All summer long, Land Of 10 has broken down the 2016 Big Ten schedule into numerous classifications, ranging from home/away rankings to upset picks to classic ‘trap’ games to the most grueling/least taxing stretches.
But the above concepts likely cannot match the importance of today’s offering – the Big Ten’s most crucial ‘swing’ games in conference play.
It’s a countdown of the league’s highest-leveraged outings for 2016, tapping into the make-or-break pressure. Simply put, every game below shall play a major role in determining the entrants for the Big Ten championship scheduled for Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.
MICHIGAN at OHIO STATE (NOV. 26)
For every year of the 1970s, the Michigan-Ohio State winner directly determined the Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl representative.
But in recent years, the rivalry has been lacking an all-or-nothing feel. In fact, I count just twice since 2006 that Wolverines vs. Buckeyes had a conference or division title on the line – for both sides.
Well, that doesn’t seem to be a major concern, in advance of this season. The vast majority of media outlets have tabbed either Michigan (10-3 last year, highlighted by a Citrus Bowl rout of Florida) or Ohio State (popular East pick, despite losing 12 players to the NFL draft) for the conference crown.
And, frankly, who could argue with this logic? Michigan has perhaps the deepest defensive line in college football, along with the Big Ten’s best trio of pass-catchers (receivers Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt). Plus, according to coach Urban Meyer, this OSU team boasts an overall speed factor which cannot be rivaled by previous Buckeye squads.
Of course, Michigan needs to clinch the Big Ten East title before making the post-Thanksgiving trek to middle Ohio. The Wolverines haven’t won in Columbus since 2000 (Drew Henson’s last great college hurrah); and, since 2002, the average final score at Ohio Stadium reads like this:
Ohio State 34, Michigan 19.
OHIO STATE at MICHIGAN STATE (NOV. 19)
This one’s rather easy to define: Until further notice, Michigan State (two conference titles, five seasons of 11-plus wins this decade) and Ohio State (50-4 on Meyer’s watch; one national championship) shall remain the class of the Big Ten.
After all, Ohio State and Michigan State comprise the last three conference champions; and since 2013, the Buckeyes vs. Spartans head-to-head winner has ended up with the Big Ten crown.
It doesn’t get any more swing than that.
At first blush, Michigan State stands to greatly benefit from drawing Ohio State at home; but let’s remember: As the Buckeyes’ coach, Meyer has never lost at Spartan Stadium (below video).
NEBRASKA at IOWA (NOV. 25)
Betting-wise, Iowa should be the biggest no-brainer division winner in college football this season, thanks to a litany of reasons:
- Wisconsin has the proverbial Schedule From Hell once conference play launches, a continuous run of Michigan State (road), Michigan (road), Ohio State (home), Iowa (road), Nebraska (home) and Northwestern (road) over a six-week span.
- Northwestern has a rock-solid defense and strong running game, but the Wildcats must also make monumental strides with total offense and scoring offense – finishing dead-last in both conference categories in 2015.
- Nebraska’s four most daunting league games take place on the road (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa); and this doesn’t even include a tough trip to Indiana (Oct. 15) – a chic upset pick for the fall.
- The Hawkeyes should be prohibitive favorites for all five road games, a less-than-treacherous docket which includes Rutgers (Sept. 24), Minnesota (Oct. 8), Purdue (Oct. 15), Penn State (Nov. 5) and Illinois (Nov. 19).
It begs the question: If the Hawkeyes own all these built-in advantages, how does Iowa vs. Nebraska qualify as a major ‘swing’ game?
The answer: Rivalry games are tricky occurrences, especially with the West crown likely on the line. Adding to the Iowa-based consternation … the home team has dropped each of the last four meetings.
MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE (OCT. 29)
In baseball circles, the definition of momentum simply rests with the “next day’s starting pitcher.”
However, in football circles, especially with similarly talented teams, momentum usually sides with the home team. (The Iowa-Nebraska nugget from above, notwithstanding.)
In other words, when deciding the Big Ten East race, it may not matter if Michigan – with five of its first six games in Ann Arbor (prohibitive favorites for every outing) – carries an undefeated record into East Lansing on the final Saturday of October.
It might not matter how the Wolverines possess the conference’s most heralded roster, pound for pound, especially at the playmaking spots and along the defensive line.
It might not matter that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been privately stewing/plotting revenge over last year’s impossible-to-believe punt debacle on the game’s final play that handed Michigan State a victory it didn’t deserve.
Just like it might not matter that Michigan State has won seven of the last eight encounters against Michigan, a prodigious run dating back to the second season of Mark Dantonio’s tenure.
Here’s why: In the immortal words of Dantonio, “It’s not over. It’ll never be over here. It has just started.” That was his premeditated message to the assembled media in November 2007, just hours after the Spartans suffered a gut-wrenching home loss to the Wolverines.
Adding insult to injury, the MSU players were also mocked by the Wolverines afterward – in the form of Appalachian State comparisons (an FBS team having more poise during crunch time) or the “little brother” reference from Michigan tailback Mike Hart.
When watching the media video, you can figuratively see Dantonio’s blood boil below the surface. From an empirical standpoint, though, you could sense the coach had a plan for how the next five years might shake out.
That’s not to say Dantonio – or anyone who admired West Virginia football 10 years ago – could have envisioned coach Rich Rodriguez being a horrible fit with the Michigan program. Or that Brady Hoke would subsequently peak after Year 1 with the Wolverines (Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech) … eventually paving the way for Harbaugh’s hire in December 2014.
No, Dantonio has a unique gift of finding supreme motivation from certain indignities, whether tangible or trivial. Take the seemingly harmless #StakeGate situation from 2014: How many college coaches would even notice another team driving a tiny stake into enemy turf, as a means of getting fired up for a big clash?
The answer: Not many. Coaches have remarkable tunnel vision 20 minutes before kickoff.
And yet, Dantonio stumbled onto the perfect device to inspire his Spartans, who were already heavy favorites against the Wolverines.
The MSU players could have zombie-walked their way to a home victory, essentially getting mental rest for Ohio State two weeks later; instead, they brought intensity and precision to Dantonio’s most prized obsession (in a good way), rolling for 446 yards and 35 points (including a very-late TD) … while limiting Michigan to two scores and just 13 first downs.
Fast forward to the present: MSU has Michigan and Ohio State at home this year. It also has the easiest road slate among conference powers – at Indiana, Maryland, Illinois, Penn State – that allows the Spartans to put all their proverbial eggs into the basket of home showdowns.
NEBRASKA at NORTHWESTERN (SEPT. 24)
Say hello to the biggest conference game on the Sept. 24 calendar, even though Penn State-Michigan and/or Wisconsin-Michigan State might get more national run that day.
With Nebraska and Northwestern encountering Ohio State and Indiana as East-division crossovers in 2016, along with both schools making trips to Iowa later in the season, Cornhuskers vs. Wildcats essentially bears the look of an early elimination contest.
How’s that for a conference opener?
So, who needs this game more? Northwestern has Nebraska at home; plus, the Wildcats have Michigan State as their third crossover outing – compared to the Cornhuskers hosting a rebuilding Maryland team in mid-November.
In other words, it’s a vital swing game for Nebraska … but Sept. 24 is a must-win situation for Northwestern. In the race to win the West, it’s an inescapable truth.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.