The 10 most anticipated matchups on the 2016 Big Ten schedule
Land Of 10 offers a detailed look at the Big Ten’s most prominent games on the 2016 calendar (listed in chronological order), a countdown which allows equal time for league clashes and early-season non-conference showdowns.
Here are the 10 games we’re most looking forward to right now:
1. SEPT. 3 — LSU VS. WISCONSIN (at Green Bay, Wis.)
You couldn’t ask for a better matchup to celebrate the first major college game in Lambeau Field history. The beloved home state program (Wisconsin) will face off at the historic home of the Green Bay Packers against my early favorite for SEC and College Football Playoff titles. It also marks LSU’s first trip to Big Ten country since 1988 — a last-minute 36-33 loss to Ohio State.
From an individual standpoint, it represents a great opportunity for Tigers tailback Leonard Fournette (healthy lock for 2,000 rushing yards/20 TDs) to stump for ‘Midwest’ votes for the Heisman Trophy award.
Back in April, Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez hinted that ESPN’s wildly popular College Gameday show would likely take place in Green Bay for the LSU game, adding to the immense pregame buzz.
The only Debby Downer aspect at play here: In a perfect world, this game would have been scheduled in the second week of November — instead of Labor Day weekend — allowing for LSU to get the full effect of frigid Lambeau Field, although that’s still too early for classic Frozen Tundra conditions.
2. SEPT. 17 — OHIO STATE at OKLAHOMA
We can personally thank the playoff system for this delicious inter-conference clash.
Given how the College Football Playoff committee only considers Power 5 conference champions (plus Notre Dame during elite-level seasons) for its four-team playoff, this essentially opens the door for consequence-free matchups like Ohio State-Oklahoma or Alabama-USC (Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas).
And to the winner, it’s the ultimate boost with respect to power rankings and strength of schedule.
Oklahoma has a sublime combination of returning starters (14), positional supremacy (the Sooners’ secondary could be among the nation’s best), cornerstone pieces (left tackle Orlando Brown, left guard Jonathan Alvarez) and star power (Heisman-contending quarterback Baker Mayfield and tailback Samaje Perine).
Oh, and Oklahoma has lost only one non-conference home game since 2006.
Ohio State hasn’t visited Oklahoma since 1983, prevailing by 10. Incidentally, the Big Ten had a nine-game conference model at the time; and for that season, the Buckeyes scheduled Oregon and Oklahoma before league play kicked in.
Can you imagine the modern-day scrutiny of scheduling the Ducks and Sooners in back-to-back weeks? Thankfully, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer doesn’t have to deal with that in the present day.
3. SEPT. 17 — MICHIGAN STATE at NOTRE DAME
Welcome back to one of college football’s longest-standing rivalries.
The Spartans and Fighting Irish met just about every year from 1948 to 2013, with Notre Dame enjoying a 35-26-1 advantage during that span. Speaking of which … this marks the 50th anniversary of the famous 10-10 tie between the schools in 1966.
Otherwise known as The Game Of Century, top-ranked Notre Dame sat on the ball in the final few minutes, angering the masses who demanded an exciting finish. The following week, the Irish crushed Southern California 51-0 to clinch the national championship (national champion declarations predated bowl action back then).
In the present, Notre Dame has knocked off Michigan State three straight times — including a 2013 home victory over the eventual Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs. For what it’s worth, the Spartans have lost only two true road games since the Irish defeat, with an overall record of 33-5 in the aftermath.
Don’t read too much into Michigan State returning only three offensive starters from last season. Sophomore-to-be LJ Scott (699 rushing yards, 11 TDs as a frosh) could be the next great star among MSU tailbacks; freshman receiver Donnie Corley has absurd raw talent; tight end Josiah Price will likely be an NFL draft pick next year; and senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor — who was more heralded than Connor Cook coming out of high school — engineered the Spartans’ amazing upset of Ohio State last November.
4. SEPT. 17 — OREGON at NEBRASKA
Nebraska coach Mike Riley — the former longtime leader at Oregon State — has voluminous knowledge of Oregon’s offensive system. But will that translate to success for the Cornhuskers defense, once hailed as the Black Shirts?
(That moniker may still hold true within Nebraska state lines; but the Huskers surrendered 28 points or more eight times last year.)
Can the current Nebraska squad limit explosive Oregon (43 points per game last season) to 30 points or less? The odds of victory would run substantially higher if the Cornhuskers can keep the Ducks below that threshold.
Is Tommy Armstrong Jr. (two-year average: 3,415 total yards, 29 TDs) the Big Ten’s best scrambling quarterback? That’s a different question than when seeking the conference’s best running quarterback (Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett).
Either way, Nebraska must have Armstrong running/passing/scrambling at peak efficiency against an Oregon defense which incurred massive turnover during the offseason — with the exceptions of defensive end Henry Mondeaux and safety Tyree Robinson.
5. OCT.1 — NORTHWESTERN at IOWA
Iowa’s 40-10 road shellacking of Northwestern might have been the most surprising early result of last season, with the injury-ravaged Hawkeyes amassing 294 rushing yards against a Wildcats defense that allowed only 35 points in their first five games.
On that day, Northwestern tailback Justin Jackson (1,418 rushing yards, 5 TDs) had just 15 touches for 47 total yards … while the Iowa offense rolled for nearly 500 yards in the 30-point drubbing.
By a long shot, Northwestern has the Big Ten’s most difficult schedule, making trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State during that span. (Indiana comes to Evanston on Oct. 22).
Bottom line: If the Wildcats hold any legitimate hopes of claiming the SEC West title this season, they must win one of the three roadies in October. There’s no way around it.
6. OCT. 15 — OHIO STATE at WISCONSIN
Badgers tailback Corey Clement (three-year numbers: 1,864 total yards/23 TDs) might have more pure rushing talent than anybody in the Big Ten, but injuries have hindered a potentially dynamic career.
The senior-to-be gets one last shot at rushing fame while also building a case for the NFL.
To wit, of his eight best games with Wisconsin, Clement (career: 6.6 yards per carry) averaged 123 rushing yards and 1.7 TDs. Of equal importance, the kid boasts an absurd tally of 8.3 yards per rush.
In the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State doesn’t rebuild, it reloads. And leading that transition will be linebacker Raekwon McMillan, one of the nation’s fiercest defenders and hardest tacklers.
In 2015, McMillan more than doubled the tackles tally from his freshman campaign, but experienced a slight dip with sacks (1.5) and tackles for loss (four). But in 2016, expect McMillan to perfectly meld the two worlds, while demonstrating his first-round worth to NFL personnel.
The Big Ten has many great venues on football Saturdays. But it’ll be hard to top the atmosphere of Camp Randall Stadium at night … with Ohio State in town.
As such, ABC has already claimed this titanic matchup as its own.
7. OCT. 29 — MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE
Michigan cracks this countdown for the first time but, rest assured, the Wolverines will represent well over the season’s final five weeks.
For those scoring at home, Michigan State has won seven of the last eight meetings with Michigan, and the Wolverines’ 2012 victory still rankles Spartans fans everywhere. (MSU was one Le’Veon Bell first down away from securing a 10-9 win.)
On paper, Michigan has the conference’s best offensive line (four returning starters), highest-upside receiving corps (Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, Grant Perry, Drake Harris), the most NFL-ready tight end (Jake Butt) and the greatest wild card among defenders (linebacker/cornerback/safety Jabrill Peppers).
Add the Energizer Bunny exploits of head coach Jim Harbaugh — who apparently has no interest in returning to the pros in three to four years — and perhaps the Wolverines should be the clear front-runner for the Big Ten championship.
The only major hurdle, and it’s a big one: The road schedule (more on this later).
Michigan fans, accept it: For the week leading up to the Michigan State game, network outlets like ESPN, FOX Sports and CBS will show the “Gift Six” play approximately 4,381 times.
8. NOV. 12 — MICHIGAN at IOWA
This should be Iowa’s biggest home game since 2010, when an 8-0 Michigan State squad swaggered into Iowa City … and abruptly left with a shocking 37-6 defeat.
Adding to the fun here, the Michigan-Iowa game has already been assigned a prime-time TV slot; and the temperatures could be hovering near freezing at kickoff.
It wasn’t good enough that Michigan had the No. 4-ranked defense in college football last season. Once D.J. Durkin accepted the head-coaching vacancy at Maryland, Jim Harbaugh quickly went into corporate-raider mode and hired defensive coordinator Don Brown … who presided over Boston College’s top-ranked defense in 2015.
The Wolverines had the nation’s No. 3 defense against the pass last year. This sets up a wonderful matchup against the Hawkeyes’ vertical attack, led by quarterback C.J. Beathard (2,809 yards passing, 23 TDs in 2015) and receiver Matt VandeBerg (65 catches, 703 yards, 4 TDs).
Iowa needs to be healthy during the stretch run. For the month of November, the Hawkeyes have trips to Penn State and Illinois on the docket … and big-time home tilts with Michigan and Nebraska.
9. NOV. 19 — OHIO STATE at MICHIGAN STATE
And so begins the put-up-or-shut-up portion of Ohio State’s schedule, taking on the two Michigan schools just seven days apart — a cool tradition which only began in 2015.
It’s worth noting that in Urban Meyer’s four seasons at the helm, Ohio State owns a 38-0 record against every Big Ten foe except Michigan State, and against the Spartans, he’s just 2-2.
On the flip side, Meyer has never lost inside Spartan Stadium, the site of this year’s clash.
By mid-November, the Michigan State and Ohio State running games should be operating at full capacity, with LJ Scott (game-winning TD in the Big Ten championship) leading the Spartans and true freshman Mike Weber likely carrying the mail for the Buckeyes.
10. NOV. 26 — MICHIGAN at OHIO STATE
Jim Harbaugh has substantially raised Michigan’s profile over the past 17 months, making headlines at every stop. However, the coach is also smart enough to know the good times won’t last forever if Michigan falls short against its biggest rivals — Ohio State and Michigan State.
Tyquan Lewis (8 sacks, 14 tackles for loss) and Sam Hubbard (6.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss) collected the most individual sacks for the star-laden Buckeyes last season.
The new challenge for 2016: Proving that last year’s production wasn’t a fluke. In other words, can they keep flourishing without Joey Bosa (No. 3 overall pick in NFL draft) anchoring the Ohio State defensive line?
This game will likely have a major say in determining the Big Ten East champion, along with the conference’s representation in the College Football Playoff.
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.