Oh boy, Bret Bielema must really want this now.
During the SEC spring meetings last month, the Arkansas head coach — and former leader of Wisconsin’s football program from 2006 to 2012 — publicly lobbied for an SEC-Big Ten Challenge, an annual football event that would hypothetically and logistically cover two September Saturdays and include 14 yearly matchups between the high-profile conferences.
At the time, Bielema was quietly getting pumped about Arkansas’ home-and-home series with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan in 2018 and 2019. But last week, the Wolverines walked away from the series to renew their long-standing, but hardly continuous feud with Notre Dame.
As such, Arkansas has more scheduling holes to fill for 2018 and 2019, and there might not be enough time to land a quality Power 5 opponent.
But back to Bielema’s ultimate vision …
Obviously, the coach’s SEC/Big Ten plan remains in the dream stage for now. But it’s certainly an interesting proposal, especially in this consequence-free age of the College Football Playoff.
Here’s our pitch: Coinciding with Bielema taking the Wednesday podium at SEC Media Days, the Land Of 10 has brainstormed 14 apples-to-apples clashes for this fall, as if the SEC-Big Ten Challenge were actually set for the 2016 and ’17 seasons.
In all, we’re talking about seven games per weekend, with the Big Ten Network and SEC Network airing two games apiece (12 noon and 7 p.m. slots). ESPN, ABC and CBS would subsequently fill out the dance card each Saturday, drawing prime-time outings and presumably the most attractive matchups.
And as mentioned above, for this hypothetical exercise, the back end of the home-and-home scheduling would take place in 2017. Citing one example, Michigan would travel to Alabama this fall and the Crimson Tide would then travel to Ann Arbor next year. And come 2018 and ’19, there would be a whole round of new matchups, across the board.
Here are our dream matchups for this season:
MICHIGAN AT ALABAMA
It’s our obligation to kick-start this SEC-Big Ten Challenge with an absolute home run, pitting Nick Saban vs. Jim Harbaugh. They are college football’s current kings of lightning-rod media attention. Frankly, the voting’s not even close.
Technically, these wildly successful leaders have never faced one another as head coaches. But that’s immaterial for now, given the recent barbs exchanged between the stars, highlighted by Harbaugh’s blistering retort against Saban, just a few hours after the Alabama coach vaguely railed against satellite camps and the new “Wild, Wild West” atmosphere.
For this forum, it also helps that Michigan will likely open the season as the Big Ten’s highest-ranked team, even though the Wolverines have three daunting road trips on the docket (Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State).
Here’s the reality: Yes, this matchup looks amazing on paper. However, if Michigan was truly opening the season at Alabama, the defending national champs might be double-digit favorites, in the eyes of Vegas. The Wolverines, even with a large cluster of returning stars, simply cannot match the Crimson Tide’s level of dominance.
Not yet, at least.
LSU AT OHIO STATE
For my money, LSU and Ohio State represent this year’s favorites to win the SEC and Big Ten, respectively.
Also, in a College Football Playoff world — where the CFP committee has only rewarded conference champions so far— the loser of this September clash wouldn’t be in any grave danger of missing the semifinals.
In fact, this is why Bielema merits great praise for his grand vision: There are no definitive “losers” within an SEC-Big Ten Challenge. Consequently, strength-of-schedule bumps would apply for nearly every matchup and the winning teams would merely collect bonus points for the road ahead.
MICHIGAN STATE AT GEORGIA
This pairing works on numerous levels:
- Since 2008, MSU and UGA have both posted five campaigns of double-digit victories. In that span, the programs have combined for 11 bowl wins.
- For the decade, the Spartans (three) and Dawgs (two) have produced five top-10 finishes.
- A large base of Michigan State alums reside in metro Atlanta, which is an easy drive to Athens.
- It would make for great theater, watching Jacob Eason – Georgia’s 5-star freshman QB – battle with Michigan State’s ferocious defense.
- Georgia, which hasn’t been inside the state of Michigan since beating Michigan in 1965 in Ann Arbor, has never played at Michigan State.
- The Spartans and Bulldogs have the talent and resources to annually compete for College Football Playoff berths. However, the programs are typically overshadowed, hype-wise, by multiple teams from their respective conferences. For Michigan State, it’s Michigan and Ohio State; and for Georgia … it’s Alabama, LSU, Florida and sometimes even Auburn.
OLE MISS AT IOWA
It’s been a long, long, long time since Ole Miss played a Big Ten school on the road. The year was 1930, and the opponent was the University of Chicago, which left the conference in 1946.
Consequently, there aren’t many no-brainer options when seeking out a natural first foe for Ole Miss.
When in doubt, though, ride the matchup of senior quarterbacks — pitting Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly (vying to become the first SEC QB in history to pass for 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons) against Iowa’s C.J. Beathard (2,809 yards passing, 23 total TDs last year).
That alone should be enough juice for the TV networks, touting programs that both reached New Year’s Six bowls last season.
PENN STATE AT FLORIDA
This would have made for a great home-and-home series during the 1980s and 1990s, when the Nittany Lions and Gators were dominating college football.
It still makes for good theater in the present day, with Penn State transitioning from drop-back passer Christian Hackenberg to a dual-threat quarterback, likely Trace McSorley. Florida, conversely, is moving from dual-threat passer Treon Harris to a classic pocket QB, likely Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby.
We’re also talking about two of college football’s most powerful brands, appeasing the TV networks, which is always a good thing.
TEXAS A&M AT WISCONSIN
Texas A&M wouldn’t be a favorable matchup for any Big Ten school this fall, including Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State. This team has the stuff to legitimately compete for the SEC and national championships.
The star-laden Aggies (featuring defensive end Myles Garrett, receiver Christian Kirk, quarterback Trevor Knight, defensive end Daeshon Hall, receiver Josh Reynolds) are viable national title contenders and could easily remain in the top 10 throughout the season — regardless of the encounters with Alabama (road) and LSU (home).
Regarding Wisconsin, the Badgers (81st in scoring last season) will surely show improvement in Year 2 of the Paul Chryst era. But not even the supreme home-field advantage of Camp Randall Stadium would be enough to subdue Texas A&M for four full quarters.
As such, the nation has no greater championship dark horse than Texas A&M in 2016.
MARYLAND AT KENTUCKY
I love the offensive potential of this matchup, so much that an over-under number of 75 points would spark a lot of bets among the Vegas crowd on both sides.
Here’s another thing to appreciate: Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops stands as one of the SEC’s most underrated recruiters (six 4-star recruits in 2014, led by QB Drew Barker, defensive tackle Matt Elam, tailback Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams), and new Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin enjoyed a sterling national reputation for closing the deal as an assistant with Florida (2010-14) and Michigan (2015).
There’s one more connecting thread: Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, arguably the greatest football coach in college history with six national titles), was the head coach at Maryland (1945) and Kentucky (1946-53), before garnering national prominence with Texas A&M and Alabama.
TENNESSEE AT NORTHWESTERN
Yes, Tennessee’s 45-6 demolition of Northwestern from last season’s Outback Bowl remains a fresh memory for both fan bases.
However, for the sake of revenge entertainment, it’s fun to sanction a quick-turnaround rematch here — especially with this hypothetical game taking place on Northwestern’s thick and slow home turf.
And if you don’t think that matters, check out Northwestern’s home upset of Stanford from last September. The Cardinal accounted for only six points and 240 total yards in the season-opening defeat, prior to averaging 40.2 points over their next 13 games against top-notch competition.
That aside, Tennessee would be prohibitive Vegas favorites to handle Northwestern (primarily led by all-conference tailback Justin Jackson). The Volunteers, who suffered gut-wrenching losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama last season, are primed to win the SEC East and should remain a top-10 fixture throughout the year.
It also helps to have the SEC’s best returning backfield in quarterback Joshua Dobbs (2,291 yards passing, 27 TDs in 2015), tailback Jalen Hurd (1,478 total yards, 14 TDs) and running back Alvin Kamara (989 total yards, 10 TDs).
NEBRASKA AT AUBURN
Oh, if only the scheduling gods could make this a permanent matchup — for the rest of time.
Nebraska and Auburn both have tremendously loyal fan bases, play in great stadiums and possess illustrious histories when running the football, with legends like 1980s Heisman Trophy winners Mike Rozier and Bo Jackson.
Both schools also boast a pair of dual-threat legacy quarterbacks who have collected national championships in recent years — with Tommie Frazier rolling for back-to-back titles (1994-95) and Cam Newton pulling off the Heisman/BCS championship double play in 2010.
VANDERBILT AT INDIANA
The days of Vanderbilt, which ranked 124th nationally in scoring last year, being stagnant or anemic on offense are likely over, given the maturation of quarterback Kyle Shurmur (4-star recruit in 2014), junior running back Ralph Webb (1,340 total yards, 7 TDs last year) and junior receiver Trent Sherfield (candidate for 75-plus catches, 1,000 yards).
Also, the Commodores’ talented defense would be keenly tested by an Indiana offense that has averaged 33 points per game since 2012.
Regarding Indiana, Devine Redding was the Big Ten’s premier backup tailback last year, finishing fifth in rushing yards (1,012). All told, the Hoosiers’ terrific tandem of Jordan Howard and Redding combined for 422 carries, 2,225 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
Redding had the best finishing kick of any Big Ten tailback in 2015. For his final three games, the Ohio native amassed 401 rushing yards and two touchdowns. For the season, Redding also tallied multiple touchdowns three times, against Southern Illinois, Ohio State, Rutgers).
The Hoosiers’ last two primary rushers (Jordan Howard, Tevin Coleman) averaged 1,625 rushing yards and 13 TDs in their respective final seasons. For Redding to reach that number over a 13-game campaign (including the bowl), he’d need at least 125 rushing yards against Vanderbilt.
Put it all together, and this region-friendly matchup – only 268 miles separate the campuses – would be an entertaining noon-hour appetizer for Big Ten and SEC fans, in anticipation of the major showdowns later in the viewing day.
MINNESOTA AT ARKANSAS
Just about any Big Ten matchup would have worked for Arkansas, given the presence of Bielema, who went 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006 to 2012, and initially sprung the idea for our SEC-Big Ten Challenge in the first place.
The Minnesota pairing raises one obvious question, though: Why not Wisconsin for Bielema, who brought great success to the Badgers?
Simply put, for this event to have staying power beyond the first two years, we’ll need to keep a few high-profile clashes in our back pocket.
MISSISSIPPI STATE AT PURDUE
There aren’t many obvious ties connecting the two programs.
Mississippi State has experienced unparalleled success under head coach Dan Mullen (50 victories this decade), whereas Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell (6-30 overall with the Boilermakers) likely wouldn’t survive a fourth consecutive campaign of three or fewer wins.
However, there’s one connecting thread: Both schools will be committing to young arms at quarterback this fall, namely Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald (strong-armed successor to Dak Prescott) and Purdue’s David Blough (14 total TDs as a freshman).
Plus, Mississippi State and Purdue have never met on the football field.
RUTGERS AT SOUTH CAROLINA
It takes a special coach to consistently win at Rutgers and South Carolina, even though both schools are housed in fertile recruiting areas. The reasoning for that: Powerhouse programs from the Big Ten, SEC and ACC routinely poach elite-level prep talent from New Jersey and South Carolina.
Plus, the legacies of Greg Schiano (68 victories at Rutgers) and Steve Spurrier (three straight 11-win seasons from 2010-12 at South Carolina) still loom large with Scarlet Knights and Gamecocks fans, respectively, adding to the degree of difficulty for new head coaches Chris Ash (Rutgers) and Will Muschamp (South Carolina).
MISSOURI AT ILLINOIS
There’s a good rule of thumb for scheduling lower-division schools out of conference: When in doubt with potentially dormant matchups, always sell relative hate, history and geography.
Geography: Missouri and Illinois are separated by only 270 miles.
History: The two schools have met 18 times since 1975. For this century, Missouri and Illinois held the six “Braggin’ Rights” showdowns at the Edward Jones Dome (currently known as the Dome At America’s Center), in nearby St. Louis.
Hate: The loathing between the programs may cut both ways, but it’s been a one-sided affair since 1978, with Mizzou owning a 12-3 advantage in the last 15 meetings — including a sweep of the last six games.
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.