look for a complete performance on the road. Illinois, meanwhile, can further validate a surprisingly strong start by upsetting Washington in its Chicago homecoming game at Soldier Field.
"We understand that these types of games are very important for building a program," Illini coach Tim Beckman said.
Purdue's Darrell Hazell could echo Beckman, as his tenure is off to a shaky start following a blowout loss to Cincinnati and a narrow win against Indiana State. Few expect much from the Boilers against the heavily favored Irish, but they have a big opportunity at home against a rival on national TV.
Arguably no Big Ten team needs a Week 3 boost more than Iowa, which, like Purdue, is an unimpressive 1-1. Iowa has dropped its last two against Iowa State, and a loss Saturday in Ames could cripple the Hawkeyes' hopes of a turnaround, especially with a taxing Big Ten schedule ahead.
"Everybody wants our conference to do well," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We're all united on that front. Our jobs are to really worry about our teams and how we perform. We've got enough on our plate right now."
Last season, the Big Ten's horrendous Week 2 showing -- a 6-6 record, including an 0-3 mark against the Pac-12 -- cast a negative light on the league, one from which it never escaped. The stakes are similar Saturday. It's the league's first and only chance before the bowls to show the nation that things will be different this year.
Will the Big Ten emerge with arms raised or suffer another early knockout? Tune in Saturday to find out.
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